In the hiatus between semesters during my years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, I often decamped to New York City, ostensibly to find a job during the break, but really an inducement to be somewhere—anywhere—else. One hot summer day while plodding along the sidewalk of MacDougal Street south of Bleecker, I noticed the open door of a small theater from which sounds of voices and piano could be heard. The posters on the theater indicated The Fantastiks, in its 3rd or 4th season. Never having heard of it before, I boldly stepped inside, took a seat, and watched the entire run-through. It didn’t matter—no one noticed me. At Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street, Lotte Lenya was doing Brecht on Brecht. In Washington Square strolling Neapolitan singers cadged for coins, young guitarists plugged their licks, students rushed to and fro between classes at NYU. Old men played chess, unfazed by the fairies, dopers, hop heads, even the religious zealots in saffron robes. All this variety gave form to the concept of the melting pot I’d heard tell of but hadn’t experienced in the circumscribed culture back home, where the races never strayed beyond fixed territories like drooling Rottweilers behind their fences. Here the explosive mix complemented the frenetic dazzle of it all.
But I was still outside, invisible, earthbound. I had no wings. This utopia was protected by an invisible shield. I could see in while still being out. I lacked the key to the kingdom. Then one pink and pearly evening while listening to a recital of chamber music in the Square—Brahms I think—a man standing beside me actually spoke to me. Suddenly it was as though I had stepped within enchanted precincts, manifesting in the flesh. It was Tom O’Horgan and it turned out he was the key. Tom had an eye for good-looking boys on the make, which to a certain extent describes me back then. The make I was on was perhaps not the usual one, but whatever it was he and I hit it off immediately. Tom was eighteen years my senior, outgoing, good-natured. He had pasty white skin, cool and clammy to the touch, a head of straggly black hair, a pug nose, and slightly thyroidal eyes—no beauty, god knows, but pleasant to behold in the round. He looked rather like a reverse image of his little black Boston terrier, except for the false eyelashes with which he adorned her. He was engaging, clever, sexy, and most importantly, my conception of a creative genius. I wanted to be around artists of daring and enterprise, rather than the adherents of artistic generalities that I was knew back at the Academy. His background was in classical music, which he played and composed, though his early career was bolstered by appearances on TV shows like Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts where he accompanied himself playing a harp, and doing schtick. He played and sang the songs of Richard Strauss for me. His loft on West Third Street was replete with instruments, including—besides harp and baby grand—lutes, guitars, cowbells, xylophone, glockenspiel, and serpent—a huge valveless proto tuba, its shape proclaiming its name.
The Discophile on West 8th street was the definitive classical music store. Among the sales clerks was Jeffrey, slight, fey, and white as a white rabbit—an apter by-word for erudition and taste would be hard to find. His touchstone of perfection was Schubert’s Die Winterreise. Those who did not succumb to his standards with requisite fire and relish were cast into the aesthetic outer darkness. Worse still, the rash lad fancied himself a singer, tackling the dangerous vocal style of the countertenor or boy soprano. This curious musical voice can either be the sound of angels or the shrill ranting of a cat in heat, as it traverses the alto register of the female voice. Even to sing in falsetto, once the appropriate means for tenors to reach their highest notes, was in modern times considered suspect and ridiculous.
I was neither musician, nor singer, but Tom saw no reason why I shouldn’t be a boy soprano too. I had a naturally high tenor voice, and a decent sense of musical phrasing; but not the ability to sustain volume or reach high notes. My falsetto tended to go sour and flat. Tom said with minimal training I’d be as good as the white rabbit in no time. I was wary of his plan to turn me neuter, but being young and in love I reluctantly agreed to try it. And so we began the lessons. Meanwhile Tom got busy, deviously preparing a public competition to be played before a paying audience. Without my knowledge he had flyers printed, which I saw posted at the Discophile under the title “Battle of the Voci Bianchi.” At last I grasped that he was preparing a theater piece to be played as farce. But who was the butt of this joke? If it was pure meanness toward the white rabbit, what was it toward me? No doubt the real goal of this tomfoolery was to promote Tom’s career. His own tough hide made it hard for him to sympathize with those less resilient. But I had enough sense to realize he was behaving like an emotional bully, and that I was letting him do it. So I took the risk of alienating his affections by opting out of the game. In the end Tom was too good-natured to hold a grudge. I suppose he chalked it up to just lack of balls.
While Tom’s career was in transition, theatrical land mines were exploding all around. I saw a performance in which a totally naked woman—Miss Charlotte Moorman—was slowly lowered by some stage apparatus into a Plexiglas tank of water while she played the cello. This piece was conceived by Nam June Paik at the beginning of his career. It was all wonderfully absurd, making a lasting if utterly ambiguous impression.
In 1964 Tom O’Horgan put on a show of his own. I don’t remember much about it or what it was called beyond Happening, which is to say a compilation of blackouts, dance, and music hardly different from a traditional revue or pastiche, but with a somewhat improvised and existential edge. In one of the numbers Tiny Tim performed his break-though cover of “Tiptoe through the tulips” from out among the audience. He strummed his ukelele and warbled the notes in his trademark rachitic falsetto. Meanwhile on a darkened stage, two bare-assed boys cavorted about like randy fauns, as an ever-shifting pattern of projected floral images slithered over their privy parts. One of these boys was Jack McKinley, the other one was me. Jack was the lover of Harvey Milk, destined later to be famous, heroic, even iconic in the Gay Liberation movement after being assassinated in San Francisco by a crazed fellow City Councilman. But in 1964 Harvey and Tom were best of friends, and as “elderly” members of a liberated brotherhood, it amused them both to push us two boys together just so, realizing without a doubt that neither of us could resist the temptation to experiment (or say fiddle around) off stage as well as on. I didn’t comprehend the obvious implication that this was Tom’s sly way of easing me out the door.
Tom’s “happening” was staged at the Judson Arts Poets Theater, a venue of Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of Washington Square. This church was established as a bridge between the upper classes and the immigrant poor in the last decades of the 19th century, and was famed for the elegant quatrocento facade designed by Stanford White. In the late 1950s Judson became a principal venue of the avant-garde—dance, theater, music—none of them remotely religious. But the Judson’s archives for 1964 include a series of legal briefs concerning nudity on stage, that I assume to be directly connected to Tom’s show. Neither Jack McKinley nor I had a clue as to the legality of appearing nude in public. Tom assured us that under the barrage of images it could hardly be called nudity, since no one would even know if we were actually wearing skin colored tights. But in that case why didn’t we?
“You’ll be wearing lights and flowers—that’s more than enough,” Tom said as if to resolve the matter.
It seems the essential point of this event, if it had a point, was the iconoclasm of breaking the law by appearing naked in a public theater. Which point was driven home for me only in 1969 when the show Oh Calcutta was closed down by the police for obscenity, the offending moment being a display of full frontal male nudity. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, we didn’t need lines—we had asses. Of course we were asses for doing it at all. But we were young and game, and easily manipulated.
One afternoon Tom O’Horgan brought me along on a visit to Anaïs Nin at her apartment. I have no idea why he thought to include me in the visit, unless to show me off as his latest protégé. No doubt the lady could appreciate the company of flaming youth. Ms. Nin graciously welcomed us to her home. Then in her early 60s, she was quite handsome, with a clipped elegance, her hair close-cropped, more blonde then gray, and arched eyebrows, reminding me equally of Marlene Dietrich and Emma Ventrola. In fact she seemed more maternal than otherwise, which belied her pose as a sexual athlete. Nor was her reputation as a lesbian well-founded, for she was married simultaneously to two men who for decades were ignorant of the arrangement or even of each other’s existence. With Tom’s burgeoning theatrical reputation increasing by the day, a theatrical presentation of one of the literary lady’s erotic novels was now in the offing, and Tom was scheduled to direct. This production never materialized due either to difficulties made by the producers or by Ms. Nin’s own demands. I suppose she and Tom didn’t see eye to eye on how to effect a stage portrayal of her ultra-violet literary prose. Intellectual rebels may be personally prim when extending their own peculiar v-points outward to the public arena where sexual politics is fought. Tom’s anarchic psychosexual mayhem was anything but a rhetorical manifesto-driven pose. At that time, if I understood it, he wanted to effect a theater that was externally experiential and improvisational. He courted happenstance, unintended error, devil-may-care. The result of this was sometimes a chaotic hodgepodge. But that could also be said of the Marx Brothers at their best.
Something rather amazing was happening in Greenwich Village at the time, and I happened to be in the midst of it, an outsider, not fully apprehending it, but thrilled to play a part. Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club was established in a loft space on 2nd Avenue just south of St Marks Place. This was before her more permanent venue was established down on Second Street. The young Sam Shepherd, Paul Foster, Tom Ewen, Jan Van Italie, as well as Tom O’Horgan were all working there under her auspices. Ellen encouraged Tom to direct more formal theater, provided the means for him to develop his unique brand of mayhem as a formal show of vivid stage tableaux and cutting verbal assaults. Before long he went on to direct such memorable stage shows as Futz, Lenny, Tom Paine off-Broadway, and Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway.
I too found myself being recruited into this brave new world. Without any background in stage design, or knowledge of materials or media, and neither professional assistance, additional help, nor a supply of cold cash to make things work, I found myself creating sets and props at La Mama ETC. All that was expected of me (as well as the others involved in these productions) was whatever one could to deliver in a day or two of slapdash activity. As such the results could hardly disappoint. The only show that I actually recall doing was called The Circus by Gerald Schoenwolf, for which I constructed (at Tom’s suggestion) two enormous articulated mannequins, so designed to mimic the action of playing fife and drum. My puppets were clumsily cobbled together at urgent speed—actually in one afternoon—of found objects only roughly suitable for the purpose. Oddly the results were highly effective as stage props, and I received a share of praise for the success of this minor production. But I couldn’t bear to look at them without recognizing my lack of skill and control of the medium. Before this I hardly understood that staging and decor were an integral part of theatrical affect. Nevertheless the remarkable and sly Ellen Stewart thought highly enough of these mannequins to display them for several years at her theater on Second Avenue.
During my brief but dazzling afternoon in the avant-garde sun, I got to gad about with the likes of Harry Katoukas, Joe Cino, Al Carmines, Shirley Stoller, Bill Vare, Charles Ludlum, Robert Downey, Sr, even Robert Downey, Jr, whom I bounced on my knee during one film shoot. Of course he was only a year old at the time. Ira Siff, before his quiet and introspective personality morphed into the outsize, glitzy diva Vera Galupe-Borskh, was a close friend and confidante. We smoked dope and got high on Callas. The smugglers chorus from Carmen which is quite a ride under the influence. But the reason I found myself amid that group of rag tag talents and outsized personalities was my connection to Tom O’Horgan. And by that point even the ever-gullible Frank recognized that as a unique relationship, Tom and Frank didn’t quite exist. Tom didn’t want a partner. He could have any boy whenever he wanted. He was not a nesting kind of guy. His studio was his nest, which he didn’t mind sharing briefly with some itinerant cuckoo that blew in for the night or season. Tom was already married to his genius, which perhaps is the pre-requisite of genius. At best this attitude indicates no love but love of art. At worst it’s no love but love of self. A few years on, his fame and notoriety reached their apogee. But by then I had lost all contact with him.
In coming to New York I had sloughed off the cocoon of childhood ineffectuality in order to be a painter. But during my hiatus in the performing arts, I became totally confused about what was really my calling. Or was it merely a vehicle, the purpose of which was to get me out of Philadelphia? If so it had worked remarkably well. But having failed to recognize Rule Number One of the genius guidebook—ME first always and in everything—where was I now in fact?
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Frank Ventrola spent his twenties in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He left for California at age 33, where he has remained ever since, staggering between stools.