By Robert Heide
Often now in these difficult times of COVID virus, living through a new Great worldwide Depression with over a half million American deaths and over sixteen million out of work with many staying indoors to keep safe and also trying to maintain good health and some measure of sanity, we know it is easy to fall into a real state of hyper-depression, sometimes becoming immobilized and hopeless. Ah, hah—television comes to the rescue and we watch huge audiences crowded together in close contact in great theaters watching full orchestral performances—realizing of course, these entertainments happened prior to the onset of the pandemic just about a year ago. Ah, yes, there is some relief in what went before in those better days of yore.
In these difficult times I often think about my old friends, particularly Ann Harris, her husband George, both gone many years now, and their three daughters and three sons and the wonderful dinners we frequently attended at the unusually laid out and sprawling loft-like apartment on Greenwich Street that their son George III had left them when he tragically died of AIDS in 1982. Each time the extended family assembled for one of these dinners there were always surprising and delightful ‘mystery guests’ like Ron Tavel, the author of over 40 off Broadway plays and the prolific ‘author’ of Andy Warhol’s screenplays, his producer brother Harvey or the actress Lise Beth Talbot who had starred in her husband Storey Talbot’s play Sometime Jam Today off Broadway before he left her flat and went off to become a nude guru out west. My partner John Gilman and I became, in a sense, ex-officio members of the family and we both felt honored. Afterwards everyone would withdraw from a great meal—pasta, a chicken, maybe a meatloaf or roast beef, and a big salad—to watch classic Hollywood VHS movies in the living room on the big television screen. We called these gatherings ‘Movie Nite’ and looked forward to the stimulating and entertaining evenings with glee. In the mid-1980’s our book, Starstruck—The Wonderful World of Movie Memorabilia was published by Doubleday and now, as movie ‘experts’ we were often elected to choose a film for the night. Our predilections usually ran to older movies from Hollywood’s golden age, like Double Indemnity with Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, the beautiful Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Queen Bee or Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, Bette Davis in A Stolen Life or Now Voyager, The Heiress with Olivia DeHaviland and Montgomery Clift, Desert Fury with Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott, Weekend in Havana with Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda or a personal favorite like Gold Diggers of 1933 with Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. What fun we had.
Back in 1948 George Harris II, following his Army Air Corps service, married his sweetheart Ann Marie McCanless in Bronxville where they grew up. After having four children they realized they needed more space and decided to move to Florida where they ended up with an even half dozen. They are George III aka Hibiscus, Walter Michael, Frederic Joseph, Jayne Anne, Eloise Alice, and Mary Lucile aka Mary Lou. The parents enrolled them all in the Clearwater Playhouse Junior Workshop, which provided them with very good basic acting and performance skills. They put on original productions with the theater group they founded called the El Dorado Players, that they performed in their garage (like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Strike Up the Band) and in 1963 they made a movie—The Unsinkable Titanic. George Sr. finally became restless in Florida with all the comfort, sunshine and jumping into the ocean. He headed up to New York City, scouted out a way for the family to join him and embarked on a career in the theater. Early on he established an enduring bond with off-off-Broadway theater impresario Ellen Stewart of La Mama ETC. Ellen was enchanted with the large family and helped them find an apartment on East 6th Street where they very quickly became well known as pioneers of the experimental ‘downtown’ theater. They became the go-to source for theater directors and playwrights who cast them in their experimental productions. Ann and George were dubbed the ‘Lunts of off Broadway’ by playwright Robert Patrick who also dubbed them the first family of off-off-Broadway—father George went on to Broadway itself in The Great White Hope and played important roles in dozens of films including Superman with Christopher Reeves. Ann made a notable splash at the Caffe Cino coffeehouse theater in Lanford Wilson’s poetic play This Is The Rill Speaking which had originally been produced at La Mama. She also worked as a writer, songwriter and actor in productions at Theater for the New City and at the Judson Poets Theater. In 1970 Ann appeared in the film The Honeymoon Killers which starred Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco. Also in the cast of this cult classic were Marilyn Cris and Doris Roberts. Ann gave a much-heralded performance as ‘the victim that got away.’
In 1965 my play The Bed was produced at the Caffe Cino. Robert Dahdah, the director, and I cast blonde Roy Rogers lookalike Jim Jennings, and a brunette method actor Walter McGinn in the two roles. In a final rehearsal McGinn told Dahdah that he couldn’t get out of the bed because he didn’t feel the motivation. Dahdah patiently explained that he had to get out of the bed because the author wrote in the script that the character got out of the bed. McGinn demurred and after many arguments, was summarily dismissed. Ann Harris, whom I had met and admired in several plays, somehow heard we were in trouble and suggested an attractive, boyish and talented actor she knew from Florida named Larry Burns. Burns was happy to do as the script called for—he got out of the bed. During the run Ann and George were in the audience frequently as was Andy Warhol who came to admire the actors up close (in the tight space at the Cino) and decided to film the play as his first split-screen movie and which premiered at the Film-makers Cinematheque. McGinn went on right to Broadway and then on to Hollywood where he became a movie star. Sadly his career was cut short by a fatal car crash when he drove drunk up the exit ramp of an LA freeway. Two years later when I was preparing my play Moon for presentation at the Caffe Cino I attended a performance at the Caffe of Jeff Weiss’ play A Funny Walk Home. A dynamic performer, Jeff cast himself in his own play as a severely disturbed man just let out of a mental institution. Returning home to his family he proceeds to act out attacking his father, raping his mother, and also raping his younger brother who was played by the handsome very young blonde George Harris III.
It seemed the Harris family of performers was ubiquitous. Jayne Anne appeared at the Judson Church in Al Carmines Sing Ho For a Bear, a musical interpretation of Winnie the Pooh that also featured a young blonde actor named John Gilman who played the role of Tigger. Walter Michael Harris became the youngest actor in the original cast of the Broadway phenomenon—the Tom O’Horgan directed production of Ragni and Rado’s rock musical Hair. The three sisters, Mary Lou, Eloise and Jayne Anne joined up as a singing cabaret trio, often as an homage to the Andrews Sisters, and also as The Screaming Violets (with their brother Hibiscus) performing all over the city, including the Rainbow Room. It was George III, who relocated to San Francisco, dropped LSD and changed his name to Hibiscus. He created a mind blowing very far out all singing, all dancing group called the Cockettes—they did midnight ‘frolics’ at the Palace Theater in North Beach where, outrageously costumed, they sang and danced to the music of the 1920s and 1930s in complete gender-bending abandon.
At one point John and I suggested to Ann, who had by then moved upstate to George Sr.’s ancestral home in Margaretville, that she might enjoy a visit to the Jersey shore at a little hotel we stayed in, The Amherst, located in a small Victorian Methodist camp town called Ocean Grove right on the ocean just south of Asbury Park. Before we knew it Ann showed up not only for Memorial Day weekend, but also for the Labor Day holidays, with a full complement of family—it was always her ‘treat.’ We joined them all the time, meeting up on the beach for ocean ‘frolics.’ The wonderful times at the Jersey shore became an honored Harris family tradition that was repeated twice a year, every year until she passed away. We will never forget all the great times we had with the fantastic, legendary theatrical Harris family.
Several members of the Harris family have put together a great picture book about their fascinating family history called Caravan to Oz—caravantooz.com. The Harris sisters also wrote an illustrated book Flower Power Man all about their brother George III who became internationally known as Hibiscus with his troupe of Cockettes—FlowerPowerMan.com. Robert Heide’s latest publication is Robert Heide 25 Plays, which is available on Amazon.