By Robert Heide
I was in a state of shock when I picked up the New York Times to read that James Rado whom I always regarded over the years as a good friend and cohort in the theatre had passed away at age 90. The day of his death, June 21, 2022 was also the longest day of the year. I often saw Jimmy in the good old days in Hoboken where he lived. Many incidents and memories of late come flashing into my mind such as watching a performance of Hair in Central Park, sitting with him as he furiously scribbled notes on a yellow pad and afterwards joining a colleague, Larry Myers and going up on stage for the ‘be-in’, audience and cast dancing together, shouting and singing. We, my partner John Gilman and I, sat together again with Jimmy and his long time friend Andy Coughlin at another production of Hair, this one in the East Village, with a cast of ‘old-timers’ that included the three sisters Jayne Anne, Eloise and Mary Lou, of the storied Harris family theatre tribe—one of their brothers was Hibiscus, the founder of The Cockettes and another, Michael Walter, was in the original cast of Hair on Broadway.
One pre-pandemic Hallowe’en found us having supper with Jimmy at the Waverly Restaurant on 6th Avenue, where two of our WestView News colleagues turned up, the stunning Dusty Berke in a white, lacy Miss Havisham ‘wedding’ gown covered with fake black widow spiders and the AIDS fighter Kambiz Shekdar PhD. There were many significant events that brought us together in recent years including two at La Mama ETC, one in 2017 celebrating the Hair director Tom O’Horgan’s life (where we had supper afterwards at the Bowery Bar with Jimmy and his family and other friends Albert Poland and Jacque Lynn Colton) and one in 2018 celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hair which included, among many others, the Broadway legend Andre de Shields who left the Broadway cast of Hadestown this past May. Once, when we were invited to a party for a huge coffee table book about hair and hairstyles, entitled Hair we told Jimmy about it and he came over from Jersey City where he was then living, and met us at Marc Jacobs Bookstore on Bleecker Street—everybody was astonished that the original Hair guy was actually there, sipping champagne and having a great time. A particularly poignant meeting with Jimmy, my last with him, was in the fall of 2021. We met for coffee and croissants at Chez Claude on West 4th Street where he told me he was worried about his friend Andy who had gotten into trouble at the annual Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally where there were over half a million motorcyclists in attendance. As it turned out, Andy contracted COVID there and actually predeceased Jimmy by several months.
The incredible story of Hair—The American Tribal Love Rock Musical—began when two actor friends, Gerome Ragni and James Rado who had worked for years on the story and lyrics, joined forces with composer Galt MacDermot. The three of them proposed the musical to Joseph Papp, as the premier presentation of the new Public Theatre on Astor Place where it opened October 17, 1967. After an eight week run there a producer named Michael Butler opened the musical at a nightclub on West 53rd Street for a limited run. Ragni and Rado did extensive rewrites and with the addition of the La Mama Acting Troupe director Tom O’Horgan, the musical opened on April 29, 1968 at the Biltmore Theatre. With an almost completely unknown cast (two of my friends were in it, Michael Walter Harris, and Marjorie Lipari—whose brother Victor had been in my play Moon at the Caffe Cino) the show received raves led by New York Times critic Clive Barnes who declared it “brilliant, fresh, sweet, new, subtle,” and “sheer fun.” Some other critics, in the minority, expressed shock, horror and indignation. It ran for 1,750 performances and concurrently ‘standing’ shows opened all over the country, and eventually, the world. Marge Lipari told me that “it has been seen by billions” and that “it has affected the lives of millions.” 1968 was, not insignificantly, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. After being shot by Valerie Solanas even Andy Warhol died that spring, but was fortunately revived on the operating table. Riots, looting, and burning occurred in over one hundred cities. There were anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. The Beatles psychedelic movie Yellow Submarine opened and young people were seeking self-discovery with gurus in India, and with mind-altering drugs of every description like marijuana, mescaline, hashish, LSD, uppers, downers, methamphetamine, and more. “Where’s Harry” was the question I heard often from Jimmy or Jerry looking for dramatist H. M. Koutoukas who lived across Christopher Street from me—he was their sometime inspiration and, as well, their main drug connection.
Hair was about pharmacological experimentation as well as sexual liberation, opposition to the Vietnam War, racial integration, and just plain joy at being alive. The anti-hero Claude was played by Jimmy who ended up burning his draft card—Jerry played Berger, his best friend, a high school dropout—Jimmy later said about his relationship with Jerry “We put the drama between us onstage” and has also been quoted as saying he was “omnisexual.” The other characters of the ‘tribe’ which was obviously antiestablishment, and definitely pro-love, pro-drugs, and pro-sex were played by many including Diane Keaton, Robert I Rubinsky, Lynn Kellogg, Jonathan Kramer, Melba Moore, Shelly Plimpton, the aforementioned Marjorie Lipari and Michael Walter Harris, the later the youngest cast member who dropped out after a year to join his brother Hibiscus to celebrate the real ‘flower power’ hippie revolution going on in San Francisco. In the show the actors attended be-ins, scared tourists, protested at draft induction centers, smoked pot, mingled with the audience and took off all their clothes for a bit. And they sang the songs that told the story and among them is Hair, recorded by the Cowsills, which became the biggest single of their careers, the rock hymn Aquarius which with the show’s finale The Flesh Failures—Let the Sun Shine In, were both huge hits for the Fifth Dimension, Good Morning Sunshine recorded by Oliver, Easy to be Hard, a hit for Three Dog Night, Ain’t Got No and I Got Life, a medley performed by Nina Simone, Hashish, Sodomy, Air (about air pollution), Frank Mills, Colored Spade—Dedicated to: Aunt Jemima, Stepin’ Fetchit, and Amos n’ Andy, and What a Piece of Work is Man? with lyrics from Shakespeare!!
Men landed on the moon a year later in 1969, the Village hosted the birth of gay pride at Stonewall, music and social interaction blended astoundingly at Woodstock. Through the years I attended the famed parties and salons held at Tom O’Horgan’s (“the Busby Berkeley of the Acid set”) loft at 840 Broadway at 13th Street where I met people from the show who remained one big tribal family, and Norman Mailer, Beverly Sills, and Susan Strasberg among many others.
During the turbulent years of 1967, ‘68, ‘69 and ’70 I continued working off off Broadway at the Caffe Cino, La Mama, Theater for the New City and other venues with John Gilman and Linda Eskenas on my plays Moon and At War With the Mongols, both of which were performed, at one point, on a double bill at the Cherry Lane Theatre. My plays, Robert Heide 25 Plays are published by and can be ordered from Fast Books in Silverton, Oregon fastbookspress.com and at Amazon.