Volume 17, Number 49 | April 29 — May 05, 2005

Coffeehouse Chronicles
“Series of oral histories of Off-Off Broadway as told by the people who created it.”
74A East 4th St.

Photo by Marc Cohen

From left, James Rado (co-author of Hair), Michael Butler (producer) and Tom O’Horgan (director) with Sally Kirkland.

Sally Strickland at the Coffeehouse Chronicles

She joins the cast of ‘Hair’ for a reunion

By Jerry Tallmer

As one turned the corner from Second Avenue into East 4th Street, a whiff in the air was unmistakable. There was grass growing somewhere. New-mown grass. Long time no smell. Clean, sharp, pungent, viscera awakening, remembrance of things past.

The red door. Push it open. People jammed into the tiny La MaMa lobby. Excuse me, is Sally Kirkland here someplace? Yes, she’s already upstairs in The Club. Go right on up. Two and a half flights.

She had telephoned the night before, 25 years at least since last in touch. No idea how she got the number. But here she was, as if only yesterday, on the line, bubbling-over, alive, high-charged, affirmative, unstoppable. Just as if out in the middle of Sheridan Square, yelling up toward the window of the newspaper office: “Hey, Jer! I’m in this show! Naked! I want you to come and see it!”

That was then. This is now. Now the news of the day, she wanted me to know, was her new movie “Neo Ned” at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the “Hair” reunion at The Club at La MaMa. Two separate things, linked by her.

The “Hair” reunion, a Coffeehouse Chronicle produced for Ellen Stewart by La MaMa’s Chris Kapp, was the very next afternoon, Saturday afternoon. Guest speaker: Michael Butler, producer of “Hair” on Broadway. Special guest star: Tom O’Horgan, director of much at early La MaMa and of “Hair” on Broadway. Surprise guest star: Sally Kirkland, an early O’Horgan ingénue who, as it happens, was never in “Hair” off or on Broadway, but had surely done her bit toward breaking open the whole mold of American theater by appearing on one stage or another, off-off-Broadway, back there in the 1960s – before “Hair,” before “O! Calcutta!” — without a single stitch of clothing to figleaf any part of her long, lively, luscious, leggy, interestingly wacky self.

The Internet tells us she has been in 101 movies or TV things, from “Crack in the Mirror” (1960) to “Neo Ned” and “Spiritual Warriors” (both 2005). The one I remember best being “Coming Apart” (1969), in one scene of which she erotically devotes herself to Rip Torn’s shin.

Now, while the room at La MaMa filled up, the Reverend Sally Kirkland, as she is known on radio, introduced everybody to everybody else, got everybody to pose for photographs with everyone else — and of course with her, handsome as the devil in a brocaded red-and-gold jacket that a royal coachman might have been wearing in a 17th-century melodrama.

“Has anybody got a watch?” she yelled. “They’ve given me 20 minutes to speak, and I need a watch!” She got one. The Reverend Sally then led the assemblage in prayer (“Let us inhale peace, joy, and gratitude”) for “artists, playwrights, actors, and directors,” for New York City, and for the ailing and absent La MaMa herself, Ellen Stewart, whose ”magic wand,” the Reverend said, had “brought us all together,” late and soon. “We ask for courage, compassion, a whole lot of chutzpah and guts.”

Then, with no further ado: “I was pronounced dead in 1966. From drugs, you know. Overdosed. Dysfunctional parents and all that. Heart stopped. Lungs stopped. They told me in the hospital: You can never act again. Mustn’t strain the emotions.”

Went back to the cold-water flat on Christopher Street, tub in the kitchen, that she was sharing with actress Susan Tyrell, when one day the phone rang. It was Ellen Stewart. Told Sally that Tom O’Horgan was looking for her. Sally called Tom O’Horgan. One thing led to another. O’Horgan said: “We know you’re this great free spirit,” and spoke of a Megan Terry play in which a man and woman were to be on stage nude. “Well, I thought, as long as I don’t have to be emotional.”

The New Yorker’s Edith Oliver came down “and loved me.” The Voice’s Michael Smith “loved me.” The Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr came down “and wrote: ‘These people ought to be put in prison.’ We read that and were so excited! And then we opened ‘Futz’ ” – Rochelle Owens’s play about a man who falls in love with a pig – “in which they had me riding, nude, on a 500-pound sow, until my nipples went black. I turned vegetarian after that.”

Vegetarian and peacenik. “You can’t carry a gun on a naked body.” She later also starred, nude, opposite Robert Drivas, in Terrence McNally’s “Sweet Eros” at the Gramercy Arts. “There were cops in the back of the theater, and guys jerking off under their clothes, I kid you not.”

Sitting next to Sally on the podium here at La MaMa, to her left, was Tom O’Horgan, director of Broadway’s “Hair” who, she said, wouldn’t let her into that uptown show – “He made me feel guilty for even thinking commercially” — because he wanted to keep her in the downtown double-bill of “Futz” and Paul Foster’s “Tom Paine,”

“Do you remember any of this?” she asked O’Horgan. Who replied with one short word: “No.” But presently added: “I must have auditioned 90 billion people in my life. ‘Hair’ was the most amazing experience of all time. We did plays that people said couldn’t be produced, invented a new form of theater.” O’Horgan also took pains to lavish praise on “Hair” composer Galt MacDermot, who, with Gerome Ragni, wasn’t there Saturday.

To O’Horgan’s left sat Michael Butler, producer of the uptown “Hair.” To Butler’s left, James Rado, co-author of “Hair” with Ragni.

Michael Butler, in his turn, spoke of “the extraordinary torture people go through in the theater.” As a rich young man out of Illinois he had been an investor in “West Side Story” and in “Ondine” – “where I lost my girlfriend to the leading man,” meaning Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer. Butler was preparing to run for the Senate against that squooshy pillar of Republicanism, Everett Dirksen, when his eye was caught by an ad for “the first American tribal musical” at the Anspacher Hall of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. A show called “Hair.” Butler’s grandfather had had sympathy for American Indians.

Bought tickets. Saw the show. It wasn’t about Indians. It was, however, “the strongest anti-war statement I’d ever seen” – and from Roger Stevens, his mentor, Butler wangled an introduction to Papp. Proposed taking the show to Illinois. Papp said no thanks. But a week later telephoned to ask Butler if he’d like to produce “Hair” on Broadway.

“I called the governor of Illinois and said I wasn’t going to run for the Senate, I was going to produce a play.”

The “Hair” he’d seen at the Public, said Butler, “ended with no hope at all – a real downer. Tom O’Horgan brought in hope.”

And Rado and Ragni and Galt MacDermot – James Rado now said – wrote 13 new songs. It was they who had first spotted O’Horgan’s work in “Futz” many months earlier. They’d wanted him to direct “Hair,” but he’d said: “I can’t, babe, the La MaMa company’s going to Europe.” They hadn’t liked what had happed to “Hair” at the Public, and when O’Horgan came back from Europe, they’d asked him again, and he said yes.

“We wanted to cast it all over again. New director. New set. Start from scratch. Michael Butler said: ‘No, I’m not gong to do that.’ But a week later, he called us up and said: ‘Okay, we’ll do that.’ And the show went to another dimension.”

Up there at their mikes – well, Sally Kirkland had made it clear she didn’t need a mike – Jimmy Rado was talking about the scene he’d once written for an audition to get into the Actors Studio. “In it I was a guy who got stuck in a subway turnstile, and Sally is this Radio City Rockette who helps me. Well, she got into the Actors Studio, and I didn’t.”

The Reverend Sally made a wisecrack in response, and Rado made one back, and she said something, and he said something, and as the audience broke up, he said: “What are you doing tonight?” It seemed appropriate to leave them there and go out and see how the grass was blowing on East 4th Street.

Upcoming Coffehouse Chronicles:
April 30 – Harris Family; May 7 – Daniel Haben Clark; May 21 – William Hoffman; June 4 - Michael Locascio; June 18-H.M. Koutoukas; June 25 – Robert Dahdah

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