The Gorilla Was Gay, Part II

Gorilla Queen Photo

The musical numbers were never really staged. Each of us did our thing and invented. For the final musical sequence, after my reanimation, I was happy to rely on my prop broom. With no staging given me, I invented a variety of ways to spin, dance with and toss my trusty broom.

The production needed a strong central performance, and was very fortunate in finding Norman Thomas Marshall to play Queen Kong. Norman was built like a football player, as masculine as a hundred locker rooms, and played the role with physical ease, sweetness and charm. No matter what colorful words came out of his mouth he remained lovable. He was trapped in a heavy gorilla costume and sweated nonstop, but remained light on his feet throughout. He would later found the Off-Off Broadway theatre company, No Smoking Playhouse, and produce frugal but excellent revivals.

And I was delighted at the first rehearsal to see that Eddie Mc Carty (Mc Carti) was also in the cast, to play Sister Carries, a combination male nun and witch doctor. I'd met Eddie four years before, when I'd first arrived in New York City, and we'd been introduced by a good friend who was also from Decatur, Eddie's home town. Eddie had won an Obie Award earlier in 1967 for his performance in Tavel's Kintchenette. He played the piano well and that was a good thing as it kept Gorilla Queen alive.

Music for the play had been composed by Robert Cosmos Savage, but it was decided that his work was perhaps too tasteful and controlled and that more uninhibited stuff was needed. So Al Carmines, Judson Memorial Church's Associate Pastor and resident prolific composer was brought in.

Gorilla Queen NYT

The New York Times photo that started the hub-bub.

An actress named Florence Tarlow was cast in the role of Karma. Florence was well known in the Off-Off world and had won an Obie Award in the 1965-66 season for her performances in IstamboulL, Red Cross, and A Beautiful Day, all staged at Judson Poets' Theatre. Since I spent a good bit of my stage time with Karma, I worked to get along with Florence, who was about twenty years older than me, more experienced and perhaps twice my weight. She was always pleasant and businesslike, but all work and not much laughter, and when the director asked me to sit on her lap for part of our scene, I followed his direction. Our rising from sitting positions was supposed to happen with a rambunctious spin, during which Florence held my arms and hands so tightly that I was spotted with bruises and fingernail scrapes for weeks. Sometimes in her efforts to get this maneuver right, she would butt me with her hips; she seemed to approach the physical part of rehearsal as a football player approaches a scrimmage. A few days into our Judson Memorial performances, Florence got a paid acting job and left us. A brave and talented actress named Paula Shaw was brought in to replace her, and learned the part, with songs, in about three days. Paula had control of her nails and grip and didn't butt me with her hips, so we got along nicely and the bruising ceased.

"Among its other concerns are religiosity, mock sacrifice and Western mores. I don't know if it matters but the plot has to do with the search for and discovery - in Nigeria? Brazil? Angola? - of Queen Kong, a large gorilla whose interesting proclivities either demonstrate that we all came up from the apes, as Darwin said, or vice versa, In 'Gorilla Queen' all vice is versa." - Jerry Tallmer, New York Post, April 25, 1967

George Harris III, 1967

George Harris III, 1967

One of the best things to come out of working in Gorilla Queen was the friendship that developed between me and George Harris III, who played one of the chorus of Gibbons called Glitz Ionas. George III and his father George II were both in the cast, and were regulars in the Off-Off scene. George III had the space next to me at the makeup table and our conversations led to hikes, movies, lunches and laughter. George, who was a reserved, conservatively dressed seventeen year old at the time, was mature for his age (he had a twenty seven-year-old architect lover), and his parents and siblings, all of whom were involved in theatre were true "hippies." Just a year after Gorilla Queen, George III would move to San Francisco, put on wild costumes, cover his face with glitter, rename himself Hibiscus and create the Cockettes. Several years later, during the time I was Producing Director of Hudson Guild Theatre, his photo arrived, without glitter, from one of the major actor's agencies as a submission for something we were casting. The attached resume declared him to be Brian Wolf. When audition time came he wasn't available. Sadly he died of HIV related illnesses in May of 1982. He was thirty two years old. What a loss of imagination, creativity and sweetness.

George Harris III as Hibiscus

George Harris III as Hibiscus

"'Gorilla Queen' a Musical, Begins Run At Martinique.
Ronald Tavel's 'Gorilla Queen' opened last night at the Martinique Theatre. Mr. Tavel's 'musical extravaganza' with songs by Al Carmines, was originally given at the Judson Poets Theatre in March." - New York Times

Yep, Gorilla Queen was optioned and moved from Off-Off-Broadway to an Off-Broadway contract and theatre, the Martinique at Broadway and 32nd. Street. Paul Libin, already an established producer, was responsible for the move and placed us under contract, with pay! Whoda thought? Mr. Libin has since produced over 250 productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and on tour He was Producing Director of Circle in the Square Theatre for 27 years, President of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres for thirty years, is President of the Circle in the Square Theatre School and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and is still a very active producer.

One night after a performance, while we still playing on Washington Square South, George III and I started off to get something to eat at a nearby diner. We met a fellow actor on the way, who told us that Joe Chino (cafe-owner and one of the first producers of what would come to be called Off-Off Broadway theatre) while on an LSD trip and bereft at the recent death of his lover, Jon Torrey, had stabbed himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He was in intensive care at St. Vincent’s Hospital and needed blood badly. Off we went to St. Vincent’s, only to find out that much more blood than was needed had already been donated. Joe Cino didn't survive and died on March 30, 1967, and the Caffe Cino perished less than a year later.


Ronald Tavel 1978

Ronald Tavel, 1978

While researching this piece, I was saddened to learn that Ronald Tavel had died on March 23, 2009 while flying home alone to Bankok from a conference in Berlin. He had lived in Thailand for twelve years. He was 72 years old. The New York Post added its sensational slant to his obituary, creating its own theatrical ridiculousness and reporting that he had been "fascinated by the dark arts, which he began weaving into his avant-garde work in the late '80s."

"Satanic Scribe's Eerie Death.

Did black magic and a curse play a role in the death of Ronald Tavel - the Obie-winning playwright and Andy Warhol collaborator who mysteriously died aboard a Thailand-bound jet last week?" - New York Post, April 2, 2009

Ronald Tavel was born in Brooklyn on May 17, 1936. He graduated from Brooklyn College and received a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Wyoming. In addition to his screen plays for Andy Warhol, he wrote 41 stage plays, and received Obie Awards for his Bigfoot and Boy on the Straight-Back Chair. He served as Artist-in-residence at Cornell University and at Yale University, and was Distinguished Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was a wonderfully imaginative writer who wasn't afraid of taking chances.

NYT Gorilla Queen Ad

New York Times Ad

Backstage after the final performance of Gorilla Queen, Ronald asked me why I had never performed the Sweep the way I'd auditioned for the role. I asked him how the performance was different from the audition. He told me that when I auditioned I'd played the part as if I were a Nazi interrogator. Well, knock me down! News to me! Even if I'd been aware that's how I'd been perceived, the director led me far away to a much lighter more energetic interpretation. I wish Ronald had mentioned the Nazi thing while we were in rehearsal; I could have played the role in a way that would have pleased him more. Alas.

When I think about 1967 and Gorilla Queen I know how fortunate I was to be one of those hippies cavorting in the choir loft. It was a good time and there was only positive energy in the experience. There were many people involved in the production: 19 actors, three designers, two composers, a director and a playwright, a commercial producer with press representatives and general managers, yet there was never an upset. There were no prima donnas, nobody was self-absorbed.

Program Inside

Inside of Martinique Theatre program

Homophobia was scattered throughout revues and feature stories of Gorilla Queen. In those days critics felt comfortable referring to gay people as "the homosexual mafia" as Robert Brustein did in The New Republic, and in writing that "the homosexual mafia has now decided to advance the sexual revolution another step by exposing its privates in that most public of places, the theatre." Almost seems he's referring to actual nudity. There was none in the play. Brustein continues with "Inversion, in fact, is not only the entire subject of this playful author: Tavel uses the theatre exclusively for the purposes of advertising queerdom. Homosexual exhibitionism is given full rein..." And Martin Gottfried could mock gays in the Women's Wear Daily with: "Believe me, darling, I'm the last one to put down Cherry Grove. But really, Marianne sweetie, when the end-of-season show is being given in April, I mean where do we go from here?" I doubt that either of these writers would even consider expressing themselves in these word nowadays. The world has changed, somewhat.

Program Inside 2

Inside of Judson Poets' Theatre program