Harry and Jackie at La MaMa
By Robert Heide
In late May and early June 2012 at La Mama was a retro look at two off-off Broadway legends – H. M. Koutoukas or ‘Harry’ as many knew him (the bio in the play program reveals his birthname as Haralambos Monroe Koutoukas) and Jackie Curtis the writer/actor who sometimes thought he was James Dean or Barbara Stanwyck.
The two separate works by Harry and Jackie were a part of the “LaMama at 50” celebrations going on this year. The Koutoukas play “When Clowns Play Hamlet” (subtitled “A Bitter Camp”) was originally written for Jeff Weiss and was produced at La Mama in 1967 at the loft space at 122 Second Avenue with Jess Weiss, Mary Boland and Beverly Grant. The play features three clowns called Berliner (Jenny Lee Mitchell), Puncho (Matt Nasser) and Gamino (Sara Galassini) who are feeling lost in the circus world they find themselves performing in. One of them used to ride atop a giant elephant which is now lying dead onstage and this has the clowns complaining from time to time of a permeating odoriferous smell. The star of this circus is a Gargantua Gorilla who is out to kill or at least maim the three players. The offstage monster’s roars, growls, and moans scare the three half-to-death and at play’s end two of them have been badly ravaged by the King Kong type ape while the third clown, standing center under a spotlight, bemoans the death of her beloved elephant and wonders if she will ever perform again. The clown actors chat about a wandering troupe of criminal gypsies camping nearby and about finding themselves stuck in a pitiful one-ring traveling circus. The direction by Ozzie Rodriguez was keeping with the ambiguous, surrealistic Koutoukas style. The clowns in white face with big red lips outlined in black greasepaint reminded me of newspaper photos of the serial killer John Wayne Gacey who performed at a White House benefit for children by invitation of first lady Rosalyn Carter. Gacey it later turned out was a child molester/killer who buried over 30 bodies of young men under his house. I also was reminded of the Cecil B. DeMille movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” in which James Stewart played a weird and somber circus clown murderer.
This early Koutoukas play does not have the focus of some of his other later works such as “Tidy Passions”, “The World’s Most Perfect Teenager” starring Lisa Jane Persky, “Medea In The Laundromat” starring Charles Stanley, or “With Creatures Make My Way” with Warren Finnerty. The latter two were performed at the Caffe Cino where Harry came to be known as the ‘quintesssential’ Cino playwright. Perpetual Koutoukas real life acting-out-on-drugs dramas are an essential part of the Caffe Cino mythology.
I was talking on the phone recently with Jeff Weiss, now living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who told me that on opening night of ‘Clowns’ in 1967 Harry in a fit of rage threw a cup of hot cocoa in Ellen Stewart’s face and Tom O’Horgan chased him out onto the street with a hammer in hand. Many stories persist about the ups and downs of Harry; but all of that is for another day. I regarded Harry, who lived across from me on Christopher Street, as always a garrulous, mischievous, troublesome child who was driven by demons; but who could also write genuinely pertinent plays like “Two Camps by Koutoukas,” presented Off Broadway at the Actors Playhouse, which featured the most brilliant lighting I had ever seen in the theater, by Johnny Dodd. The opening night of “Two Camps” found Harry screaming at the actors on stage – “PICK UP THE PROP!” in a loud vexatious voice. The new production of “When Clowns Play Hamlet” was performed in the first floor theater at La Mama at 74 East 4th Street from May 24 through June 4.
The scrapbook musical revue “Jukebox Jackie” (subtitled “Snatches of Jackie Curtis”) stampeded into the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama at 66 East 4th Street, playing from May 24 to June 10 to enthusiastic full houses. It was a hard-to-get ticket due to rave reviews from the daily uptown papers. Both Elizabeth Vincentelli of The Post and Charles Isherwood in the The New York Times gave the show much space and ecstatic reviews with The Post giving it 3 l/2 stars declaring, “’Jukebox Jackie’ is hard to beat.”
The review with songs and enactments from the Warhol film “Women in Revolt” and from Jackie’s first play “Glamour Glory And Gold” was originally presented at Bastiano’s Cellar Studio in the Village under the direction of Ron Link. Ron discovered and groomed Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling into top drag performers in the 1960s. The show was also a first for actor Robert De Niro and Melba La Rose Jr. who now runs a showcase theater on 14th Street. My upstairs neighbor Sally Kirkland took her Actor’s Studio gal pal Shelley Winters to see DeNiro in the play and Shelley hired him to be in her off-Broadway play at the Actor’s Playhouse “Travels With A Noisy Passenger.” Alas, the Great Ron Link is no longer with us, having succumbed to AIDS. Who can forget his productions of Tom Eyen’s plays “Women Behind Bars” and “Neon Woman” starring Pat Ast, Divine, Lady Hope Stansbury, and LaMama’s own Chris Kapp?
Jackie is performed by the brilliant of-the-moment drag Justin Vivian Bond of “Kiki and Herb Alive,” which played on Broadway in 2007, and for which the performance artist was nominated for a Tony. Though great at singing the songs “Lady Stardust” (David Bowie), “Half-Smoked Cigarette” (lyrics by Jackie Curtis – music Peter Allen), the Nico, Lou Reed song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” and “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” (Jonathan King) – Justin Vivian when enacting the role of Jackie in various skits seemed to me to be more of a double in looks and personae to Holly Woodlawn. To be sure Holly was always the more aggressive one while Jackie was usually low-key and always the shy-boy just underneath the surface. Candy Darling, of course, was seen as the great beauty of the three Warhol drag superstars, always identifying with Kim Novak, Carole Lombard, and Lana Turner, and she sometimes did a perfect imitation of her favorite, Joan Bennett.
Scott Wittman who conceived and directed this Jackie tribute is the Tony Award lyricist for Broadway’s “Hairspray” and “Catch Me If You Can.” He did a splendid job of creating this scrapbook revue. (When was the last time you saw a musical revue? “New Faces of l952”? Maybe.) Wittman credits Craig B. Highberger for his fine documentary film and book about Jackie called “Superstar in a House Dress.” In this film I am a talking head chatting about Jackie’s internal conflicts in acting out Barbara Stanwyck one day and the very next day – James Dean. Once in the l970s I took Jackie along with Candy Darling to an audition for “No, No Nanette” and to meet the famed film director Busby Berkley. Candy came in a svelte l950s dress while Jackie in an in-between bedraggled-state was covered with glitter and wearing a shabby raincoat. Neither made it into the ‘Nanette’ chorus line. A photo of this Jackie-Busby-Candy encounter is to be seen in Highberger’s film. The glitter-draped set designed by Scott Pask (he did the sets for “The Book of Mormon”) was first-rate, and a small orchestra assembled by Lance Horne helped to put “Jukebox Jackie” into a category of as-good-as-anything-on-Broadway-today; but now the word is always “money,” so that the hoped-for move to Broadway seems all but impossible.
The high-point numbers in this extravaganza musical revue were “White Shoulders” (lyrics Jackie Curtis, music Paul Serrato) and “I’m Waiting for the Man” (by Lou Reed) both performed by big-girl Bridget Everett, a combination of Divine and Warhol superstar Brigid Berlin aka Brigid Polk particularly when she injects herself with speed up her you-know-what. My very favorite number was performed by a talented Cole Escola who plays Jackie as a young small pretty boy and the song written by old timers Mack Gordon and Harry Revel is “Cigarettes, Cigars!” which originally was performed in “The Ziegfeld Follies of l931” by Ruth Etting. Jackie first sang this oldtime song in an act directed by Ron Link in a cabaret at the Top-of-the-Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle. Part of the lyric goes “Now I’ve learned what smoking coke and snow means/among the guys who’ve never learned what no means.” Link dyed Jackie’s hair flame-red and with an upswept hairdo and a slinky sequined gown Jackie was a hit. Performing also in that show was Holly Woodlawn. Both were at the peak of their glamour and glory period and never looked or sounded better. “Jukebox Jackie” ends with a fantastic rendition of the classic pop song “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” and the Kinks’ hit song “Celluloid Heroes,” sung by the full cast with extras brought in and with the audience singing along and having a ball.
I should add here a quote from The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli’s review of the play: “Jackie Curtis is less famous today than fellow Warhol superstars Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. But the late playwright-poet-singer-actor may have been the most creative of them all. Curtis (l947-l985) was born John Holder Jr. and lived and performed both as a man and in drag. ‘I’m not a boy, not a girl’ he once said, ‘I’m just me – Jackie!’”
Jackie, Candy and Edie Sedgwick (Warhol’s super Girl of the Year) left an indelible imprint on the world, had short lives: but flashed across the sky like blazing comets.