BootLeg Betty

Scott Wittman On Bette Midler, Jackie Curtis, And Cabarets

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Q&A: Scott Wittman on Drag Superstar Jackie Curtis and Employing “Cabaret Crazies”
By Patrick Pacheco
MAY 29, 2012

Jackie Curtis, a Warhol superstar and one of the high (drag) priestesses of ‘70s glam rock, is back at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club thanks to Scott Wittman, the Tony-Award-winning writer, director, and lyricist (“Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can”). The writer-director has created an impressionistic collage of Curtis and his work, “Jukebox Jackie,” which runs at the downtown theater on East 4th Street through June 10th. “Jackie was decades ahead of his time,” says Wittman of the subversive, gender-bending musician, dramatist, and poet born John Curtis Holder, Jr. Wittman says that his aesthetic was heavily influenced by Curtis, who, before he died of a drug overdose at the age of 38, had a similar effect on a Who’s Who of pop artists including Andy Warhol, Bette Midler, David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Harvey Fierstein, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed. Reed celebrated Curtis in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his ode to the ‘70s New York underground: “Jackie is just speeding away/Thought she was James Dean for a day/Then I guess she had to crash/Valium would have helped that bash/She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…’”

Those acid and speed trips resulted in a voluminous legacy that includes plays, poems, songs, plus a trove of scribbled notes, diary entries, and drawings that Curtis’s cousins granted Wittman access to. (The writer-director also cites as a major resource Craig Highberger’s 2004 documentary of Curtis’s life, “Superstar in a House Dress.”) In the play, a younger generation of “cabaret crazies” — including Justin Vivian Bond, Cole Escola, Bridget Everett, and Steel Burkhardt — represents what Wittman calls “prisms of Jackie.” “They’re all people Jackie would have cast,” he says. The director spoke to us about Curtis’ trailblazing, and how the artist may influence his newest gig as an advisor to 54 Below, the new cabaret space beneath Studio 54.

I know that you directed Justin Vivian Bond in a Jackie Curtis monologue for the 50th anniversary of La MaMa last fall. Was that the genesis of “Jukebox Jackie”?
That’s sort of where it started. Justin and I had always wanted to work together and had been circling [around] things. Ellen Stewart [the late founder of La MaMa] had been a champion of Jackie’s plays, and we were looking at those, but we discovered it was hard to breathe that air again. So we starting piecing this work together, adding a song [like Nico’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”] here and there and adding some projections. Jackie was also quite a poet.

What was your familiarity with Curtis before this?
I was just an incredible fan. I’d come to New York City from Nanuet, Rockland County — “45 minutes to Broadway” is it’s motto, but it might as well have been another planet. And I came in search of this world of the Silver Factory and Max’s Kansas City and Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling and Jayne County and Jackie. It was my Brigadoon! At 17, Jackie had been in a Tom Eyen play, “Miss Nefertiti Regrets” with Bette Midler, and I don’t think that went well —

Why not?
[Laughs] I’m sure Bette probably wanted the [starring] role. And then he went on to write his own plays, including “Amerika Cleopatra,” in which Harvey Fierstein played his mother, and “Glamour, Glory and Gold” with Candy and Robert De Niro. I think that was his first stage role. I saw Holly and Jackie in their cabaret act and some of Jackie’s later plays at La MaMa. There was also “B-Girls,” Jackie’s poem, which was based on Jackie’s observations of people who visited his grandmother’s bar, Slugger Ann’s, on 12th Street and 2nd Avenue. It was a fabulous and exciting time. And then Brigadoon disappeared. And this show was a way for us to bring it back.

In what way was Jackie ahead of his time?
He was certainly a pioneer of that gender-variant performer. “I’m not a boy, I’m not a girl, I’m just Jackie.” There’s a lot of that now. And Jackie was among the first to get married, just after the Stonewall Riots [in 1969]. He had several weddings, actually, to several husbands. One time, he was supposed to marry Eric Emerson [of the Magic Tramps]. But Eric didn’t show up, so he married the maitre d’. He married in drag, with lipstick and a beard. He was one of the pioneers of glam-trash. And yet the work is quite witty and clever. Jackie wrote in so many different styles, absurdist, satirical, linear, and then he’d go off and write songs with Peter Allen. The imagery in his poetry is breathtaking.

Is the unpolished quality that we associate with Warhol’s films part of the show?
We have some of that, I hope. I think those movies — “Women in Revolt,” “Trash” — are such a window into that world and yet they were not unlike MGM. Paul Morrissey felt that he could turn a camera on someone and that person would light up, and he was often right. Jackie shines in those works. And Jackie, Holly, and Candy were the Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Jean Harlow of that world. There’s that kind of innocence to [“Jukebox Jackie”] as well. There’s a blowjob in it, but it might as well be Noel Coward. It’s funny.

Is Jackie influencing your work at 54 Below?
Well, I’m the fairy godfather of the place. I just sprinkle the fairy dust. [Producer] Richard Frankel — we’d done “Hairspray” together — said, “We want to open a cabaret and want you onboard for this.” Remember the ‘70s? You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a cabaret — Reno Sweeney’s, Brothers and Sisters, Les Mouches, Grand Finale. I often wax poetically about Reno Sweeney and it just doesn’t exist anymore. I had no money in those days and I could still afford it. You could go every night and see Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, the Harlettes, Peter Allen and Edie Beale [of Grey Gardens fame]. I’m encouraging a booking policy at 54 Below to include that, to have under one roof Justin [Vivian Bond], Ben Vereen, Jackie Hoffman, and Patti. I hope it has that kind of democratic atmosphere.

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