As was recently noted by the legendary downtown PR maven of NYC underground performance, Susan Martin, after closing its doors after some 41 years,
“I just hate it when they get it wrong: It was not the Pyramid Club, it was ALWAYS and originally, THE PYRAMID COCKTAIL LOUNGE.”
Yes, ma’am, it certainly was.
My association with the club was, ahem, deep and long. I first stumbled into 101 Ave A one Sunday afternoon and after watching a rehearsal of some twisted version of The Family Feud, 10 minutes later I was enlisted, onstage and part of the show, and as they say, the rest is herstory.
I moved to 131 Ave B in ’82 while working at my first NYC job in the art department of Vogue, so The Pyramid (for short) really WAS my neighborhood bar. I remember telling a Vogue editor I was moving to Avenue B and she grabbed me by the wrist, looked at me intensely and pleaded,
“You can’t move down there, you’ll be murdered…”
Her fears weren’t totally unfounded. That area was pretty dicey back then, especially the Tompkins Square Park after dark. I WAS mugged at knifepoint in front of my building but, hey it was the East Village in the 80s. That was initiation!
The Pyramid was more of a club club to me than any venue before or since. There were of course regulars and patrons and staff, performers, go-go bar dancers, bouncers, door men and cute guys (and girls) but unlike your average bar, as Brian Butterick once noted,
“When you walked in the door,
you got applause.”
Everyone ended up dancing on the bar, they were backstage, downstairs in the dressing room, we had the full run of the joint. There was no VIP area. If Warhol or Debbie Harry came they were just RIGHT THERE. The place was teeny tiny, as was the stage. It wasn’t a gay bar really, but it was VERY gay friendly and the manager Bobby Bradley hired a cute staff, male and female and the cute straight boys were “accepted” by us gays.
Working on staff at Vogue (at 22) I got freebies that were not much use to me, but I quickly learned they endeared me to drag queens. I’d pop into the dressing room with a bag full of goodies like a $40 gold YSL compact or one loose Chanel earring. These queens had NO money, none of us did, so free makeup and jewelry? I was popular with queens right off.
Speaking of drag and Vogue, I would get Polaroid film from the fashion closet and take photos out. (see below.) Drag at the Pyramid was not fishy and pretty, it was down and dirty, done on a shoestring and with total individuality and ingenuity. It was ANTI-fabulous.
However, I wanted to be pretty. One Halloween I borrowed at $5000 Bill Blass sequined cocktail dress and gold lizard pumps from Vogue’s fashion closet for the weekend and went to the Pyramid with my Polaroid camera and armloads of film. I handed most of them out that night. I kept shooting and some you can see below, and more in a show at my upstate Gallery 52 (& on Artsy.net) this summer, Trey Speegle; 80s Polaroids & Other Pictures.
There were many great nights and ongoing series like Chang in a Void Moon, Titus Andronicus and Cafe Iguana that blended song, dance, poetry, theatre and gender-illusion into a futuristic mix. It was hosted by the late Ann Craig and was part Weimar-era Cabaret/ Great White Way with a dash of Merry Pranksters and a trippy Happening tossed in.
Joey Arias said after the club’s closing,
“MERMAIDS on HEROIN was created here … The Klaus NOMI album cover SIMPLE MAN was shot there. Not to mention every person and band that graced that stage.
So much creativity was flowing – & sex!“
One fourth of July I convinced Bobby Bradley to let me book at Sunday afternoon Independence Day tribute. I got David McDermott to sing. He wore a heavy wool uniform and sang WWI songs to a crowd of maybe 20. Katy K, the country and western clothing designer who often performed with John Sex, wore a red white and blue look that Dolly Parton would have been proud of, ironed an American flag and sang Soldier Boy. Ann Magnuson closed the show wearing a KKK hooded robe and tap-danced to Yes, We Have No Bananas. It was THAT kind of subversive club, that had a bent for the political, absurd and often hilarious. And it was BRIMMING with talent.
Susan Martin recalled that talent;
Brian Butterick, John Kelly, Kestutis Nakas, Julie Hair, John Jesurun, Kevin Malony, Paula Sjunneson, Stephen Tashjian, the beloved Tanya Ransom, Ethyl Eichelberger, MC Ann Craig, The Pop Tarts, Ann Magnuson, Wendy Wild, Steve Buscemi, Lydia Lunch, Rhys Chatham, Lady Bunny, Klaus Nomi, Kristian Hoffman, Laura Levine, Sonda Andersson Pappan, Lithgow Osborne, Lucy Sexton, Joshua Fried, Douglas Landau, Philly Abe...
Chris Hodgson recalled others,
“Ru Paul, Lady Bunny, David Wojnarowicz, Johnny Dynell, Wendy Wild, Deee-Lite, Steven Perfidia Kirkham, Justin Strauss, Jayne County, Lypsinka, Larry Tee, Karen Finley, Miss Guy, Flotilla DeBarge, International Chrysis, Debbie Harry, Ivan Ivan…”
For a while I produced a weekly show called Straight To Hell on Sunday nights (while holding down a full time job at Vanity Fair, I might add). STH was a magazine started by Boyd McDonald in 70s which was true homosexual experiences, ie truck stop cruising, sex with your football coach, behind the dumpster…. basically Grindr in print. My friend Victor Weaver took over the magazine from Boyd and I graced one of his first covers and ended up hosting and producing the series.
The talent lineup staggers me today. I guess I just had the boldness of youth and just asked people. Here’s the first couple of months… John Waters, Cookie Mueller, Fran Lebowitz, Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, Quentin Crisp, Kenneth Anger… Later the show took a sexier turn and I booked porn stars of the day like Eric Ryan and Leo Ford and held wet underwear contests, porno swap meets and STH cover boy competitions.
The show morphed into Bad Boy which I took to the club within a club, the top floor of Danceteria, Congo Bill. The Pop Tarts, WOW founders, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato were my DJs. There was porn on the monitors and I got boys from the uptown strip club made famous by Madonna‘s Sex book, The Gaiety. All of this sounds like any gay club in America today, but at the time, you didn’t get that stuff from clubs, straight or gay.
Speaking of Madonna, her best friend and first manager Martin Burgoyne (pictured above) was very sick from AIDS. Jody Kurilla & Deb Parker threw a benefit for Martin at the Pyramid.
I recall being downstairs in the dressing room one night and Keith Haring showing me pictures of Madonna’s wedding. He told the story of how everything got blown around by the paps in helicopters flying low to try to get photos of the star-studded crowd. Andy Warhol was Keith’s date and they made her the paintings using her recent NY Post covers.
Martin died a few months after the benefit. In a few years Cookie Mueller and Keith and Ethyl Eichelberger, John Sex and so many more would e gone as well.
We lost people every other week it seemed. (At one point I counted 200 friends gone and then I stopped counting…) So many memorials and funerals. Some were ODs and suicides, but mostly AIDS related. Pyramid bus boy Michael Stewart was killed in police custody. There was a LOT of fun and laughs, but a lot of tears and tragedy.
It’s sad the Pyramid is no longer there, but to me it died long ago. Linda Simpson echoed my sentiments recently when she said,
“I’m sad to hear the Pyramid [Cocktail Lounge] is closing, even though it hasn’t been a gay and drag hotspot since the 90s. Wouldn’t it be great if new owners recognized its incredible queer history and made it fabulous once more?”
In 2015, Howl Happening gallery and performance space in the East Village put on an exhibit curated by Brian Butterick (Hattie Hathaway) called Secrets of the Great Pyramid; The Pyramid Cocktail Lounge as Cultural Laboratory. I was really touched when Brian asked me to be part of the exhibition with my STH contribution but also exhibiting my artwork of today. Those still on the planet showed up and it was quite a night. That was the Pyramid reunion for me.