Art After Midnight

updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Long after midtown office towers have been deserted for the day, as many New Yorkers snuggle into bed in their high-rise apartments, another world comes to life in the seedier districts of Lower Manhattan. From 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., Monday through Sunday, the young and the active pack into musty East Village basement bars, cavernous lofts in warehouse districts, or short-lived speakeasies that, because they lack liquor licenses, tend to fall prey to police raids. Disdaining the laser lights and droning beat of '70s discos, these clubs offer an '80s alternative: riotous after-hours vaudeville complete with drag shows, art auctions, raunchy comedy revues and theme parties celebrating such diverse topics as sexual obsession and Tupperware. The purpose, believe it or not, is art. For many of the city's thousands of working artists and countless aspiring actors, shunned by conventional artistic outlets like uptown galleries and Broadway, the clubs offer a congenial, supportive alternative—a brave new world wilder than the dreams of the sleeping city. This outlandish scene has its own celebrities (John Sex and Gracie Mansion), fashions (spike cuts and crew cuts) and rules for conduct (regulars rarely dance, even in clubs with constant rock music). Says one club-hopper, "It encompasses Berlin before and after the war—the decadence of before, the look of after." Weekend tourists from the 9-to-5 world, unlike in-crowd members, wait in lines at club doors, pay $3 to $15 cover charges and rarely get free drinks. All in all, a small price to pay for an eccentric evening out.

One Wednesday around midnight a woman named Philly and her friend Stephen Tashjian, both in their 20s, scuttle around the basement of a onetime Ukrainian blue-collar bar revamped in 1982 as the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge. Philly, who dropped her given name when she moved to the East Village from Philadelphia, smears on the same apple-red lipstick that Stephen wears. He is draping himself with plastic oranges and cherries for his Carmen Miranda act; she is stuffing tiny rotten bananas under layers of shawls and rags that transform her into a "monkey/woman/creature." Finally, clad to fruitarian perfection, they climb up a wooden stairway and emerge into a tiny, windowless room where a solid mass of sweaty kids flail to the beat. A spotlight hits the stage, where a sign bears the name of tonight's extravaganza, Flying Down to Rio. Shaking his hips to a calypso beat, Stephen takes center stage carrying a trombone. Combining the best of Tiny Tim and Shecky Green, he sings in falsetto, toots his horn, treats his fans to a few raunchy jokes and exits. Philly comes on next to the tune of the Belafonte hit Day-O. "I love bananas, big yellow bananas," she screeches as she spits some on the cat-calling audience. Five minutes later she curtsies primly and exits.

"That was sort of a throwaway performance," Philly admits afterward. She and Stephen, who play the clubs as often as four times a week, usually perform in more literate skits—such as I Love Ruthie, their version of I Love Lucy '80s-style and In Praise of Java, a show for coffee believers. That's as legit as they get. "Boy George is interesting but he's too polished. You need a bit more slime and a bit more trash than that," says Philly. Mark Phred, who appears with Philly in some of her other performances, details the logistical realities of their profession: "They call us up and say, 'Can you be South American sun gods showing a synthesis of Egyptian and Polynesian cultures and the space theory in a sort of go-go dance?' And we do it—because that's how we pay our rent."

On the downtown nightclub circuit, where most performers earn about $50 a night—with occasional gusts up to $1,000—Philly and her partners are far from unique. As actor Kestutis Nakas puts it, "Working the clubs is much more exciting and vital than hustling your resume to get a bit part on a soap opera." John Sex agrees. Best known for his straight-up hairdo and slimy nightclub act, John, a former male stripper, now supports himself singing hits like his R-rated version of That's Life. "I've been a hustler, a hooker, a honcho, a hero, a dike and a queen," John sings to the classic Sinatra tune. Sex, who has been 24 for years, just landed a recording deal with Island Records. "I'm a nice Catholic boy from Long Island and everything my mother didn't want me to be," he admits.

Joe Bernard, alias Zette, earns $110 a night acting out Area's regularly changing themes, often behind glass in an enclosed stage resembling a department store window. For the theme of Confinement, Zette, 25, impersonated Rapunzel, Quasimodo, Anne Frank and various women under hair dryers. (Area nixed his crucifixion act because he wanted to do it during Easter week.)

In 1979, seasoned pro Ann Magnuson, 27, ran the now-defunct Club 57, a low-budget, high-energy cabaret where almost all of today's scene makers first displayed their talents. Now Ann presents 25 or so characters, including an evangelist named Alice Tully Hall, "a combination of Loretta Lynn and Lotte Lenya," in comic half-hour vignettes. About the growing club circuit, Ann says, "Most of the people here are trying to make sense of what they grew up with in the '60s and '70s. We take all those elements and put them back together in different configurations and try to make people laugh. And we make them think."

Gracie Mansion, who named herself after the New York mayor's residence, used to show her friends' artwork In her bathroom. Now she owns one of the East Village's most successful galleries. To stay in touch, she regularly attends clubs whose walls are covered with the work of artists she represents. Who first thought of showing art in nightclubs is a point of endless contention, but the best guess is now-well-known artist Keith Haring, who curated a show in 1979 at Club 57 during its heyday. Anyway, all the right places now do it—and some even specialize in it. Haoui (pronounced Howie) Montaug, 32, a veteran clubgoer who helps run Danceteria, explains the phenomenon: "Everybody who used to be a musician in a band is now a painter. For the locals, art is a bigger draw than anything else, including music. And the clubs have to go with what people want." Neophyte fashion designer Michael Wylde, 23, praises the clubs for the same reason most painters do: "Showing there makes my clothes more accessible to the people who buy them. Nobody I know would go to a fashion show at noon."

Kamikaze, in a warehouse next to the Hudson River, runs the most elaborate art shows. Every other Thursday curator Stacie Teele, 23—or one of her friends—opens a new exhibit with an average of 20 contributors. During the past nine months about 1,000 young artists have hung their works for as many as 1,500 art lovers per opening. Says Stacie, "In a gallery you look at a painting for two seconds. In a club, you look at it several times a night." It was probably Limbo, a two-year-old art bar now closed for a move to a larger space that ran the first club art auctions. Once 80 works were sold in a single night for $40 to $575 apiece. Moreover, the benefits are not merely monetary. "The first go-round you look at the paintings," says one faithful viewer, "the second go-round you look at the people."

On any given night the four floors of Danceteria might house an art exhibit, a live band, a dinner party and a fashion show. Across town, 8 B.C.—located in a deteriorating 1850s farmhouse with a large stage (and a slight cockroach problem) oh a burned-out street—sometimes presents five short theater pieces a night. Area, an immaculate space in New York's old Pony Express building, celebrates its complete redecoration every six weeks with a special Wednesday bash. On Mondays exotic performers invade the Area dance floor for Obsession nights to act out such compulsions as "pets" and "body oddities." Limelight, a traditional disco on many nights, despite its location in a former Episcopal church, also sponsors wild theme parties. Recently art director Malcolm Kelso, 34, recreated scenes from different Fellini movies there; another night he threw a pajama party for 1,600 people. Meanwhile, the Limbo crew runs a production company called?Anonymous? Productions that books about 100 acts (including the Pop Tarts) into various clubs.

All this activity does not go unappreciated. Desirable patrons are under steady—though imaginative—emotional siege. Stephen Saban, 38, who writes a column about the clubs for Details, a fashion and nightlife magazine, jokes that they send him invitations every 15 minutes. Danceteria and the Pyramid print newsletters every two weeks, Area invitations come with a dog bone, a beach thong or other prizes. Of course, the hippest club-hoppers—like Saban and Dianne Brill—don't need invitations to know which way the wind is blowing. Dubbed the Queen of the Scene, fashion designer Brill, 25, goes out midweek—weekends are too crowded—but this Florida native knows New York's nightlife better than most. "A 'scene person' has to be involved in art, fashion and music and have a pretty good understanding of what's fresh in these mediums," says Dianne of the hundreds of club-goers she sees nightly. "You also have to be active—at least go to the key parties once a week. It takes discipline to know when to go out and when to stay in. Believe me, having fun is work." Then, with an appropriately dramatic sigh, she adds, "What a life."

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