The Gorilla Was Gay, Part I

Farce is seldom in good taste, but genitals always are. - Ronald Tavel, Gorilla Queen

Gorilla Queen Program Cover

Program Cover, Martinique Theater

Ronald Tavel's play Gorilla Queen opened at the Judson Poets' Theatre on March 12, 1967, after two preview performances, and I was fortunate enough to be there to speak the above line of dialogue, which was often quoted, and to get in on all the craziness and unexpected (sometimes homophobic) attention it received.

The New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section of March 26, 1967, declared, "In the Parish Hall, the Hippies go Ape."

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"'Gorilla Queen' is the freest, wildest, most outrageously mannered theatrical diversion to have hit Off-Off Broadway in many a queer-colored moon. While its content, language, and action may confuse, scandalize or bore, no one will be indifferent to its zany originality, its improbable plot convolutions, or its visual and directorial brilliance.... It's a shameless celebration of Hollywood jungle epics, vintage 1940." - John Gruen, The Pop Scene, New York Times, March 26, 1967
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When Gorilla Queen opened, Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, a revival of South Pacific and Cabaret thrived on Broadway. Harold Pinter's The Homeoming won the Tony Award for Best Dramatic Play, and Cabaret was selected the Best Musical of 1967. Off-Broadway You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and a revival of Rogers and Hart's By Jupiter were hits.

Jean-Claude van Itallie's trilogy of anti-Viet Nam war plays, America Hurrah, which had opened in 1966 was still playing. Apart from these van Itallie, plays there wasn't much that was experimental or inventive happening in the New York theatre scene, so Gorilla Queen surprised critics and the public with its unbridled originality. Hair would open eight months after Gorilla Queen, giving theatre goers a second batch of "hippies" running wild.

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"For what everybody's talking about and indulging in up there, baby, is sex, sex as between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, man and ape, ape and queen, queen and queen - on and on into endless combinations and permutations." - Jerry Tallmer, New York Post, April 25, 1967
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Nobody - author, director or actors - expected all the hub-bub that followed the play's opening. There was so much press and publicity that the entire run at Judson Memorial sold out and the play was moved Off-Broadway to the Martinique Theatre. Ronald Tavel, the author of the play, who claimed to have been the first to use the term "Theatre of the Ridiculous" (Charles Ludlam and John Vaccaro claimed the same thing) had attained some fame, or notoriety, writing scripts for Andy Warhol's films Shower, The Life of Juanite Castro, Suicide, Screen Test, and Vynil, as well as the scripted parts of Chelsea Girls and several others.

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"Attending a performance of Gorilla Queen is like being present at a particularly rambunctious drag ball - the evening is as fruity as a nutcake. Emboldened by the popular success of Camp, Pop, and the Underground Film, the homosexual mafia has now decided to advance the sexual revolution another step by exposing its privates in the most public of places, the theatre..." - Robert Brustein, The New Republic, May 6, 1967
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David Kerry Heefner

David Kerry Heefner, 1967

I don't recall where I heard that Gorilla Queen was being cast, but it was probably in Backstage, the weekly casting publication that actors have relied on for decades. I recognized Mr. Tavel's name in the casting call because I'd met him after a performance of his play The Life of Lady Godive in April, 1966. At that time I was enrolled in a scene study class with Milton Katselas (who would become one of Hollywood's top acting coaches), and was working on a scene from Miller's All My Sons with scene partners Dorothy Opalach, who played Lady Godiva in Lady Godiva, and had involved our third scene partner, Tom Shibona, who played the sexy Earl Leoffric. The two of them invited me to a loft on West 17th. Street to see the play, and introduced me to Tavel, Charles Ludlam who was making his first New York appearance, and director/actor John Vaccaro. So, seeing Mr. Tavel's name in the casing call and having been delighted with Lady Godiva, I was lured to the Gorilla Queen auditions.

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"The audience at Gorilla Queen is composed mostly of Madison Avenue queers on a slumming tour; their laughter is nervous and uneasy. Homosexual theatre in America has hitherto been rather subterranean, and so the openness of this work comes as a bit of shock to those accustomed to the codes and disguises employed on Broadway. Still, for all the refreshing novelty of Gorilla Queen, its honesty is not a sufficient antidote to its single-minded sexual emphasis, and I came away from the play feeling as if I had been pounded into the ground by a particularly merciless jackhammer." - Robert Brustein, The New Republic, May 6, 1967
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I clearly recall entering Judson Memorial Church, the home of Judson Poets' Theatre, for the first time. And I remember that the casting call was an open "cattle" call, which means no appointments are scheduled and first come first auditioned. However, this day, there were few actors waiting to be heard and not the usual tense, milling crowd. Perhaps they'd had a look at the script and fled. I recall pacing as I read the scene that had been handed me when I was told I'd be reading for the part of the Chimney Sweep, and I remember auditioning with energy, still pacing as I had done while waiting to be called. I didn't know what else to do, as the part of the script I'd been given seemed to lack logic or plot progression. Soon I'd learn just how really original and zany and intelligent this play was.

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"An avant-garde 'HELLZ-A POPPIN'" - "Outrageous nonsense that impresses you with its energy even when you are doubting its sanity." - Dan Sullivan, New York Times
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Program Cover 2

Program cover at Judson Poets' Theatre

Then, a few days later I got a call from the stage manager: "Would I please play the role of the Chimney Sweep." No pay, no benefits, but the Judson Poets' Theatre and Ronald Tavel's writing were intriguing and anyway nobody else was offering me paid work, so I said I'd take Gorilla Queen on.

Rehearsals started a few days later, and from the first minute I could see no one in the large cast had ever worked on a play structured like Gorilla Queen, which was structured so that it looked unstructured. The unexpected was the norm. Having graduated just a few years before from Goodman Theatre School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Stanislavsky and character motivation ruled, I was trained in and believed in getting inside a role and understanding what a character wanted to achieve. Lawrence Kornfeld, our director and a long time director for Judson Poets', didn't work that way - certainly not on this script anyway. He would think up, on the spur of the moment, physical activities to keep the characters moving, and ignored what their logical motivations might be.

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"'Gorilla Queen' is one of the most insane plays I've ever seen, even counting other works by Ronald Tavel. Crammed into the camp form of a movie musical is a farcical treatment of ultra serious themes. Two whole civilizations, the scum of the jungle and cream of Hollywood, are tossed about in a whirlpool of philosophy. Beast and movie star couple in grubby lust. All the climaxes are in the wrong places, and dualisms multiply until the tragic ending is only a pretext for another happy, or at least manic, beginning." - Michael Smith, The Best Of Off-Off Broadway
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The Best Of Off-Off Broadway Cover

Cover of 'The Best of Off-Off Broadway,' Michael Smith, ed.

I had a long scene with a character named Karma Miranda, who wasn't dressed to ape Carmen Miranda, but wore a shepherdess' outfit, and despite that fact sang a musical number entitled "Man Garantuan Girl." I was dressed in black tights, a tight black turtleneck shirt, both covered with black sequins (which I'd sewn on the costume by myself as there was no costume crew), a stovepipe hat, green satin sash and high boots, and carried a broom and a bright green plantain. Of course I had my plantain (penis) with me wherever I went, pointing it at the other characters. Karma and I wore pale makeup for we had been inspired by the two porcelaine figurines in Hans Christian Anderson's tale, "The Shepherdess and the Chiminey Sweep," which had clearly left a lasting impression on our author.

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"The audience is perched precariously on folding chairs in the dusty, rickety choir loft at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Suddenly an actor, dressed in garish, anthropoid makeup, vaults over the railing and stomps through the startled spectators onto the stage. Snuffling and grunting like a deranged chimpanzee, he sticks his tongue out at the audience, grinning, scratching and chattering in a stream of missing-link 'hooga-moogas.' Thus begins Ronald Tavel's 'Gorilla Queen,' a hairy, horny spoof of these muddled times, done as a parody of the Maria Montez jungle flicks of the 40's." - Mel Gussow, Newsweek, May 1, 1967
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There was no read-through of the play, which usually happens at the first rehearsal of a new production, nor was there any discussion of character, style or theme by either director or author, at any time. Karma Miranda and I had a scene sitting at a rattan table, where I was putting the make on her. Out of the blue our director told us to turn our chairs front and place them close together, then sit on them as if we were in the front seat of a jeep. I was to mime steering the vehicle while the two of us swayed back and forth and bounced up and down as if driving at very high speed on a pot-holed, twisting road. This blocking made it very difficult to play my motivation, which was to find out if Karma was a gorilla in disguise. She looked nothing like a gorilla, but don't look for logic in this play.

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"Gorilla Queen is what happens when you take freedom of expression a little too seriously. Everything's fine when you let the kids play down at the Judson Poets Theatre. If the camping is a little dated who cares? - sentiment runs high down on Washington Square. And if the queens are in last year's drag and the pop art-Thirties movies-fageroo is slightly curdled Andy Warhol, well take it easy. The boys are having fun and friends are in the house." - Martin Gottfried, Women's Wear Daily, April 25, 1967
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Gorilla Queen Flyer

Judson Poets' Theatre flyer

When not interacting with Karma, I spent quite a bit of stage time with the Venus Fly Trap, a petit beauty named Jo Ann Forman. Caught in her spell I "danced" around her. Then the two of us writhed sensually until she enveloped me, eventually depositing me on the floor, where I lay for about half an hour. Then I was resurrected and back in the middle of things for the remainder of the play.

One matinee as I lay at the feet of the Venus Fly Trap, supposedly unconscious, I spotted Alfred Hitchcock alone in the front row. The Martinique theatre was small with a thrust stage. The audience was on three sides, and no adjustments were made to the blocking we'd had at Judson Poets', so some part of the audience always missed bits of the action. When I came back to life and was back on my feet I couldn't help but notice that Mr. Hitchcock was asleep or at best resting his eyes. So I wasn't discovered that day.