John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous

I attended an amazing edition of LaMama’s Coffeehouse Chronicles yesterday, devoted to the memory of John Vaccaro, founder of the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, who passed away last August. For someone whose cultural reach was so great (and who looms so large in my own imagination), Vaccaro’s footprint in the internet age is shockingly small. He doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia entry. I won’t bother asking why, I’ll just try to contribute to redressing the omission. After all, the public at large is ignorant of art anyway…let alone theatre…let alone non-commercial theare…let alone the Absurd…let alone the Ridiculous…let alone the schism within the Ridiculous. But that stuff all matters a great deal to me. Just as with old time vaudeville, I get vexed, intrigued, tantalized, obsessed by LEGENDS. You HEAR about something, you get piecemeal testimony, but the whole story ain’t there. Worse, it’s in the past. You’ll never get the full story. You’ll never live it. And it sounds like it was so amazing. It’s maddening.

So where? How? Well, you end up working backwards a lot of the time. In my formative years and beyond, I’d collect and read lots of old paperbacks about underground film and theatre in the sixties. Sometimes books of published plays, or reviews, or other sorts of accounts. Plays by people like Ronald Tavel, Taylor Mead, Ron Rice, Frank O’Hara, etc etc. You’d hear accounts by people like John Waters and his Dreamlanders. You certainly learn a bit from the much better documented splinter movement led by Charles Ludlam. I watched a great documentary about The Cockettes, a San Francisco group who claimed to be influenced by Vaccaro.

But now, for your sake, let’s work chronologically. As with so much that happened in the late 20th century, it all starts with Warhol. Warhol wasn’t just a painter, but a catalyst, almost a cult leader, with a large community of people around him: a the gaggle of artists, performers, models, and hangers-on called The Factory. In 1963 Warhol began to branch out into films. Ronald Tavel wrote some of them. In 1965, Tavel had a screenplay called Shower that had been rejected by Warhol’s then-reigning star Edie Sedgwick. He decided that it and some of his other writings might work onstage as plays. So he approached Vaccaro, a friend of a friend, who’d performed his own poetry in beatnik coffeehouses, and who’d acted in some Jack Smith films, and in some productions of the New York Poets Theatre. At the time, Vaccaro had never directed and was no longer even acting; he was simply working in a bookstore. But after he read the script, he agreed to do it.

There seems to be disagreement (both in the written record and in direct testimony) whether it was Vaccaro, Tavel or Jack Smith (who initially was in charge of costumes for the first production) who named the movement “Ridiculous”. Vaccaro’s group “The Playhouse of the Ridiculous” was the original one. In 1967, company member Charles Ludlam had a blow-out with Vaccaro and went off to found his own “Ridiculous Theatrical Company” which was to become better known in time, essentially co-opting the name and the movement. But there were clear differences between the two splinter groups. While both were largely connected to queer culture and drag, Ludlam’s version (centered almost entirely on his own original plays) privileged camp, comedy, and classical formalism. The archetypal Ludlam work was his version of Camille. The Vaccaro version was much more anarchistic and grotesque, much more avant-garde in the ’60s senseLudlam was a trained professional, as were many or most of his company members. Vaccaro took in street urchins, runaways, hustlers and drug addicts and then browbeat them into giving them performances he wanted.

Vaccaro rehearsed his plays in his Great Jones Street loft. He first presented his productions in art galleries, only later transferring to actual theatres. People from the Warhol constellation like Mario Montez, Ondine, and Jackie Curtis were in the productions, as were people who went off with Ludlam, like Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan and John Brockmeyer. And it was with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous where the teenager who became Penny Arcade got her start in 1967.

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Full house! (photo by Travis Chamberlain)

Penny organized yesterday’s tribute, and an amazing experience it was, packed to the rafters with old hippies, queers and freaks, and a few rubberneckers like me who came hoping some of their magic would rub off on us. Among the most memorable takeaways for me was old videotape of actual productions — so mind-blowing, documentary footage of sixties rock and roll and dance and performance in its natural habitat. I couldn’t help thinking, “This is as close as I’m ever gonna get.” Penny was a wonderful moderator, sharing her own memories as well as Vaccaro’s biographical history (he grew up in his parents’ grocery store in Steubenville, Ohio, was obsessed with sports, didn’t discover art until college, served in the navy, and spent two years in a mental asylum). Penny never shies away from anything difficult, and so a recurring theme of the afternoon’s program was Vacarro’s reportedly difficult and cruel personality as a director. The main theme of the afternoon was respect and love for his legacy, while acknowledging that he could also be an S.O.B.

Vintage Ruby

Other presenters included Ruby (Ruby Lynn Reyner) who appeared in 40 Vaccaro productions and is the subject, with Robert Feinberg of the 2008 HBO documentary Finishing Heaven), Lola Pashalinsky who spoke about the “Great Upheaval” which occurred during the productions of Conquest of the Universe a.k.a When Queens Collide; Crystal Field of Theater for the New City (via pre-recorded video); playwright Ken Bernard, whose plays for the company included The Moke Eater, The Magic Show Dr. Mag-ico, The 60 Minute Queer Show and Fin du CirqueChris Rael of Church of Betty; and LaMama’s own Nicky Paraiso. 

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Panel (L-R): Penny Arcade, Ruby, Don Arrington, Agosto Machade. Photo by Travis Chamberlain

Sadly missing from the line-up was playwright and teacher Bill Hoffman, who’d passed away himself just a couple of weeks ago and was scheduled to participate. (I’d seen and reviewed Theatre Askew’s production of Hoffman’s Cornbury a few years ago, and seen Hoffman himself in conversation with critic Randy Gener at a live taping of a tv show up at Lehman College). NY Times obit on Hoffman is here.

Another amazing artifact was a later clip (showing the plain curatorial hand of Penny Arcade) from a few years ago in which Vaccaro was interviewed by theatre historian/ film-maker Joe E. Jeffreys about the fact that the historic building containing his loft was going to be razed to make room for a high-rise. The building had previously been home to theatres called the Alhambra and the Majestic, not to mention all those historic rehearsals for Vaccaro’s productions. Vaccaro appeared oddly unsentimental about the destruction, merely glad that the developers were giving him a sweet deal on rent in the ugly new building.

Will the past be buried? Paved over? Plowed under? Not while I have something to say! I walked away from the program re-energized, re-committed, inspired. It ain’t over yet! If you missed it, here’s the NY Times obit on Vaccaro. Let’s spread the fame of this work a little farther.

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6 comments

  1. Ron Tavel directing his own play, My Foetus Lived On Amboy Street, for Crystal Field at Theater for the New City, cast me because I was pissed off. I’d signed up for an audition on lunch hour of my subsistence job and arrived to find, two hours into the auditions, that they were already running an hour late. So when I finally got in the room with Tavel and he said he wanted me to say the lines slowly, I gave him SLOW. I probably took 5 minutes to read 3 lines of text. He loved my reading, and maybe my barely veiled anger, and cast me.

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  2. Such a lovely, informative article evoking memories of when I was young and kinky. It made me regret not getting off my aged butt and taking the train up to NYC.
    Thank you so much for the vivid description.

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  3. Thank you for this account of the celebration I don’t know what John would think of all this attention but I have a feeling that wherever he is he was laughing his maniacal laugh at all of us and chatting with Wanda about how “Ridiculous” we all were. John Barilla

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