By Robert Heide
Michael Smith, who for many years wrote a column for the Village Voice called Theatre Journal and was chief drama critic at that now shuttered newspaper, has written a detailed account of his life as a man of many guises, editor, writer, playwright, poet, director, mayoral aide, musician, and publisher of Fast Books Press which published his 520 page memoir entitled Michael Townsend Smith—Me and Others—An American Life wherein are found adventures coupled with direct, sometimes piercing, insights into what might be called the Naked Truth. I found it a great read and recommend it highly.
The first chapter ‘Holy Memories’ (1935-1956) covers his life from birth in Kansas City, Missouri, through the War, remembering FDR and the Pearl Harbor attack. His parents, Lewis and Dorothy, a well-heeled and glamorous couple reminded young Michael of 1940s movie idols Betty Grable and Tyrone Power. Lewis owned a chain of department stores, and after opening one in Santa Barbara, the family moved into a big house with a pool Michael liked to jump into stark naked. He attended Pembroke Country Day School and Hotchkis in Connecticut, both private boys’ schools. After three years at Yale, where both his grandfathers had gone, he dropped out bored with his studies, and in search of his true identity went to the Austen Riggs Center, a Freudian Sanatoriom in Massachusetts. There he decided to become a theater director.
Section two, which he calls ‘When I Was Gay’, spans 1956-1974. To become a director he was advised to study acting, and in the fifties enrolled in Stella Adler’s two-year course in New York City, which included instruction in dance, singing and speech. Adler had emerged from the Group Theatre, studied with Stanislavski in Russia, also bringing her family’s Yiddish Theater origins to her teaching. I myself was in Stella’s fascinating classes. There, I first met Michael, and we became lifelong friends. Our classmates included movie actress Rita Gam, actor Warren Beatty and director Peter Bogdanovitch. Somehow, suddenly, Michael quit to the disappointment of his father who withdrew financial support. Michael continued dance classes for several years in New York with his uncle Alfred Munt and aunt Maxine, who later opened a theater called The Changing Scene in Denver. At one point they commissioned me to write a new play entitled Split Level and produced it on a double bill with my play Moon following its successful run at Caffe Cino. In New York, Michael met agent-photographer Helen Merrill who introduced him to Tony Perkins. The two became friends. Michael first developed a stage door crush on the famous star after seeing Tea and Sympathy on Broadway where Perkins played a troubled gay man.
Later through Merrill, Michael began proofreading and copywriting for Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf and Norman Mailer at the Village Voice where he wrote ‘Hub Caps’, a column about cars. Jerry Tallmer, chief critic at the Voice, invented the term off-off Broadway and founded the ‘Obie’ Awards. Michael met and worked with Judith Malina and Julian Beck at their Living Theatre on 14th Street and 6th Avenue, where the jazz play The Connection was a big hit and drugs were everywhere—marijuana, cocaine, crystal meth, dexadrine and heroin, the last being the play’s subject. In 1962 when Jerry Tallmer left the Voice for the New York Post (for more money), Michael graduated to full-time chief theater critic, writing his influential Theater Journal column, and taking over the Obie Awards. Then Michael had found a home base at the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street where he wrote his play I Like It and directed and lit many shows there and at LaMama, Theater Genesis, the Living Theater and the Open Theater with Joe Chaikin and Jean Claude Van Italie.
I myself was running between Andy Warhol’s Factory where drugs were plentiful—Andy put me in his movie Batman/Dracula, and Camp with Jack Smith—and to Caffe Cino where Andy also came to see my play The Bed which he filmed and premiered on a split-screen at the Filmmakers Cinemateque. The longest running show at Cino was 1930s style musical Dames at Sea, based on the Busby Berkley movies, and directed by Robert Dahdah with Bernadette Peters in her first stage performance. The Cino had many hit plays like This Is The Rill Speaking and The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson, Robert Patrick’s The Haunted Host, Tom Eyen’s The White Whore and the Bit Player with Mari Claire Charba and Helen Hanft, and plays by many others. Joe Cino was a love-God, almost an Italian Saint, nurturing his playwrights and Cino regulars called ‘Cinoites’ like resident artist Kenny Burgess, chief lighting man Johnny Dodd and costumer Magi Dominic who told me that when a regular show was cancelled they went to Lamston’s Five and Dime on 6th Avenue, bought a comic book like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and used it as a script. Magi starred as Snow White, and one night I got to enact the part of Grumpy. Before each show, Joe played his favorite music over the sound system, including God Bless America and When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain sung by Kate Smith. Michael fell in love with Johnny Dodd, living with him for over seven years in an apartment at 5 Cornelia Street. Later in 1967, Michael discovered Joe Cino in his Caffe high on drugs in a bloodbath stabbing himself multiple times with a kitchen knife despondent over the death of his lover John Torrey, who had electrocuted himself one year before. Smith and his friend, harpsichord musician Wolfgang Zuckerman, took over the theater, but received too many police summonses for operating a cabaret without a license, and financially couldn’t sustain it. Diana Di Prima’s Monuments was the last play there in 1968.
Michael included my play Moon in an anthology he edited entitled The Best of Off Off Broadway. He then switched from gay to straight and met a woman in Denver named Michelle with whom he fathered two boys. Michelle, alas, ran off to Paris with another woman. Later, he lived at Westbeth while serving as an aide to Mayor Koch. Twenty five years ago, Michael reunited with Carol Storke in California, having originally met in their college days, he at Yale, she at Smith. After living together for several years in Santa Barbara they moved to Silverton Oregon, where he writes, publishes, and edits in a refurbished chicken coop, and she, an equestrienne, cares for and rides her horses. They have found true love and deep respect for each other.
Me and Others author Michael Smith, editor and publisher of Fast Books (P.O. Box 1268, Silverton, OR 97381) fastbookspress.com published last year Robert Heide 25 Plays which is on sale at the Whitney Museum bookstore on Gansevoort Street, the Drama Book Shop, Three Lives and on Amazon.