The Play-House of the Ridiculous opened in their new Seventeenth Street Theater on April 21, 1966, with a double bill of Tavel's new play, The Life of Lady Godiva and a revival of The Life of Juanito Castro. The program promised that "this is the first in a series of plays to be presented by the Play-House of the Ridiculous Repertory Club," and new productions would include Screen Test and Indira Ghandi's Daring Device. The "Repertory Club" was tacked on after New York City officials ruled that the Ridiculous couldn't run a theater without a license. As a solution, the Ridiculous crew came up with a simple solution. They changed their name from "The Theatre of the Ridiculous" to "Play-House of the Ridiculous Repertory Club," and instead of paid admission, they asked for a $2 "suggested contribution." They ran Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30, advertised under "club notes," and for a while they managed to evade New York City's technicalities.
Parading across the tiny stage were a shoe fetishist, a fat sheriff, a local s & m nobleman, angels, a lewd horseman. There was also a singing nun chorus whose hit song was "Morning Horniness," sung in counterpoint to a chorus of angels. Jack Smith's costumes provided the essential accessories for that frivolitya hula skirt made of rosary beads, for example, and the Tavels' mother and aunt, credited in the program as "Fran and Flo" executed Smith's costume ideas.
In these first "official" Ridiculous productions, the hallmarks of the Ridiculous style were already apparent. The casting, for example, drew not only from New York's pool of trained actors, but also from natural unschooled performers. Ron Tavel described them as "the crazies coming off the street who are so phenomenal that when you see them walking down the street you say, ‘That person has to be onstage: they were born to it.'" These neophytes offered John Vacarro a group to mold into his own stage vision, fueled by the fresh intensity of amateurs.
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The Play-house of the Ridiculous had started in 1965 from a Factory reject, Shower, and a recycled screenplay, The Life of Juanita Castro, both of them written by Ron Tavel and directed by John Vaccaro. By the fall of 1967, Ridiculous theater had become so fertile and successful that it had split into three groups that defined the terms of separation, the important issues.
The first split happened in early 1967. The Play-House of the Ridiculous was riding high at that moment. The double bill that had opened on September 29, 1966Ron Tavel's Indira Ghandi's Daring Device paired with his recycled Warhol screenplay of Screen Testhad run for three months under the direction of John Vaccaro.
The critical response in The Village Voice proclaimed not just another interesting evening in the theater, but a new direction in avant-garde theater. (Did it make any difference that the critic, Joe LeSeur, had unknowingly met Harvey Tavel at The Trucks and had sex with him the night after he saw the play?)
"For months now I've been wondering where the action is. The Judson had it for a while, and maybe they'll get it again, and there have been flashes of the real thing at La Mama, Caffe Cino, and at a few other places. But take my word for it, there's nothing in town as lively and inventive and mad and just plain entertaining as the show the Theatre [sic] of the Ridiculous...This relatively new outfit has a dash of Dada, a hint of Indian Theatre, more camp than you can shake a stick at, and it incorporates the ideas of Artaud for cruelty, John Cage for chance, and the Theatre of the Absurd for its anti-play elements...It is also the best theatre I've seen downtown since the demise of the Living Theatre."
Indira Ghandi's Daring Device attracted front-page attention, billed not as theater but as a mini-crisis in international affairs. Indian Foreign Minister M. C. Chagia twice warned the United States government that "Indo-American relations were bound to suffer" if they did not stop the production of Indira Ghandi's Daring Device, Indian students planned a picket line and Consul General Shantiswarup Gupta launched a complaint. He showed a blurry production photograph and provided a description probably unique in his consular career, "Here you see, a two foot penis trying to fornicate in the back." And the back belonged to Indira Ghandi. The Consul summed it up: "It has caused unfriendly feeling between two nations that are very friendly." Within a week of the Consul's complaint, New York City police visited the theatre five times, described as "routine checks" and charged the Play-House of the Ridiculous with no license, certificate of occupancy, or permit of assembly.
Ron Tavel refused to assume the stance of the affronted artist. "The play was comedy that was meant to entertain and not offend," he told the press. "Since it has been found offensive, there will be no further performances of it. I would like not to hear anything more about it...I didn't write it the way it was performed and I couldn't stop it. I was advised that if I withdrew the play it would seem as if a foreign power was interfering with American freedom of speech."
Ronald Tavel attempted a more ambitious play, which was inspired by his brother Harvey's off-hand remark, "I'll be damned if I'm going to take etiquette lessons from a Gorilla Queen" Tavel became inspired. "I didn't take Lady Godiva seriously, I took three weeks on that, but I took Gorilla Queen seriously, I took eight weeks on that. Now I'll show what I can do. Before I was playing with my pinky now I show what I can do." He concocted a 73-page epic inspired by King Kong and a Republic B movie called Captive Wild Woman. But John Vaccaro was not ready for such a long script. He liked to take something simple and embellish it, and he had never directed anything longer than 12 pages. So he selected 12 pages from Gorilla Queen, against Ron Tavel's counsel, and the company began rehearsing. "I always say the writer really doesn't know what he's written," said Vaccaro.
Ron Tavel did not want his play sliced up to the designs of John Vaccaro, and both Tavel brothers were convinced that the company's new star actor, Charles Ludlam, wanted them to move on so that he could usurp the position of company playwright. In late February, the Tavels parted company with the Ridiculous, paying back the $1,000 that was put in the kitty at the beginning, relinquished the lease on the loft, and the name the Play-House of the Ridiculous. It was a clean parting.
Reverend Al Carmines offered Ron Tavel the Easter slot for Gorilla Queen open at the Judson Poets Theater. Director Larry Kornfeld quickly assembled a cast and the play was produced in the church's choir loft opening in mid-March. Gorilla Queen had an indescribable plot and an screwball exotic Maria Montez vision involving a characters that included Claudette Colbert, Clyde Batty. In its burlesque style of play Gorilla Queen attacked language. "It went beyond logic into pre-logic," said Martin Gottfried, then theater critic for Vogue, described it as "an avalanche of wordsrestructuring the language, challenging meanings, applying this new dimension to the cause of comedy." It was also a hymn to pansexuality. In fairy tale style, the play concludes with a wedding pronouncement that opened the door to the widest pansexuality possible: "I pronounce you man and wife, or man and man, or ape and man, or queen and woman, or queen and man, or queen and queen, or ape and up and up." The curtain comes down on an anthem to the many varieties of polymorphous perversity, ending" If it's got a hole, hump it!"
Gorilla Queen became an unlikely hit, and after it played its last performance in the Judson loft on April Fool's Day, the production moved to a commercial engagement at the Martinique Theater two weeks later. This theater, located at Broadway and 32nd Street was described as "half-way to Broadway," and it was widely written about, becoming the first unlikely commercial hit of the Ridiculous theater.
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The second Ridiculous theater split came in October 1967, while John Vaccaro was rehearsing Charles Ludlam's play, Conquest of the Universe. By this time, the Play-House of the Ridiculous had been rehearsing the play for over 5 months. Since their 17th Street theater had been shut down in the spring, the Play-house had no playhouse. But by the fall, Wynn Chamberlain had decided to produce Conquest of the Universe at the Bouwerie Lane Theater.
The schism that developed at this time revolved around two issues: proper presentation of drag, and the director's treatment of the cast. The chief protagonists were John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam.
From the beginning, cross-dressing had been a staple of the Ridiculous productions. While Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn physically emulated female stars, Ridiculous drag was nothing if not unconvincing., and it broadly questioned the nature of gender identity. "You use drag and you exaggerate femininitythe way a glamour queen is entirely invented, probably by a man," said Ron Tavel.
At one end of the drag spectrum was Mario Montez, who showed up at the theater the earliest and left the latest; Mary Woronov recalled his extraordinary care with make up. "It was according todo you mind if I say fag?this fag motif that was vaguely Oriental. You know, that queer posing with a man putting their hand up, imitating an old movie. It also came out of Jack Smith and this bizarre Oriental thing. Like a Kabuki play. And Mario Montez always did that thing perfectly."
But most Ridiculous drag aimed at other effects. The bearded singing nuns in Lady Godiva wore boots, Mother Superviva laid her falsies on the table, and women wore beards. The women who played Raul Castro and Che Guevara were described in the play's only review as "so comically sexually ambiguous they'd fall in the dead center of the Kinseyan masculine-feminine rating scale." Ridiculous drag, according to Ronald Tavel and John Vaccaro did not emulate convincing femininity, nor the campiness of pre-Stonewall days, nor a concept narrowly connected to homosexuality. John Vaccaro said:
"Charles was very interested in promoting homosexuality and I wasn't. I didn't think of drag as homosexual. Did they think it was homosexual in Shakespeare? In Kabuki?" We didn't want a drag show. It was the idea of sexual duality and interchangeability. I like burlesque but I don't like ‘he/she/it.'
Charles Ludlam wrote Conquest of the Universe, and acted in it. After his extraordinary improvisations as Norma Desmond in Screen Test, Ludlam had become the company's rising star. He always acknowleged Vaccaro's pivotal influence [get quote from Ludlam], but five months in rehearsal with Vaccaro would be difficult on any actor.
Vacarro despised naturalistic acting a la Method, and anyone caught doing it in rehearsals was dunned a quarter. "I would tell them to step into insanity, stand on the precipice of a cliff and jump off," said Vacarro. "Do you dare? "Or if they were acting, I would say ‘Stop it! You could be replaced by a Coca Cola machine!' Of course there was a certain amount of acting in it, but it was just Grand Opera- as bad as Grand Opera."
A hallmark of the Ridiculous was its frenetic performing style, which Lola Pashalinski described as "a larger than life over the top intensity that needed to be expressedand John Vaccaro valued the primal scream." Vaccaro used a basketball metaphor to explain a Ridiculous production to his brother in Ohio: "It's just like a full-court press." He encouraged, he yelled, he laughed, he humiliated, he made them yell, anything to summon over-the-top performances from his actors.
"I have gone beyond Artaud," Vaccaro said in 1968. "In order to be cruel to the audience, you have to be cruel to yourself. I find it a very horrifying experience. I force them to bring out all the psychological hang-ups. I humiliate them. I do it in private, not in front of the others." "It was the way I got through to them. I never really beat them. I threatened them. –And I used it. I used it as a director to get them to reach the pitch of insanity that I wanted."
Although both Vaccaro and Warhol were trying to "liberate" performers for a new kind of acting, Vaccaro's complete involvement was the opposite of Andy Warhol's complete passivity. "I have seldom seen anyone put so much of his person in his work. His entire physicalness was emptied into each production," said Ron Tavel. "He considers a nervous breakdown and the breakdown of each member of the cast to be a par for the course price to pay for excellence."
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Charles Ludlam had previously escaped Vacarro's blistering attacks. But during one rehearsal in October, cast member Lola Pashalinski recalled, "John was so monstrous to Charles in front of all these people, that if it wasn't planned, it was the act of a madman." Vaccaro shortly thereafter fired him from Conquest of the Universe.
When the cast of Conquest of the Universe heard about Ludlam being fired they walked out in protest and met in Mario Montez's apartment the next day. By the end of the meeting, they decided to form their own company. Seven members became the core of the new group. (Jack Smith, who was present at the meeting but declined to join [why] suggested they call themselves the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. "We felt that Vaccaro could be the ‘Play-House,' said Ludlam, "but we are the ‘Company.'"
When Rene Ricard broke the news of the cast's wholesale defection, Vaccaro said, "So? Let's get some people!" Despite the fact that Vaccaro appeared non-plussed, he was hurt by the decisions of a few old friends. "Especially Lola and John Brockmeyer, who was in high school when I was doing my act in Ohio who said I was the greatest influence in his life," recalled Vaccaro.
Ricard provided the link between the Ridiculous and the Factory. The speed in rounding up a cast reflected not only the flexibility of the Ridiculous aesthetic, but the stable of stars available at the Factory, [the studio of the Sixties.] The lead role of Tamburlaine went to Mary Woronov. She had just demonstrated her power onstage at the Café Cino in Harvey Tavel's production of Vinyl, in which she was described as "a vicious beauty in a highly stylized nightmare." She began to inhabit the role onstage and off, as was the style of a Vaccaro production. "Even the cast members were a little afraid of her," Ultra Violet recalled. Ondine was cast in the dual roles of Zabina [who?] and Cosroe. Ultra Violet was cast as the Natolia. From Jack Smith's stable, Vaccaro pulled Francis Francene to lead the chorus of Fire Women. When there was no role for Taylor Mead, Vaccaro simply opened the script to the middle, pointed his finger, and said, "You can come on here." (A swing was installed in the theater, and Taylor swung out over the audience singing "I'm Flying," dressed as Peter Pan.) Rene Ricard retained his role as the elegantly anguished Magnavox, and Vaccaro stepped into the role of Bajazeth.
The Factory stars were game to step into this let's-put-on-a-show-FAST scenario, but they had never confronted direction like that of John Vaccaro.
The task at hand required the focused disciplinelearning lines, for example, and blockingthat was unknown in the Warhol productions. The dynamics were potentially precariousa combination of non-professionals, egotists, and drugsbut when Ondine expressed his respect for Vaccaro, others quickly followed suit. "Nobody took any nonsense from anyone," said Taylor Mead. Soon, the cast and director were welded by a mutual respect as well as the pressure of time. "Vaccaro had a group of mad people in his hands, and he knew it, himself being mad, and he would encourage that madness," said Ultra Violet. "He had a lot of ‘psychology' and knew how to set people freeor believe that they were free, which is the key."
Thanks to a wide menu of available drugs, and Mickey Ruskin sending waitresses a dozen blocks south bearing food from Max's Kansas City, the cast was able to work long hours in John Vaccaro's loft on Great Jones Street. The director insisted on discipline, and whenever an actor showed up late, he would close his eyes and say "I killed him." The cast took this metaphorically until one night just before a performance, Vaccaro began strangling [who, pseudonym in Mary's book was Patsy] when he discovered that she was shooting up. Disturbed by his loss of control, Vaccaro didn't go onstage for the first half-hour, and Taylor Mead gamely took his role.
The fact that the play was such a fantastic fable gave plenty of room for improvisation and changes. "The script was one big anecdote," said Taylor Mead, Critic Stefan Brecht described Ludlam's text as: "some great little monologues, replicas, cameos from great dramatists: a fire sale of theatrical properties." When Ultra Violet had trouble with her lines, Vaccaro turned them into Middle English, so that it didn't make any difference whether she said them, and he gave her two barking dogs on leashes to handle. The tone of John Vaccaro's production was more blackly grotesque than the text suggested, and it reflected the extraordinary times when the sky seemed to be opening up and the nation was splitting over politics and lifestyle. "All of this stuff about the Vietnam war, and the hippie thing and the drugs and the sex was going on all around me," said Vaccaro, "and I was observing it all." In each of his productions Vaccaro added music" I thought it was important to have a little diversion." To Conquest of the Universe he added a rock band called the Third Eye, and songs like "There is Power in the Flower." [what are other songs?]
Conquest of the Universe opened in mid-November to rapturous reviews. Michael Smith at The Village Voice wrote that Vaccaro "incorporates moldiness and tackiness into a grand design a la Radio City Music Hall, and he has managed to shape ‘Conquest of the Universe' into a coherent if staggering experience." Smith praised the Ondine's Maria Callas-like intensity and incisive timing, the "brilliantly funny" Ultra Violet, and the "impeccably pure" Taylor Mead. Mary Woronov received the most accolades for the ferocity of her majestic tyranny. She recalled, "Every night he [Vaccaro] hissed in my ear, "Do anything you like to them, I want fear in their eyes.'" Woronov was not only beautiful, but an adept actress. On seeing this performance, Stefan Brecht wrote: "What makes me think she is a superb performer are her gestures: strangely articulated into demonstrative fragments. She speaks naturally in some American vernacular, her delivery cool, throwaway, violent."
Perhaps the nicest compliment came from Marcel Duchamp, who came to the play on November 21. "This is a dada play," he said.
Screen Test / A Diary reflects the tension between Gerard and Andy as much as it reflects collaboration. By using stills from Warhol's Screen Tests and featuring his own face on both the front and rear covers, Malanga asserted his own authorship over Warhol's. Notably missing is a screen test of Andy, even though Malanga had shot one, even though Warhol's appearance was planned for page 44, but it mysteriously didn didn't make it into the final publication. Malanga called the omission inadvertent, but it probably is the artifact of a conflict between Andy and Gerard. Was Warhol upset about the fact that Gerard seemed to be trading so heavily on his name? Did it happen around the time of Gerard's retreat from the Factory, after losing Benedetta Barzini
Gerard circa 1965 did a performance piece entitled Screen Test Poems, in which Malanga read verses to screen tests of women while they were projected on three screens. Proably influenced by early 1965 party at the home of Sally Kirkland (fashion editor of Life) where the Thirteen Most Beautiful Women was projected on the walls while the subjects were at the party, including Sally Kirkland's daughter, also named Sally Kirkland. By 1967, Gerard Malanga's publication list was impressive, but what he most wanted was to have his poems between the covers of a book rather than the ephemeral magazines in which he appeared. The most likely prospect to appear was Lita Hornick. She was not only wealthy, but actively supported culture, or as she titled her magazine, Kulchur.
In 1966, she had proposed the creation of Kulchur Press, and for its first book she wanted to publish a book of Gerard's poems. Since 1965, he had been working on a series of poems that he called "Screen Test Poems." In 1965 he read some of the poems, especially to women, while the screen test of the subject was projected.
Gerard welcomed the offer of publication, but he upped the ante in a way that would brilliantly set off his poems and would also give him instant recognition. The crowd that would look at a book with Warhol's name was much vaster than the small poetry crowd that would notice his book.
The idea for the book was striking: the images from the Screen Tests would be printed on clear acetate [like Andy had done of John Giorno?], so that the reader could look through the faces to the poem. Rather than printing them as single images, the edge of the film, sprockets and all, was included, so that three nearly identical images of the subject were piled one atop the other. This was not a completely new ideaGerard was familiar with it through Stan Brakhage's "Anticipation of the Night," and "Window Water Moving." From the nearly 500 reels of "Screen Tests", they pared the selection to 54 subjects. The disagreed on only twoAndy wanted Henry Geldzahler and Ultra Violet, but Gerard wasn't up to writing a poem about either of them.
Warhol provided the design and Gerard came up with the title. The juxtaposition of "Screen Tests" with "A Diary," separated by a mere slash, suggests the proximity of the public and private worldsfor what could be more public than a movie screen, and what could be more private than a diary?
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Gerard wrote many of the verses in August 1966, shortly after breaking up from Susan Bottomley, just as she was becoming International Velvet. The woman to whom he dedicated the book was Benedetta Barzini, the woman who came after International Velvet.
Susan Bottomly [t/k about the years in between] She lives in Hawaii.
Joe Campbell moved from New York to northern California in 1968, worked fo many years as a surveyor. He has lived with H.I.V. for nearly two decades and has a beautiful landscape.
Julian Burroughs [a.k.a. Andrew Dungan] spent several years in Europe, made another film with Paul Morrisey (L'Amou), moved to southern California, where he now works as a substance abuse counselor.
Ronnie Cutrone worked for many years as Warhol's assistant and then pursued his own career as an artist, which he does to the present. [could be cut]
Nat Finkelstein: Photographer Nat Finkelstein (born 1933, Brooklyn), a primary photographer of the Silver Factory, learned photography as assistant to Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar, and his work as a Black Star picture agency documented 1960s political and cultural movements in America. Finkelstein didn't make photographs for many years during the 70s and early 80s, when he lived outside the United States. In the mid-eighties he returned to America ,where he again took up photography documenting the then current group of subcultures. He has exhibited photographs in over seventy-five solo and group shows. At the age of 70, he is currently working in Brooklyn as a photographer.
John Giorno (1936 - ) was an early media activist (beginning in 1968 orgqainizing poetr, much of it radical, that could be dialed up on the telephone. He later produced a broad line of DIAL-A-POEM and describes himself as a sound poet.
Jane Holzer [t/k : please help, Shelley, if you can]
Betsey Johnson continued to build a fashion business, first Betsey, Blini, and Binky [check name] and in 1978 she started the Betsey Johnson Co. and has opened over two dozen boutiques around the world; her clothes remain part-Punk and part cheerleader, her signature color a hot shade of pink.
Ivan Karp left Leo Castelli [when] and started his own gallery, O.K. Harris, which he runs to the present day.
Jonas Mekas has continued to devote most of his energy over the last three decades to underground film and the activities of Anthology Film Archive.
Alan Midgette [maybe]
John Palmer moved to Hawaii (not far from Susan Bottomly), recently finished a Ph.D, in psychology, and works with men in prison.
Stephen Shore became one of the first photographers to work mostly in color, and in 1971, he became the first living photographer to have a one-person show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. [other exhibitions? MoMA]
Ultra Violet wrote a memoir of the Factory period, Famous for Fifteen Minutes, shortly after Warhol died. She lives in style in an Upper East Side penthouse has become increasingly spiritual. "I think we are born to perfect ourselves and to attain immortality," she said recently, "and I think that is where the work is to be done."
Louis Waldon moved to Los Angeles, worked a variety of jobs, lived on a houseboat, and silk-screened faux Marilyns.
Chuck Wein left New York, had many spiritual adventures and now lives near the Del Mar racetrack in southern California. In the early 1980s, he said, "Now I am to busy receiving ancient friends to describe my present trans-Amazonian discoveries." (When I visited him in 2000, he experienced a visitation from Andy Warhol.)