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Harry Koutoukas Arrives in the Village
Haralambos Monroe "Harry" Koutoukas took a bus from his home in upstate New York to Greenwich Village just as the 1950s came to a close, in search of adventure. "When Koutoukas hit town, he was an Adonis, a Greek youth with abundant energy, personality, and natural wit. He was able to express himself in the vernacular of downtown — being free," said Agosto Machado, a Chinese-Spanish Christopher Street queen and Zelig-like figure who witnessed the rise of the underground theater and film movements, the 1960s counterculture, gay liberation, and punk rock. Even in the Village, which was bursting with theatrical flourishes, this Greek American cut a striking figure. Entering a coffeehouse, Koutoukas might come swooshing in the door with a large swath of fabric flowing behind him — all while holding a cigarette high, for dramatic effect.
"It was sort of grand," Machado said, "but it wasn't a pretentious-grand. It was a fun-grand."
"Harry dressed extravagantly," added playwright and Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith. "He had a kind of flamboyant Greek personality, and was very funny. He would make fun of you, and he would make fun of himself. His plays were extremely fanciful." This provocateur, poet, and playwright had a knack for wordplay that spilled over into the titles of his "camps" (Koutoukas's preferred term for plays), such as the following:
All Day for a Dollar, or Crumpled Christmas Awful People Are Coming Over So We Must Be Pretending to Be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away Feathers Are for Ramming, or Tell Me Tender Tales The Man Who Shot His Washing Machine Medea, or Maybe the Stars May Understand, or Veiled Strangeness
Harry's first play, With Creatures Make My Way, was about a semi-human figure that lived in the New York sewers along with rats, baby alligators, and "little tweekies," and who longed to be reunited with his love — a lobster. The show's subterranean setting was a metaphor for the underground culture Harry helped shape in Greenwich Village and its surrounding downtown neighborhoods.
Playwright Robert Heide first met Koutoukas around 1959, when both young men followed bohemian paths that had been blazed by the Beats. "I met up with Harry several times on MacDougal Street, in the coffee shops," Heide said, "where he would be carrying a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and I would as well. So we began talking existentialism." When he first crossed paths with Koutoukas, Heide thought he was a lesbian with a 1950s-style DA haircut. He was very petite at the time, though Harry's waistline expanded along with his corpus of plays (he wrote dozens upon dozens throughout his life).
They'd congregate at Lenny's Hideaway, a Greenwich Village cellar gay bar that was an important node in the downtown's overlapping social networks. Heide met playwright Edward Albee there, and the two eventually became close. "Edward and I would take long walks," he said. "We would say nothing. Later he told me that there were characters running around in his head that he was thinking about. We would drink at Lenny's Hideaway 'til four in the morning, then maybe we'd go back to his place, like in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Wandering around downtown late at night, the couple sometimes stopped by Bigelow Drugs on Sixth Avenue, between West Eighth and Ninth Streets, to have a black and white ice cream soda with seltzer.
The streets were much quieter in Greenwich Village, compared to the bustle of today, and it felt as though everyone knew each other. "You would run into people that you knew," Heide recalled. "I'd run into Sam Shepard at a coffee shop. You could have a hamburger and apple pie and coffee for ninety-five cents. You have to remember, everybody's rent was low, like that song 'Bleecker Street,' by Simon and Garfunkel, that goes, 'Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.' Ha! Thirty dollars!" Even though they lived in a big city, it felt like a small town. This self-contained metropolis even had its own directory, Greenwich Village Blue Book, which was published from 1961 to 1968 and contained listings for stores, doctors, churches, theaters, and other establishments in the area.
By the early 1960s, Heide rented an apartment at 84 Christopher Street, which was crawling with artists. "Upstairs from me lived Dick Higgins, who was involved with the Fluxus movement and Happenings," he recalled. "The actress Sally Kirkland lived in the building. She was studying at the Actors Studio. Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin' Spoonful was my downstairs neighbor, and his band was performing at a place called the Nite Owl, where the Mamas and the Papas played when they were in town."
Lisa Jane Persky entered Harry Koutoukas's life in 1965, when she was about ten years old and her family moved into 87 Christopher Street. This nineteenth-century tenement apartment building was a microcosm of the neighborhood, hosting everyone from Persky to a mother-daughter pair who were always standing at the building's entrance. Rosie was a diminutive older lady, and her daughter Ernestine was in her forties or fifties. "Harry is not a homosexual," Rosie would insist. "He is refined."
"The thing about the Village that I really miss now," Persky said, "there were lots and lots of old ladies in the doorways, just enjoying the night air and hanging out." In these small residential buildings, neighbors passed each other returning with groceries or coming home from work (if they had jobs, which wasn't true of Koutoukas). People were coming and going at all times of the day and night, and they inevitably stopped and talked to each other. The surrounding streets were also a mixture of old and new worlds, where openly gay street queens crossed paths with those from more traditionally conservative immigrant backgrounds. Within spitting distance of 87 Christopher was Jimmy the Fence, who ran a barber shop that sold items of questionable origin, along with a fancy dress shop, a grocery store, a butcher, and an old-fashioned Jewish department store. Like many city kids in those days, Lisa had a lot of unsupervised time, and she used to wander the streets, exploring various shops. "I'd just go in and started talking to people about what they were selling. There were these two women who ran this bakery called Miss Douglas Bakery. Were they girlfriends or were they sisters?
What was going on there?"
Persky also couldn't help but notice that Christopher Street was a place where many gay men congregated, including Koutoukas. "I remember thinking that Harry was so exotic, because he dressed in a really flamboyant way," she said, "but to me it was just fashionable and lavish. He had really cool clothes and other stuff. He had a very fanciful way about him that was, to a kid, so attractive — because it was totally genuine, not false." She recalled that everything was theater to Harry, including the exaggerated way he carried himself while swooping to pick up a bag of groceries, or rounding a corner. He once described these fluid movements to Lisa's mother as being "like the inside of a washing machine."
Koutoukas likely picked up this flair for the dramatic while growing up outside of Binghamton, New York, in the "Magic City" of Endicott. His family ran a restaurant and entertainment establishment that booked "female impersonators," though he was forbidden to see those shows when he was an adolescent. Undeterred, Koutoukas snuck in to see the outlandish performers (who were a bit taller than ordinary women, with large hands and an exaggerated sense of femininity).
This planted a seed in Harry's mind that a weirder world was within his reach, and through magazines and movies he discovered Greenwich Village. Ahh, Koutoukas thought, now there's a place I'd like to go. "By the time Koutoukas came to the Village," recalled Agosto Machado, "things were shifting. There was a ferment of sexual revolution, the beginnings of a youth-quake."
Harry Koutoukas was one of many men and women who gravitated from other cities and countries to the Village, a catch-all term that included Greenwich Village, the East Village, and other surrounding neighborhoods. Soon after arriving, he befriended a gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino, who helped spark the underground theater revolution known as Off-Off-Broadway. "Caffe Cino encouraged creativity and no barriers," Machado said. "You'd just say you're a playwright, and then you would put on a play."
This storefront theater was located on Cornelia Street, a block-long side street that connects Bleecker with West Fourth Street and got little foot traffic. Cornelia was one of those charming little Village roads near Washington Square Park that could have easily appeared on Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (that iconic album cover was shot on Jones Street, just one block to the north). Coffeehouses proliferated in Greenwich Village because the area had plenty of empty commercial spaces; these establishments were much cheaper to run than bars, which required the proper city licenses and Mafia protection rackets.
Caffe Cino had six or eight little tables with wire-back chairs that were complemented by a hodgepodge of other furniture found in the street. Its stage was usually set in the center, among the tables, though this arrangement often changed from show to show. In the back of the Cino, to the left, was a counter with an espresso machine and a hallway that led to a tiny dressing room and a toilet. During its early days, the place was lit by Chinese lanterns and other little lights, though Caffe Cino grew more cluttered as time went on.
Joe Cino opened it after giving up on his dream of being a dancer, for he was too heavyset to make it in the dance world. "Joe wore sweatshirts on the street, like dancers did," recalled Robert Patrick, another Cino regular-turned-playwright who entered the fold in 1961. "He wore them backwards for the high neck. He was an affected faggot before it was fashionable." He could be found behind the espresso machine — which served some of the best coffee in town — surrounded by photos of James Dean, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and other movie stars. Joe didn't bother reading scripts; he read people's faces instead, or asked them their astrological sign.
"The Cino was one of a number of little coffeehouses and alternative spaces," said Michael Smith, "and I liked that it was so intimate. There was no proscenium. You were not separated from the play by some kind of frame. It was happening in the room with you. It was a very free atmosphere. Joe Cino was very supportive and just encouraged people to be themselves and be free. It's quite unique that way, and I've never really been in another theater that was quite as supportive."
Caffe Cino became an alternative to Off-Broadway, which emerged in response to the conservatism of Broadway — whose producers, even then, were loath to take risks and instead relied on revivals of established hit shows that could guarantee a return on their investments. Off-Broadway shifted American theater from its midtown Manhattan roots after venues such as Cherry Lane Theatre drew audiences further downtown. This new theater movement created a low-budget style that offered artistic freedom, but by the end of the 1950s Off-Broadway's budgets rose and its theaters followed the same cautious logic of Broadway producers.
The time was ripe for Off-Off-Broadway. "There was no way to get a show on Broadway," said Michael Smith. "At that point in time it cost a lot of money to put a show on Off-Broadway. You would have to go raising money, and a lot of the budgets at that point were $20,000. That was a lot of money." Instead, Caffe Cino staged shows for a few dollars or for nothing (when Smith staged his first play there, he dragged his own bed down Cornelia Street to be used as part of the set). Off-Off-Broadway locales were akin to the barebones venues where punk rock developed in the mid-1970s — introducing the idea that one could simply do-it-yourself, without waiting for funding or the approval of cultural gatekeepers.
"Arrogant peacocks like Harry Koutoukas were a product of the Off-Off Broadway milieu," recalled Robert Patrick. "Since nobody was making any money and hardly ever getting reviewed at that time, it was the first time in history that theater became this totally self-expressive art form. A playwright could produce whatever they wanted." Koutoukas was free to craft his playful, poetic wordplay and unconventional scenarios that never could have made their way to Off-Broadway, much less Broadway, and he immediately attached himself to Joe Cino.
"Harry just worshiped Joe," Patrick said. "Most of my Cino memories of Harry are him at Joe's side, or talking to Joe by the counter, or at a table with him." The café owner sometimes spoke in a very high-cultured purr, though he also employed a pseudo-Italian language that was kind of campy — like, "Mamma mia! Here's another group of lost boys!" He liked eccentric people with wild personas and wanted to create an open atmosphere that was like an ongoing party, blasting Maria Callas and other opera divas at top volume on the phonograph. Joe loved the 1940s pop singer Kate Smith, and sometimes wrapped himself in the American flag — occasionally completely naked — while playing the famed contralto's rendition of "God Bless America" at top volume, just standing there.
Cino's appetite for a good time was equaled by his warmth and generosity. If one of his starving young artists was actually starving, he would offer them bread or pastries, even when he couldn't pay rent himself. His café offered a warm refuge for the poor, tired, huddled gay masses who increasingly congregated in the Village — like a young Agosto Machado, who met Joe in 1959. "I was on Cornelia Street, around Bleecker," he recalled, "and it was still heavily an Italian neighborhood, and there were these young men who were so attractive, carrying things like panels of wood. I thought I was being discreet, but I just got overwhelmed by their handsomeness and I followed them as they went up Cornelia Street."
When this group of men walked through Caffe Cino's doorway, Agosto peered in. "May I help you?" Joe asked. "Oh no," he replied, "I was just wandering about the neighborhood." The friendly coffee shop owner ushered him in. "This is a café, and you're welcome here. We don't sell alcohol. We sometimes have poetry readings and little presentations. There's hot cider, or espresso, or some cookies."
Machado came from other parts of the city, though several other villagers came from much farther away — like Robert Patrick, another bohemian immigrant who was drawn to the Cino. After working a dishwashing job at a summer stock theater in Maine in 1961, he made a stopover in Greenwich Village on his way back home to Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus. As he walked down West Fourth Street, Patrick saw a young long-haired man with jewelry around his neck, who was clearly not wearing underwear.
"His name was Johnny Dodd," he said of Caffe Cino's genius lighting technician. "So I followed what I call the 'other brick road' down to Sheridan Square. I followed him a couple of blocks and he looked over his shoulder at me and turned the corner." Patrick continued down Cornelia Street, which had a little art gallery and bookstore, then followed Dodd into the Cino — which was dark and smelly. Actor Neil Flanagan and director Andy Milligan were in the midst of rehearsing a show, so the newcomer sat down, watched, and basically never left Caffe Cino until it shut down in 1968.
"We were raised in an America that hated art, sex, and intellect," Patrick recalled, "and sex was not the worst offense." He was beaten up in grade school, junior high school, and high school not for being gay — which he was — but for carrying too many books. "Once we all left the small town to hit the big city, we were ready to explode. There were people at the Cino who were versed in every aspect of history, arts, science. Nobody beat you up for it there." At Caffe Cino, Patrick was surrounded by creative, forward-looking people who were smart, friendly, and supportive. "Most of us had never been part of a group where we came from, so it was rather intoxicating to be in one."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Downtown Pop Underground"
Copyright © 2018 Kembrew McLeod.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Setting the Scenes (1958-1967)
Chapter 1 Harry Koutoukas Arrives in the Village 9
Chapter 2 Shirley Clarke's Downtown Connections 22
Chapter 3 Andy Warhol Goes Pop 32
Chapter 4 Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and the Pop Generation 40
Chapter 5 Ed Sanders Incites an Indie Media Revolution 50
Chapter 6 Ellen Stewart Is La MaMa 58
Chapter 7 Hibiscus and Family Grow Underground Roots 64
Chapter 8 Preserving the Downtown Landscape for Artists 74
Chapter 9 Off-Off Broadway Oddities 84
Chapter 10 Underground Film's Bizarre Cast of Characters 95
Chapter 11 Multimedia Experiments at the Factory 106
Part 2 Action! (1964-1971)
Chapter 12 Chaos at the Cino 117
Chapter 13 Camping in Church and at Sea 123
Chapter 14 Migrating East 130
Chapter 15 Lower East Side Rock and Radicalism 137
Chapter 16 La MaMa Gets Ridiculous 149
Chapter 17 Jackie Curtis Takes Center Stage 159
Chapter 18 Madness at Max's and the Factory 170
Chapter 19 Darkness Descends on the East Village 181
Chapter 20 From the Margins to the Mainstream and Back Again 188
Chapter 21 Femmes Fatales 199
Chapter 22 Underground Video Ushers In a New Media Age 207
Part 3 The Twisted Road to Punk (1970-1976)
Chapter 23 An American Family Bends Reality 217
Chapter 24 Pork, Glam, and Audiotape 225
Chapter 25 Literary Rockers 232
Chapter 26 Hibiscus Heads Home 239
Chapter 27 Mercer's Mixes It Up 247
Chapter 28 DIY TV 258
Chapter 29 The Lights Dim on Off-Off-Broadway 264
Chapter 30 Punk Rock's Freaky Roots 272
Chapter 31 New York Rock Explodes 286
Chapter 32 Suburban Subversives 297
Chapter 33 Inventing "Punk" 307
Author's Notes on Research, Interviews, and Acknowledgment 327
Works Cited and Consulted 332