By Robert Heide
From Greenwich Village you walk east on Bleecker Street and end up on the Bowery. Think the 19th century popular song The Bowery. “The Bowery…the Bowery…they say such things and they do strange things on the Bowery.” Sammy’s Bowery Follies the showplace tavern is no more nor are the many cheap-end sleaze hotels and barrooms filled with street wanderers and drink-drank-drunks. At Bleecker’s end you cross over and head for HOWL! Arts Happening, a splendid, sparkling art gallery and performance space at 6 East First Street. In the Fall of 2016 I presented three of my plays there in staged readings as a benefit for the Actor’s Fund (www.actorsfund.org). HOWL! has changing exhibitions and events all the time. They are open Wednesday through Sunday. Call them at (917) 475-1294 or go to howlarts.org. for the schedule.
HOWL! Arts held a celebratory launch for my just published book Robert Heide 25 Plays on March 14th. The gallery space is run by the charming Jane Friedman with the program manager Carter Edwards. During the month of March the art works on the walls were portraits of well known downtown artists and performers all of whom died during the AIDS pandemic. From 1980 on many men and women succumbed to this strange almost medieval plague. The portraits at HOWL! created by John Kelly— all of whom were his friends— included the photographers, Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe, drag performer, Ethel Eichelberger, artist, Keith Haring, performance artist, John Sex, actress, Cookie Mueller of Pink Flamingoes fame and John Rothermel of the Hibiscus glitter group The Angels of Light. The simple captions for these and many others were their date of birth and the day of their death. Not surprisingly, they were all young when they died.
In March John Kelly, also a performance artist from the 1980s until today, held court in a solo act at LaMama to coincide with this HOWL! Arts show. In the performance piece Kelly reminisced about the notorious after hours club, The Anvil (14th Street and the West Side Highway), where men danced almost in the nude atop the bar and where, in the dark cellar, orgiastic and anonymous sex between gay men was the name of the game. This was the 1970s when all-hell-broke-loose at discos like Studio 54 and other hotspots across the city, many with backroom sex parlors. At the Anvil, doors opened after 4:00 a.m. and attracted adventurous celebrities who were slumming, like Truman Capote showing up with Lee Radziwell to check it all out. By the end of the 70s things came to an end; and that was when the 80s came to be called the A I D I E S.
At the book party two plays from my collected works were presented: Mother Suck which was produced originally at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate on Bleecker Street starring Helen Hanft who was then called “The Queen of Off-Off Broadway.” This go-round featured a terrific actress named Nomi Tichman playing the part of a middle-aged overwrought mom waiting and talking obsessively to no one in particular in the Port Authority bus terminal while awaiting the arrival from Baltimore of her long lost son who has just had a sex-change operation at John Hopkins.
The second play on the bill was American Hamburger, first produced in 1976 by Theater for the New City on Jane Street as part of “Village Writers on the Village: A Bicentennial Celebration.” The plays were both staged by Ralph Lewis of the ‘Obie’ Award winning group Peculiar Works Project. In American Hamburger a leather jacketed young man leaving the tawdry waterfront Keller Bar heads for the trucks parked on the Hudson River. Fortified with booze and drugs he is looking for a sexual encounter but is instead murdered by a knife wielding killer who then throws him in the river. As the play opens he finds himself in Washington Square Park where he meets George Washington and Maxwell Bodenheim, the Bohemian writer who wrote My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village. Since these two are ghosts hanging out in the park, he soon realizes that he is now among the dead. Nathaniel Ansbach, the Village tourist, Richard Craven (Bodenheim) and Mason James as General Washington were, in my opinion, right on target with their interpretations.
Following the staged readings of these two plays, my partner John Gilman and I spoke for almost an hour about life in the Village in the 60s and 70s when Bohemians still existed and rents were sometimes $30 or $40 a month and when early rock—The Mamas and The Papas, the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk singer Bob Dylan, Eric Anderson and others performed in all the clubs on MacDougal Street. In 1961 my first plays Hector and West of the Moon were presented off-Broadway at New Playwrights Theatre on Third and Thompson Streets by Lee Paton. From then on it was The Bed and Moon at Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street and at LaMama it was Why Tuesday Never Has a Blue Monday starring Marilyn Roberts—and I should say that all of this is documented in my book Robert Heide 25 Plays which was published by Fast Books Press and is available at many stores and on Amazon.
I will add here that all the books sold out at HOWL! and many friends and theater cohorts showed up for the gala evening to celebrate, drink wine and have fun. Among them were John Adams, a descendent of the second US President, performance artist Penny Arcade, the Reverend Moodra aka Marjorie Lipari, Jamie Warhola who wrote a book entitled Uncle Andy, theater professor and playwright Larry Myers and many others. For me the book launch was a real party which I likened to a Bar Mitzvah.
What’s next? Who knows? Tune in tomorrow.