By Robert Heide
In June 1961 my one-act play West of the Moon opened as an off-Broadway production at New Playwrights Theater, on West Third Street at Thompson. It was produced and directed by Lee Paton (later called Lee Nagrin) who had first introduced the early one-act plays of Eugene Ionesco at the Sullivan Street Theater. At New Playwrights, West of the Moon was part of a triple bill with my play Hector, a work that starred Henrietta Strom and The Blood Bugle, an anti-war play written by Harry Tierney Jr. whose father had written the musical Rio Rita which had a long run on Broadway. The young characters in my play were cast with two top Broadway actors, Paul Giovanni who played a down and out street hustler named Luck, and Joe Ponezecki who played an innocent young man named Billy. The two meet in a Village doorway during a rainstorm. When the triple bill opened, the critics from all top seven newspapers arrived in the lobby. One of them, Judith Crist from the New York Herald Tribune, even before seeing the production, aggressively cornered the producer/director and asked her “where the hell did you get the money to put on these plays?” Word had gotten out that my play featured ‘homosexual’, i.e. ‘gay’ characters, and in those days such a subject was verboten. Newspapers, like the New York Times, and the others, never even used such words in print. West of the Moon was singled out and condemned with one critic stating, “Robert Heide will never write another play again.” And another writing, “Heide should go home and break his typewriter over his hands.”
On the night of the day I read these attacks I went to the famous San Remo Tavern on Macdougal Street for a drink. There I encountered Edward Albee with his producer Richard Barr. Edward’s play The Zoo Story was running at the moment at the Provincetown Playhouse, and the play focused on a straight married man who stabs and kills a beatnik drifter in Washington Square. Barr said to me with a snicker, “Well Bob, what are you gonna do now?” I thought, “Yeah, what?” What I was thinking was that I probably never would write another play. Some time later I ran into Joe Cino, who said he had seen West of the Moon and wanted me to write another one just like it for his Caffe Cino which was on Cornelia Street. Subsequently I wrote The Bed, an existential time-warp scene wherein the two men, drinking and drugging, could not get out of their bed for weeks. Surprise! This one got a great review from The Village Voice critic Eleanor Lester who wrote about it again in The New York Times Magazine stating, “Heide brings two singularly appropriate characters literally lying in the bed of their dissolution. Two men on a bed when ‘sex is dead’ and ‘God is dead’ is what the play is about. Here is the ultimate hang-up, psychologically and metaphysically, and the playwright focuses hard on the essence of the matter. The playwright clearly establishes that what we are witnessing here is the anguish of existence.” Her review gave the play quite a jump-start, and after the run at the Cino, the director, Robert Dahdah, who also directed Bernadette Peters in her theater debut at the Cino, Dames at Sea, took the play and the actors to different engagements all over town.
Recently, re-reading the first book about the 1969 gay revolution Stonewall, by historian and activist Martin Duberman, I found a quote from the author describing West of the Moon officially as one of the very first gay themed plays ever done off Broadway. I must add that Duberman’s book highlights many stories about one of WestView News’ editors and writers, Jim Fouratt, and a young, handsome Jim in a striped shirt in a gay protest march is also pictured on the cover. A later book, entitled Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, considered definitive and most comprehensive, was written by David Carter who, in addition to being a major consultant for a TV documentary about the Stonewall, also worked closely with the National Park Service on the Obama era designation of the Stonewall Tavern, Christopher Park and the surrounding area as a National Historic Monument. Like Duberman, Carter interviewed me about the events of the Stonewall riots that played out over several days and nights in late June, 1969, setting the stage for the new gay liberation. Sadly he passed away in early May from complications of a heart attack possibly related to the coronavirus.
In these Stonewall books and other written and verbal accounts, readers will find a wealth of information from the participants of those days and nights fifty-one years ago. It was then and there I became, with my partner John Gilman, a rebel with a cause (not to cast aspersions on the great James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause). You will come across the names of Marsha P. Johnson, also known simply as ‘Black Marsha,’ a cross-dressing man who could kick and fight like a superman if needed, and his friend Sylvia Rivera (memorial statues in Greenwich Village for these two are currently in the planning stages); Rollerina waving a wand as she sailed past on roller skates in a light blue chiffon gown with a flowered straw hat; Ruth Truth, the gay Statue of Liberty, dressed in pale green, walking on large wooden platform shoes with bright flame colored hair, a face covered with glitter and holding aloft a torch; fashion editor at the New York Times Robert Bryan, who like other gay men had been in other raids in bars but this time decided to fight back and really enter the fray; Village Voice ‘Scenes’ columnist Howard Smith who was actually barricaded inside the Stonewall Tavern with the police; Jeremiah Newton, writer and producer of the Candy Darling documentary Beautiful Darling; Albert Poland who co-authored the Off Off Broadway Book with Bruce Mailman and his own just published Stages: A Theater Memoir which chronicles his career as a veteran theater manager and producer of more than 90 Broadway and off-Broadway productions; and Doric Wilson, co-founder of the gay theater company TOSOS, a Caffe Cino playwright, and a bartender at the Christopher Street tavern Boots and Saddles, who later marched in many of the annual Pride Parades held yearly since 1970 in commemoration of the Stonewall uprising.
For me this revolution was in the air starting in the early sixties with the civil rights movement in full swing, the beat poets Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Taylor Mead and the rest over at the Gaslight on MacDougal Street, and the rousing music of folk singers like Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary (We Shall Overcome), Gale Garnett (We’ll Sing in the Sunshine), Bobby Darin (A Simple Song of Freedom), Bob Dylan (…’the answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’), Roger McGuinn and The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Stones, the Beatles and so many more. One floor below me in my own building on Christopher Street I listened to my neighbor Zal Yanofsky and his girlfriend, Jackie Burroughs, with John Sebastian and the rest of the Lovin’ Spoonful singing Do You Belive in Magic? Academy nominee Sally Kirkland and Fluxus founder Dick Higgins, who both lived upstairs, as well as John and myself, all believed in the magic of the time. Andy Warhol’s no-holds-barred Pop Art lifestyle acted out all over New York and the world, in the tabloids and in movie theaters (in 1966 Andy filmed my play The Bed which premiered at the Filmmakers Cinematheque) his gigantic silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley and Campbell’s Soup cans coming to life everywhere in unimagined ways. PS—there is a big, fantastic new Warhol biography out this month by Blake Gopnik. Lots of drugs, marijuana and LSD included, added to these enhanced trips. And also, let us not forget, Judy Look for the Silver Lining Garland, the Somewhere Over the Rainbow girl who had coincidentally and tragically died June 22 in London and was brought to New York for her laying out. The body of the great singer and movie star went on display in a clear glass casket at Campbell’s Funeral Home, almost like Snow White, where long lines of gay men waited to have a last look at their idolized icon. In some strange way her death added to the gay revolution about to happen.
For now, self quarantined and in isolation, only going out for necessities in facemasks and latex gloves, we are told not to congregate and “Stay Home” is the motto—and, oh yes, it is officially—“Welcome to The New Great Depression.” The world community is stuck, and so are we—but then we all must persevere to have hope and cheer for better times to come.
The recently published volume Robert Heide 25 Plays includes The Bed and many essays and original production photographs. It’s available on Amazon.
TUNE IN: THE BED—LIVESTREAM ON SATURDAY, JUNE 20 AT 6 PM The TOSOS Theater Company production of Robert Heide’s play, The Bed, featuring Christopher Borg and Desmond Dutcher and directed by Mark Finley will be live-streamed to YouTube, launching at 6 pm Saturday, June 20. After the launch it can be uploaded on YouTube with a search of the title—THE BED.