By Robert Heide
The lyric from the song Christopher Street from the Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Greene Broadway musical Wonderful Town goes:
“Here we live
Here we love.
This is the place for self expression.
Life is Keen.
Life is great.
Interesting people are living on Christopher Street.”
In this article I decided to write about two people who both lived in apartments at 87 Christopher Street across the street from where I still live. One is the stage and film actress Lisa Jane Persky who grew up on the street and later as an adult moved to Hollywood. The other, who is no longer with us, H. M. Koutoukas, called just Harry to many, was known in the Village as a top adsurdist off-off Broadway playwright, as a renowned, radical raconteur, and a genuine and original Village character.
In my early days in the Village I liked to hang out at Lenny’s Hideaway, a cellar dive gay bar on Tenth Street that was—unlike in these times—open till four in the morning. This was also true of two other popular gay bars on 8th Street between 6th Avenue and MacDougal Street, one called Mary’s and the other being the Old Colony. A middle aged gray-haired man named Lenny ran the tiny place at 183 West 10th Street (now Smalls) which had a full bar, tables and chairs, and an open space for cruising, standing, and co-mingling. The main lighting came from a very bright giant rainbow Wurlitzer jukebox against one wall which also provided fantastic show tunes sung by Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Clark, Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett. Nightly habitual regulars included a young and handsome Edward Albee, always with his longtime lover William Flanagan at his side. Flanagan was a classical music composer and music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. They both drank bottled beer and stared into space, occasionally joking, laughing and giggling. Lenny’s was my favorite bar in the Village where I met and got cozy with many living legends like composer Ned Rorem, Jerry Herman of Hello Dolly fame as well as Village characters like Ian Orlando Macbeth, who dressed in period Renaissance costumes, always getting super-drunk on a concoction called ‘Clinkers’, a potent mixture of Apricot liqueur and Brandy. Ian was related to Cecil Beaton and tried to maintain an upper-crust attitude but sometimes threw a drink in the face of some young man he was attracted to but who had ignored his sentimental, tear-driven advances. I met Harry Koutoukas there, always dressed in black with his black hair worn in an upswept ‘D.A.’ which he said stood for ‘Duck’s Ass.’ He was a wit and a laugh riot and he and I became fast friends. We often hung out on MacDougal Street at the Gaslight Café, wore black outfits and at one point we were both reading and carrying around with us our copies of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
- M. Koutoukas told me the H. M. stood for His Majesty and that he was a dramatist, not a playwright. His plays include Awful People Are Coming So We Must Pretend to be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away—a title provided to Harry by Yoko Ono, who was at one time a resident of the same building at 87 Christopher, Only A Countess May Dance When She’s Crazy—a line from which reads “I believe that there’s nothing but sweet joy and gentle bliss in the singing of a seashell,” With Creatures Make My Way, Tidy Passions, Christopher at Sheridan Squared which starred Harvey Fierstein, Medea In The Laundromat or Kill Kaleidoscope, Kill starring Linda Eskenas, When Clowns Play Hamlet, stage debut of actor and playwright Jeff Weiss and many, many more. Harry and I both put on our plays at the legendary Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street and other places like La Mama and Theater for the New City in the East Village. The style and far-out subject matter of his ‘chamber plays’ as he called them, as well as their sheer numbers earned him the sobriquet ‘the quintessential Cino playwright.’ In 1972 he wrote Suicide Notations (A Play for Fire Escapes) starring himself, Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, Albert M. Fine, Mary Boylan, Ron Tavel and a young, very attractive girl he introduced to me as “my neighbor” Lisa Jane Persky. This was her theatrical debut and this play was enacted in a very different venue—on fire escapes on Christopher Street. Though I actually missed seeing the play it was videotaped by lighting wizard Rudy—‘Let There Be Neon’—Stern. In 1973 Harry wrote the part of “the world’s most perfect teenager” in his play Grandmother Is In the Strawberry Patch for Lisa Jane, which was produced at La Mama. A particular scene has two ladies covering a wooden bureau with contact paper and one exclaims to the other, “It’s almost like real formica!”
Lisa Jane came to Christopher Street as a young girl of eleven from Atlanta where she was born in 1955. She attended elementary school at PS 41 and later went to the Art and Design High School. Her parents divorced and were both remarried. Her father’s second spouse was novelist Judith Rossner the author of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Her mother married a classical violinist named Vladimir Weisman. Both with her parents, and without, she lived at 87 Christopher until she was 21 when she went off to Hollywood. Also, while still here she photographed and wrote about the punk rock scene for the New York Rocker. Working with director Ron Link she appeared with Pink Flamingos star Divine in Tom Eyen’s oft produced camp parody of women’s prison movies, Women Behind Bars. In 1979 she made her film debut as Robert Duvall’s daughter in The Great Santini. Other films include When Harry Met Sally, The Cotton Club (with Richard Gere), Peggy Sue Got Married, The Big Easy and cult classic Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park and she has been featured in recurring roles in countless TV series including Twilight Zone, NYPD Blue, X Files, and Golden Girls. She appeared in the 2013 I Am Divine documentary as well and continues to live in LA with her husband Andy Zax, who is a well known former co-star of the game show Beat the Geeks. When I talk to Lisa on the phone and we get around to Harry Koutoukas, who died in 2010, we both start singing
“I’m just wild about Harry
And Harry’s wild about me.”
A bronze plaque honoring Harry Koutoukas is attached to the guardrail of a tree in front of 87 Christopher Street, where he lived for 50 years. It was sponsored by his friend Rhoda Fairman, who lives on Grove Street.
You can read both H. M. Koutoukas —A Remembrance by Lisa Jane Persky and an interview with Harry and myself originally published in the New York Native in 1990 and re-published in a book edited by Michael Smith and Magie Dominic entitled H.M.K. 1937—2010 Remembered by His Friends—available at Fast Books Press. Another ‘smart’ account on this period is The Downtown Pop Underground by Kembrow McLeod with whom Lisa Jane worked and which was published in 2018 by Abrams—Lisa Jane and Kembrow together spoke and did a reading of the book at the Jefferson Market Library.
Fast Book Press also published Robert Heide 25 Plays, which is on Amazon.