By 1969, we were wondering what the decade of the l970s would bring. As it turned out, the Seventies was a time of changes and again as in the Sixties, all of it seemed to be happening at a breakneck speed. In the early part of the decade, there was a continuum of the Sixties, particularly in terms of the ongoing and brutal Vietnam War; and there was the shooting of the students at Kent State; the blast from those shots still rings in our ears today. Then there was the guru-monster Charlie Manson who was the captain at the helm of the bloody Sharon Tate murders in Los Angeles. I had written a play for the Caffe Cino called Moon about a hippie couple in the Village which I directed; it opened there on Valentine’s Day, February 14, l967. Subsequently, the play was produced by the Manhattan Theater Club and in other theaters in New York and across the country. It was published by E. P. Dutton in an anthology called The Best of Off Off Broadway put forth and edited by Village Voice critic and playwright Michael Smith.
Eric Krebs, in 1969, ran a new theater on George Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey called Brecht West. He asked me to bring in a production of Moon which he felt was “a classic.” I gathered together a new cast that included a fine young actress named Ellen Gurin, with Richard Portnow, Marlene Fischer, and Fred Forrest. My partner John Gilman came along to repeat the role of Christopher and as the driver to take the group of actors back and forth from New York to New Jersey. Eventually, Portnow was cast in a lead role in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and Fred Forrest played opposite Bette Midler in The Rose and starred in many other films. It was fun to take off-off Broadway into the boondocks and following Moon, Eric Krebs with Phil Cohen and Jeanne Ford commissioned me to write a new play in 1970 for the theater which was At War With the Mongols – my response to the ongoing Vietnam War. It is about a hippie couple loosely based on the characters from Moon who are on the run trying to escape Mongol hoards that are invading the U. S. mainland. They are hiding out together in a shack on the beach where they drop acid and contemplate their fate.
William M. Hoffman, a Cino playwright, came down to see it on the train and to my surprise and delight Billy, as we called him, decided to publish it on the spot in a collection of plays he was putting together called New American Plays, Volume 4 to be published by Hill & Wang. The cast consisting of Linda Eskenas as Meg and John Gilman as Mick gave forth with hysterical way-out performances which inspired other New York off-off playwrights including Mr. Hoffman and Robert Patrick to bring their own plays to Brecht West. The idea was that Eric Krebs wanted to create a kind of Cinoesque theater for the college town of New Brunswick; and to add to the craziness of it all during the run of Mongols, there were race riots and floods. Nevertheless, town folk and students from Rutgers attended and seemed to be having a good time. The publications of off-off plays created opportunities for these new works to be performed in small theaters and in universities in America and abroad. It was also a good feeling when royalties came in from Moon and Mongols which incidentally was the title for a production of the two plays presented later at the Cherry Lane Theater by Elaine B. Shore, the television actress who brought along Otto Preminger to opening night.
As it unfolded, the ‘70s began to be thought of by many as a sexual revolution. The idea on Christopher Street was to let it all hang out. Cruising was the order of the day – a 70s movie starring Al Pacino titled Cruising, about the gay underworld, was filmed entirely in the West Village. Do-your-own-thing translated into sexually acting out in whatever way you chose, short of murder. There were backrooms where men groped around in the darkness not knowing what kind of excitement might come their way. At clubs like The Mineshaft, The Eagle and The Anvil, all hell broke loose rivaling the sexual excesses of ancient Greece and the Roman baths. Loud, ear-splitting bombastic music was led by Donna Summer and the Bee Gees who created the brilliant fast stepping score for the John Travolta movie Saturday Night Fever which helped establish the style of the ‘70s – high platform shoes and low waist bell bottom trousers. Fun Disco recordings were also issued by the likes of Ethel Merman, Liza Minelli, and the outrageous “Pink Flamingoes” star Divine.
At the very top of the Disco scene was Studio 54, wherein Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager had transformed a theater into one of the most fantastic nightclubs on the planet. Myself and partner John Gilman spent many a wild night there hanging out with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Bianca, Diana Vreeland, Brooke Shields, and other celebrity personages. It all happened under a huge suspended crescent man-in-the-moon which would descend from the rafters; and a mechanical arm holding a spoon dipped into an ostensible bowl of cocaine – and many at Studio 54 seemed to partake of that white powder all-up-the-nose or whatever and not to mention sexual trysts of one kind or another in the balconies. Other late night to early morning Got-to-go-Disco spots included Xenon and Danceteria, the latter hosted by party promoter Jim Fouratt who looked fantastic, dressed to the hilt in an orange satin suit. Another sex-nitespot favored by the straight swinger was The Hell-Fire Club. After leaving Studio 54 with Marianne Faithful who was introduced to us by filmmaker Kenneth Anger, we also spent many a late night at The Mudd Club.
I believe the most notorious of the later after-hours places was The Anvil, housed in a small triangular building on West 14th Street at the West Side Highway. Dancing atop the bar you would see a transgender character known as ‘The Amazing Yuba’ who set herself on fire night after night – yet mysteriously Yuba’s nude body never showed any burns on the skin itself. A male dancer named ‘Mr. Slit,’ danced in the dark wearing only a black leather jockstrap, boots, and a miner’s helmet with a spot-flashlight attachment. Downstairs, from the two crowded horseshoe shaped bars, was a dark basement room smelling of poppers and sex was obviously the most important thing going on in those nights going into day. Celebrities showing up for these bacchanals at The Anvil included Truman Capote with Lee Radziwell and it was reported that filmmaker Werner Fassbender flew in from Germany and spent three nights there. It seems that as the dawn broke outside, the revelers continued carrying on at a fast and intense pace. I remember thinking watching the ‘Amazin’ Yuba’ and ‘Mr. Slit’ that all of this cannot possibly last. This in the late Seventies must have been not unlike the time of the Weimar Republic. It could not last; and by 1980 a new medieval disease began to enter into the picture. This dead-man-disease was initially called GRID (gay related immune deficiency syndrome) and later AIDS. The 1980s eventually came to be known as the ‘AIDIES.’
The Nostalgic 1970s
In the middle of all of this, a new trend began to take place. Alongside the druggie-Hippie-Yippie sexual revolution of the l970s, there was a sense that the America that many of us had known was fast disappearing into what some called ‘Lost America.’ It was as if in the midst of all the outward mind blowing gaiety, nobody was really having any fun.
This was followed by a nostalgic trend – a sudden craze for another time – namely the l920s and the Depression era of the l930s. A big shift showed a longing for things and places that were no more and that were purely American. The search for material evidence of things past was to be made at flea markets and antique shows across the land. Whatever our parents discarded like overstuffed mohair furniture, cobalt blue-mirrored coffee tables, chromium cocktail shakers, decorative cookie jars, l930s Bakelite jewelry, Catalin radios, Art Deco statues, lamps, ashtrays, and vintage clothing were suddenly all the rage. It became like an archeological treasure hunt all the way.
Movie musicals, particularly Busby Berkeley’s splendid rhythmic kaleidoscopic visual geometric extravaganza’s like Golddiggers of 1933 or Footlight Parade starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell were revived with a vengeance at art houses like Theater 80 St. Marks, the Thalia or the Regency. A major revival of the l925 musical No No Nanette” starring Ruby Keeler in a triumphant tap dancing return to show business and also featuring Patsy Kelly opened on Broadway at the very start of the l970s – January 19, 1971 – with spectacular dance sequences directed by Busby Berkeley. With our friends from the Warhol Factory Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Paul Ambrose we headed uptown with photographer Phil Cohen in tow for these off off Broadway drag performers to audition for the great man. When he met Candy at the audition wearing a ‘30s dress and looking every bit like Carole Lombard, Berkeley said, “On looks alone you should get in.” He had no clue that Candy was a man. It was a memorable and fun day. No No Nanette was a smash hit in the 1970s running for 861 sold out performances before closing in 1973.
John Gilman and I both got into the antique business to make a buck and we set up a table at the 26th Street flea market in New York bringing back Deco – or Pop-culture Americana items from the countryside markets, antique shops and garage and yard sales all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as from upstate and New England. Turning a profit was fun, as was hitting the road in our l954 two-tone green Packard Patrician touring sedan that we had bought from a mechanic named Louis Pesagno on Morton Street for $325. He told us it had been a Mafia chieftans car and we eventually rented it to be utilized in the movie Godfather II. The culmination of this buying, collecting, and selling happened when we were invited in l976 by Jeff and Cara Greenburg to take a booth at a one-week long Art Deco Exposition Show and Sale at Radio City Music Hall. It seemed that Deco had come of age in the greatest Deco movie palace in New York. Deco-style ‘30s movies were shown featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or the movie She starring Randolph Scott and Helen Gahagan, who showed up for the revival just to see herself on the giant screen at Radio City.
In addition to doing many of my 1960s plays in the 1970s, my new play Suburban Tremens was produced in that decade by the New York Theater Strategy at Westbeth Theater. Also, at a certain point, John and I decided it was time to write a book about American mass-produced Pop-culture Art Deco; and this included everything from cosmetic rouge tins and powder boxes, Fiestaware, nude lady mood lamps, 1930s toasters, streamlined automobiles, diners, automats, 1939 World’s Fair memorabilia, and other everyday whatnots. For fun we included a chapter on Mickey Mouse, that imp rodent from the l930s who spawned an avalanche of ‘mouse merchandise.’ In later decades we ended up writing four books about Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney. We had been referring to ourselves as ‘The Dime-store Kids in Lost America’ so we decided to call the book Dime-Store Dream Parade – Popular Culture 1925-1955. We signed a contract with a very erudite and sophisticated editor at E. P. Dutton and the book was published in 1979 on the 50th anniversary of the Wall Street stock market crash. This was our first book on American Pop-culture and there were others to follow. Many collectors including Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler went after Art Deco with a vengeance as did Andy Warhol, who never stopped. Andy couldn’t get enough cookie jars or things Deco-Americana for that matter.
All in all the nostalgia 70s was a splendiferous retro-ride on a Deco-Merry-Go-Round.