Interview with Melba LaRose, Jr.
by gary comenas
to c. SEPT. 1967: GLAMOUR GLORY AND GOLD
Cast of Glamour Glory & Gold - Melba LaRose, Jr. is standing in the back
w/Sal Bovoso with black mustache - Candy Darling is seated front right
Melba LaRose, Jr., played the role of Nola Noonan in the original production of Jackie Curtis' play, Glamour, Glory & Gold - the Life and Legend of Nola Noonan, Goddess and Star. She is currently the Artistic Director of NY Artists Unlimited - a non-profit theatre company that brings professional theatre productions to under-served audiences.
How did you meet Jackie Curtis?
I met Jackie when I auditioned for "Glamour, Glory & Gold." He sat in the corner of the front row and was the sweetest young man: blond bangs, boyish look, big shoes, with a shopping bag parked by his chair. This was his look for some time - on the streets and in the play - even when he appeared on Joe Franklin's show and took Joe a pumpkin for Halloween that he had in the bag. Jackie was a master of publicity, so he got news about the play into all the big gossip columns, on TV, and anywhere else possible. He besieged them with press releases, phone calls, and visits till they posted something. I thought I blew the audition, but when I came offstage, Jackie grabbed me, hugged me, and told me how WONDERFUL I was and that I'd be hearing from them soon. We became instant friends. By the way, I was the only one in the crowd that didn't need to change his/her name - Jackie loved it.
Was this the original production of "Glamour, Glory & Gold?"
Yes, 1967-1968; I think it ran for 6 months. We were sold out nearly every night and I became Queen of Off-Off-Broadway overnight. It was dubbed the play that started "camp," though we thought we were very serious. Critics were there opening night and we received a rave review in the New York Times. Dan Sullivan said I was "Jean Harlow down to the leaden voice and incipient pot belly." And Candy was reviewed as a woman: "This is the first impersonation of a female impersonator I have ever seen." It wasn't until "Give My Regards to Off-Off-Broadway" that anybody knew Candy was a man - Director Ron Link leaked it to the press. The play was covered again in a Dan Sullivan article at the end of the season as one of the highlights of the year.
Jackie was always rewriting, so there are many versions of the play. I believe I have the original script, though it's tattered and there are rewrites on it. It was Jackie's first play - written for Helen Hanft, a big star of off-off Broadway at the time. But, Helen kept showing up late and tired from her day job at the switchboard - or not at all - and Ron would ask me to step in. After about a week, he threw Helen out, tossed the script at me and said I had the lead and had to learn 30 pages overnight - which I did.
Did Warhol attend any of the performances?
Yes, one. He gave us the quote for publicity: "For the first time, I wasn't bored."
What was the opening night like of "Glamour, Glory & Gold?"
Jackie and Ron went all over trying to find '30s costumes for the show and Jackie ended up raiding the closets of his Grandmother Slugger Ann - who ran the bar Slugger Ann's on 2nd Avenue, his aunt, and his mother. On opening night, we burst onto the stage and heard Slugger bellow from the audience, "They're wearing my fuckin' clothes!!!"
Did you ever go to Slugger Ann's bar? What was it like?
It was a typical Lower East Side bar - this was before we called it the East Village. A lot of local characters hanging out, and Slugger was the biggest character of all. Jackie could often be found at the bar, in whichever gender. His doctor said it was amazing how his body survived going back and forth so many times with the hormones. I remember when he called and was on his way to visit me in LA, a friend said, "Aren't you going to dress up?" I said, "For Jackie? Are you kidding? I don't even know what sex he'll arrive in."
Where was the cast party for "Glamour, Glory & Gold?"
It was at the Downtown, which I believe became in later years the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's space - Charles Ludlam - on West 4th Street. The Downtown was a popular club with a sunken dance floor in the middle. We went in our costumes, which we always did. But since panne velvet gets very hot in those situations, Candy went to the ladies room and stripped to her slip. Slip dresses were becoming popular then, so nobody knew. She danced all night in her slip with a producer that had come to the opening. He was a guy that was in Judy Garland's entourage and when Judy wasn't on tour, he was at our show every night. One time, he asked me to kiss his hand with my bright red lipstick. He didn't wash it for a week. Many celebrities came to see the play as well and I kept hearing that Gloria De Haven had been there several times. One time when I came offstage, she was standing there waiting to congratulate me: a very short, beautiful lady, and generous in her praise. Evidently, she wanted to do my part in a future production - or perhaps Jackie had approached her, which he never admitted to me.
Were there many drugs being used at the time?
Drugs were not a big thing yet. It was the debut production for Jackie, Candy & myself. We were like young children playing together. Some cast members were taking Dexamyl sometimes because we needed high energy for this show - I was constantly onstage and the role was demanding both vocally and physically - many times I nearly lost my voice. We did drink some wine backstage, but things had not gotten out of hand. It was later that that came into play. Drugs were the cause of Candy's teeth becoming so bad, but I don't know when exactly she started using - in the '70s. Andy paid for caps, but it was a poor dentist and they kept falling out. There are many funny stories about that.
Jackie & Candy were wonderful to work with. I remember I had a scene where I was supposed to be having a fit in a Hollywood studio and I was to randomly throw things. One night by accident, I picked up a wooden hanger and hurled it and it hit Candy right in the middle of the back as she exited to the dressing room. In the character of an outrageous "studio boss," Jean Harlow type, I could not show a reaction - but it was very difficult. I was paralyzed. At the end of the show, I ran offstage in horror to see if Candy was all right - but she had been worried about ME all the time. She claimed she wasn't hurt, but thought how horrible that Melba has to continue her part when she must be so upset!
These people were priceless. I must also tell you that Jackie was one of the most brilliant people I ever met. Most people could not follow Jackie's train of thought, but I never had any problem. He was extremely educated and bright, and always exploring new ideas - like when he visited me in California and showed me a play he was writing in Esperanto! He wanted me to play Ashes Mercredi - which amused me no end.
Was Robert DeNiro in the original production of "Glamour, Glory & Gold?"
No, he was in the second production in 1968 that starred Paula Shaw. I turned it down - it's in my "World's Smallest Book of Great Decisions I Have Made!" I do remember De Niro around the Village though. He was mainly doing Bob Downey's (Sr.) independent films. I heard he did some weird exercises in the dressing room, but that's a rumor.
When did you first meet Candy Darling?
I first met Candy when Tony Ingrassia asked me to go with him to a ramshackle tenement apartment on Bleecker St. I had met Tony at HB - Herbert Berghof/Uta Hagen - Studio, where I was studying. I was practically an infant then and it was WAY before Tony went into drag. He was a playwright at HB and I met him when I was selected by Herbert to read for the new playwrights.
So, one night, Tony announces that I have to meet his friend Candy, who is just going into drag. Well, how could I resist? We went to the apartment of Stanley - a rather strange looking fellow with green hair - supposedly Candy's "cousin." And, there she sat, the epitome of beauty, practically a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn: the very short Sassoon haircut of the time of "Charade," a soft loose white blouse, tailored slacks, flawless simple makeup, cheekbones you would kill for, everything in place. I'm sure my mouth was hanging open. All I could think was that Candy was ready for the world - but was the world ready for Candy? We sat and talked all night. She was fascinating, very sweet, and someone who was always interested in someone else's life - a great listener. It was a magical night.
A year later, after the first read-thru for "Glamour, Glory & Gold," this other actress who had been reading with me came running over very excited and said, "Melba! Don't you remember me? - You met me with Tony Ingrassia?!!" I tried to be gracious, but I didn't remember meeting any woman with Tony Ingrassia. Still, I continued to work with her and we became close "girlfriends" for over a month till opening night - when suddenly it DAWNED on me - I did remember meeting someone named Candy - but this couldn't possibly be the same person! It took a few more encounters - and the stubble coming through the Max Factor as she did my moonbeam eyebrows every night - for me to accept that this was the extraordinary person I had met on that fateful night. She still had brown hair, but wavy, shoulder-length, softer brown, and she always wore high heels, a dress - and often a black monkey fur jacket. It was later on that she bleached her hair like mine had been in "Glamour:" platinum, Marceled. It became the fashion for all of us at that time since we were '30s movie fanatics. She was photographed by the top photographers of the world - I have one by Peter Beard - sometimes wearing my jewelry - and I do so miss her midnight calls to tell me rambling, hysterical tales of her encounters in the midnight world of New York City.
Did you go to Jackie’s wedding? What was it like?
I attended Jackie Curtis's wedding to Eric Emerson, who did not show up. It was on a rooftop at 211 East 11th Street that was often used by our "tribe" as the Voice called us. The stand-in for the groom was called Stanley Sweetheart, and yes he was the maitre d' at Max's. I was acknowledged by the Voice in their front-page article "Twilight of the Tribe" that covered the wedding. They said there were those of us who hoped everything would come out all right, such as Melba LaRose, Jr., tap dancing.
The wedding was filmed by the Maysles Brothers. I never did see the film that the Maysles did. I don't know if it ever got edited or released. I believe the band was David Pitt & his orchestra. Larry Ray - original Trocadero - was there dancing in his tutu. Also at that wedding: Tony Ingrassia, Alice Playten, Ruby Lynn Rayner, and more.
I also attended Jackie's 8th and last wedding at #1 Fifth Avenue where Jackie married Snakeyes. Snakeyes was a young man that Jackie had met in the East Village, who had been hanging out his window when Jackie passed by one day - I think that's the story. As was usual, Jackie put him in his next play - believe that was "Champagne." At Jackie's eighth wedding, I sat next to Andy and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who never stopped talking, while Andy took out of focus snapshots of everybody who approached the table. My guess is it was 1978, but I'm not positive. I came back from LA in '77 and I attended with someone I met later, so it was at least 1978. I wasn't wearing heavy clothes, so it must have been spring/summer/early fall. I do remember that infamous gallery owner Leo Castelli gave the bride away and Jackie held up an astrological chart he'd made that showed how the weddings had come full circle and why this had to be the last one. I gave him red velvet throw pillows for the "new home."
You were also in Jackie's second play, "Lucky Wonderful?" What part did you play?
Jackie's second play was a take on Tommy Manville and all his wives and was done at the Playwrites Workshop - Tony Bastiano's place, a basement on Waverly Place - Tony was often called "LaPapa." Roz Kelly & I played all the women's roles. Among others, I played Ninny Eldorado - a Russian princess with a tarnished crown, Popcorn Collins - a Southern tap dancing movie star, Norma Lewis - a fallen star, a wacked-out gossip column a la Hedda Hopper, and a trashy chorus girl.
We played all of Tommy Manville's (Jackie) wives. Jackie was in his Huntz Hall period, so he was taking male hormones and looking like a curly-haired collegiate trust fund kid in a raccoon coat and big shoes. He was adorable and sang like a dream. In the upcoming documentary film on Jackie, he sings "Who Are You" from "Lucky Wonderful" at the end. The film is narrated by Lily Tomlin. It's to open at the Film Forum next year. Paul Serrato wrote all the music and played piano, leading his band, for the live show. He is releasing a CD with Jackie singing to coincide with the opening of the documentary. Paul has released several CDs and also composed music for my company.
Who else was in "Lucky Wonderful?"
It started with a larger cast - until Jackie fired the director. Some of the cast went with the director or were fired as well. We worked together to redirect the show very close to the opening. The final cast was: Jackie Curtis, Roz Kelly, Melba LaRose Jr., Ronald Towe, Rick Dolph, Harry York.
What was the cast party like?
Cool and crazy. In Roz Kelly's loft in the West 40s.
Were drugs/alcohol more of an issue during this production?
Yes, more drinking and various pills. Not the heavy stuff as yet, although Jackie was taking speed and I'm not sure when it escalated to injections. It was still 1968. I remember the stage manager wondering aloud at the cast party, "Should a gentleman offer a lady a joint?"
Were there any press reviews of "Lucky Wonderful?"
Yes, it was well reviewed. Show Business said: "Roz Kelly and Melba LaRose Jr., the Darling of Roaring Camp, are wonderful - and we are lucky they are in this show." A lot of celebrities came, but I don't remember specifically who they were. Tally Brown, who was on Broadway then, came. Robert Patrick, the playwright, came to see all our shows. And, Tom Eyen, another playwright (Dreamgirls). Also, my playwright-actor friend Ted Harris. I remember one night I entered the theatre bemoaning, "We have to be doing a musical comedy the night Martin Luther King dies." There were exactly 3 somber-faced people in the audience who never laughed. At the end, we ran off and Jackie yelled, "Tell 'em to wait, we'll split a cab." To which Roz responded: "Yeah, you take the front and I'll take the back!"
Were you in any other Jackie Curtis plays?
No. I left NYC for a while, then returned, and escaped again in 1970 - to Hollywood, the strangest thing that ever got off the bus: platinum, Marceled hair, white-white pancake, 3 layers of eyelashes, high heel tap shoes, hot pants, satin halter top, and a full length fur coat. It took years to get the glitter out of my hair.
What non-Jackie Curtis productions have you been involved with?
Oh, so many productions. After "Lucky," I did Gregory Rozakis's "The Class," also at the Playwrites Workshop. It was a takeoff on "The Lesson," but was about Strasberg and an acting student. After that, I did a youth revolution film, "Barbara." And then, I took off for Hollywood and ended up in Lonny Chapman's Group Repertory Theatre, where I did "straight" plays. After some time there, I began to write, mainly about my experiences in NYC, and then it branched out to many more subjects. I directed the pieces as well. Back in NYC I worked with the internationally renowned NY Street Theatre Caravan, then formed NY Artists Unlimited.
Were you close to any of the other Warhol people?
Yes, I knew Eric Emerson and many others. As discussed before, we waited for him at the first drag wedding, but he never showed up. He died not long after I arrived in Hollywood. Of course, I knew Holly. I almost used her to play the part of Candy in my full-length play, "Tables I Have Danced On," but I ended up using International Crisis instead. Crisis had been around in the early days, but she opted for a very successful career performing in clubs. She was there for the first reading of the second production of "Glamour," where I read but decided not to do it again. When I rediscovered Crisis, she was performing at the Rainbow Grill - the most beautiful vision you've ever seen and a very sweet person. She was honored to play Candy in the staged reading of my play. Unfortunately, she's gone now as well. Stomach cancer; the same way Candy went - although with Candy it was because the hormones were rather new and later discovered to be carcinogic.
I heard that while I was away, Holly, Jackie & Candy lived together. It was before she was diagnosed but often they would return home to find Candy stretched out in a velvet dress holding a lily on her breast - she was practicing dying. They began to call her "The Dead Woman." Jackie also would often tell me, "You know, you're not a true Warhol legend until you're dead."
The day that Candy died, I went to Schwab's drugstore on the Sunset Strip - which I thought she would have liked. I ran into Ted Harris out in front, who was looking for a newspaper article about the death. We sat in Schwab's and reminisced about Candy.
When I returned to NYC, Jackie told me Candy would often stare into space and wonder "Whatever happened to Melba LaRose, Jr.?" I have also been in touch with Ultra Violet, Penny Arcade, Taylor Mead, Dame Margo, Styles Caldwell, and others over the years. And, I have maintained a close friendship with Paul Serrato, who composed and played the music live for "Lucky Wonderful."
How did you hear of Jackie's death from an accidental overdose? Did you know that Jackie had been dabbling with heroin?
I was one of the first people -- if not the first -- called by Kevin, our old stage manager for "Lucky." Jackie had been binging on heroin for some years, after becoming sober. He thought he could get away with it. He was doing drugs with someone who was fondly called "the black widow." I heard she had a history of giving too much heroin when she shared needles. It was suspicious, but we'll never know the truth. She was cleared, but ended up committing suicide later.
I had encouraged Jackie to get sober and clean for years. I went to the wake and the funeral. Both were rather bizarre. I wore a black sexy dress because I thought Jackie would like that. Holly came to the wake in a man's suit. When questioned, she quipped, "What? I'm going to wear an avocado gown under these lights?" and then: "No, I don't think it would be appropriate, do you?" Kevin wandered around the building and found a knotted up handful of audiotape. He produced it and exclaimed, "Look, I found the bitch a wig!" Somebody put a couple of joints in the coffin with Jackie - dressed in a man's suit - for the next life. Penny had just returned from a European sojourn. We had both escaped to save our lives, so there was much reminiscing at the wake.
At the funeral, there was hysteria and crying, but how much - for real or for effect, I couldn't say. I loved Jackie's aunt, who was at the funeral and wanted to keep in touch with all of us. She passed away a few years later. I performed a scene from "Glamour" with Kevin at the memorial, which was held at La Mama. Many of us performed and/or did tributes including Alexis De Lago - in a beautiful dress, pillbox hat, and starched veil she made for the occasion. She wrote a story about decorating Heaven with tin foil, so Jackie could find his way there and do a play. So many people: Taylor Mead, Ruby Lynn Rayner, Crisis, Jeremiah Newton (longtime friend of Candy), Dame Margo, Penny Arcade, Rita Red, Gerry Ragni, Joey (Jackie's cousin who's directing "Glamour"), Agosto Machado, etc. Some of those are gone now, too.
Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when you heard that Warhol had died? What was your reaction, if any?
I was home and saw it on TV. It's funny, I never liked him much when he was alive. He took advantage of a lot of my friends, never paying Jackie or Candy for their work in his films. They were always at Max's Kansas City, begging Paul Morrissey for handouts. I thought Andy was a taker, although the talents he used were certainly willing victims. I heard that when Jackie died, Ellen Stewart called Andy to see if he would contribute to the funeral and burial. Andy said to tell her he was busy - having lunch with Claus Von Bulow. Still, when Andy died, I felt like the father of us all was gone. It seemed like the real end to an era, though it was really far past the end of it.
What other productions are you working on at the moment? How did the Julia de Burgos production come about?
I discovered Julia de Burgos, Puerto Rico's great poet, when my friend and neighbor Jack Agueros gave me his book, in which he translated/edited over 200 of her poems. The book was entitled 'Song of the Simple Truth, the complete poems of Julia de Burgos'. I asked for permission to adapt it for the stage and Jack graciously gave it to me. We have been touring it for almost 3 years now to sold-out houses and rave reviews, and are invited to Mexico and Brasil in 2004.
I am only beginning to work on "Voices of the Town." Vaudeville is a new interest and I am intrigued with the breakthroughs this art form made for African-Americans and women. I have written about 15 plays. "Tables I Have Danced On" is about my experiences with the Warhol crowd. It has not received a full production as yet, but was done as an elaborate staged reading. "A Builder of Dreams" is another piece I toured for 3 years, based on the poems & life of my maternal grandmother. Currently, we are touring "Little Red - Girl from the Hood," a pop/hip hop musical version of the classic tale I wrote last year.
Many thanks to Melba for her comments.
The website for New York Artists Unlimited is at www.nyartists.org.
to ca. SEPT. 1967: GLAMOUR GLORY AND GOLD