The late Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis is well-known, but this new exhibition in New York the cultural and historical impact of both Curtis (1947-1985) and the lesser-know, but phenomenally talented, Ethyl Eichelberger (1945-1990) are reconsidered. They were two of the most influential figures from the 70s and 80s in the East Village’s heyday. Oddly, even thought the title suggests otherwise, the press release says “they are not believed to have known each other.” So odd. I knew them both from my Pyramid days. A little background first. From the press release,
Jackie Curtis was born John Curtis Holder, Jr. on the Lower East Side, and mostly raised by his maternal grandmother, known as Slugger Ann, whose eponymous bar on 2nd Avenue was a well-known refuge for social misfits. A member of Andy Warhol’s original network of Superstars –along with Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn –, Curtis’ stage debut was at age 17 in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets, followed by roles in the Paul Morrissey films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971). Aside from possessing a mesmerizing screen presence, Curtis’ greatest artistic influence was as playwright and songwriter for the productions Glamour, Glory and Gold; Vain Victory; and Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, all of which featured transsexual characters. The Jackie Curtis signature ‘look’ –glitter and lipstick combined with ripped stockings and/or housedresses – was widely adopted in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 2004 the documentary Superstar in a Housedress brought the Curtis legend to a new generation.
Ethyl Eichelberger was born James Roy Eichelberger in rural Illinois, and spent much of his first thirty years studying acting and working in regional repertory theater, eventually becoming an expert wigmaker and member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In 1975 he legally changed his first name to Ethyl and introduced a flamboyant stage presence, singing while playing piano and accordion, and radically re-conceiving classic characters like King Lear and Medea as drag cabaret. Although Eichelberger appeared in films, Broadway theater productions, and an HBO series for kid, and was a successful commercial actor, his main impact was as a performer in intimate East Village venues like P.S. 122, Pyramid Lounge, 8BC, and s.n.a.f.u.. In the course of more than thirty original and adapted plays, his was nearly always the title role, often with multiple male and female characters switching parts, and occasional acrobatic or circus stunts thrown in for equal measure.
Ethyl was a wonderful person and an amazing performer. (Watch the clip below) I was lucky enough to share the stage with a couple of times, MCing with her for my show, Straight to Hell, at the Pyramid. Our schtick was that neither knew what we were supposed to be doing and without any script or rehearsal, it wan’t a stretch. Ethyl was quick on her feet and judged a contest to be on the cover of STH magazine, left. Later for the STH reboot, Bad Boy at Danceteria, my DJs for the monthly party were none other than WOW’s Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, which featured strippers from the infamous Gaiety Male Burlesque, plus various side shows, like the Porno Swap Meet and Wet Underwear Contest. The photo below is of Ethyl flat onstage with the judges one night, all old pals of mine, Keith Haring, Cookie Mueller and John Sex. Years later when I saw this photo it summed up the fun and also the sadness of that era. Keith, Cookie and John all died from AIDS-related causes and Ethyl was HIV-positive and committed suicide in 1990.
Jackie I knew less, but we shared one memorable night when she spoke at a Straight To Hell night at the Pyramid. (That’s me on the cover of the magazine at just 19.) I recently donated a print of the picture, left, which I took in ’85, for auctioned to benefit the AIDS charity, Friends In Deed, which is sadly now defunct. Happily, the photo is now in mega-collector Beth Rudin DeWoody‘s hand. Jackie died just a few months later in ’85, so that was one of her last appearances.