The Mercer Arts Center was the brainchild of air-conditioning magnate Seymour Kaback, a theater lover who turned an old downtown building into a large maze-like arts complex with several theaters and concert rooms. In addition to two three-hundred-seat theaters and two two-hundred-seat theaters, Mercer’s had an art-house cinema, jazz lounge, bar, restaurant, two boutiques, and the Kitchen—an experimental film and performance venue housed in the hotel’s old kitchen. All the rooms in Mercer’s emptied into a central gathering space that had an all-white design, which some people called the Clockwork Orange Room. “Whatever you were going to see,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “you would run into other people who were going to see something else. That’s what made it more interesting. So maybe you were going to see One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I was going to see Wayne County or the New York Dolls. We would be sitting in the same room before or after the show, but we might not have been in that room otherwise.” On some nights, David Bowie could be seen slouched in a bright red plastic chair next to a massive antique mirror, absorbing the atmosphere. Eric Emerson invited the Dolls to open for the Magic Tramps at Mercer’s, and they sent a jolt through the downtown scene by reminding folks that enthusiasm trumped technical proficiency. For drummer Jerry Nolan—who started out playing in Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth before joining the New York Dolls—David Johansen and company returned rock ’n’ roll back to basics.
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore