Downtown Comes Uptown: Visiting the ‘Club 57’ Exhibit at MoMA

Posted on: November 6th, 2017 at 5:13 am by

Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy). Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Broadway songwriting duo, got their start at Club 57. Shaiman announced the MoMA opening on Facebook, sharing some of his stories:

“Read all about it! Club 57 was the place where Scott & I started writing musicals and where we had the most fun of our lives. Scott’s legendary productions of ‘Boeing-Boeing’, with Ula Hedwig, Georgia F. Wise, Lisa Passero, J.P. Dougherty & Scott Covert, ‘The Trojan Women’, with a cast of thousands, ‘The Sound Of Music’ with Holly Woodlawn and J.P. Dougherty as both Capt. Von Trapp AND Mother Abbess, original musicals ‘Livin’ Dolls’ with Karon Bihari, Jim Rich, Zora Rasmussen, Bobby Siems, Donna Destri and Scott Covert (tracks by Man Parrish) and Laura Kenyon’s ‘Trilogy Of Terror’ with Cameron Johann and the late great Vicki Schrott…once again, the most fun nights of our lives. And then AIDS came and obliterated half of the ‘club’ members…John Sex, Andy Rees, William Fleet Lively, Tom, Bruce, so many, many names…Now it’s 35 years later and we’re all on exhibit at MoMA!”

Clubgoer Justin Ross chimed in, characterizing Shaiman’s and Wittman’s shows as “providing some of the most fun nights of my life as well. Holly singing ‘My heels are alive with the sound of music’, the audience having to get up and turn their chairs for each scene as the show was staged on the edges of the room, in the rectangle as it were!”

Ron Magliozzi, Sophie Cavoulacos at MoMA talk. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

MoMA curator Ron Magliozzi, speaking at a talk we attended there, described movie nights where the audience was “encouraged to yell at the screen, to interrupt it, to fool around.”

John Del Gaizo, who was a bouncer at Max’s Kansas City at the time, describes going to Club 57 in the early days: “Club 57 was still open when we got off work (around 4:00 – 4:30 am) so it was a place to go and hang even after a full night at Max’s. When you’d emerge—sometimes around 7 a.m.—it’d be daylight and the people off to working jobs would be zipping by, starting the day, while we crawled back to our coffins.”

Joey Arias and Janus Budde Screen Test, 1980. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

The artists and performers were close friends. Kenny Scharf said that he spent more time at the club than at his apartment. Downtown legend Joey Arias, a singer and performer who was a major part of the performances at the club, told us how one day, “Keith Haring painted a cabinet door in my apartment.” The door is included in the exhibit at MoMA.

The creativity, and the “let’s put on a show!” attitude, which poured out of every square inch of the club, seemed like it would never end. But many of the club’s contributors either moved on to bigger venues or were lost to the AIDS crisis. The heroin epidemic at the time didn’t help, either. The club, which had only been open for a few years, closed around 1983.

Richard Hambleton, Untitled Shadow Man, 1983. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

For people who had experienced the vibrant and wild scene, seeing the show was extremely emotional. We thought of our favorite performers and artists. Among them was Richard Hambleton, a street artist, before there was a street art movement. Hambleton was gifted and driven, creating eerie and realistic crime scenes on empty streets, but was best known for his “shadow men,” which were life sized dark figures, painted on buildings (we will never forget leaving a club at 4 or 5 in the morning, and doing a triple take whenever we saw one). After battling first heroin, then cancer, he passed away just a few days before the exhibit opened. Having paved the way for artists like Banksy and Swoon, we had always hoped his work would endure. And, finally, he got into MoMA.

“Club 57: Film, Performance and Art in the East Village, 1978 – 1983” runs until April 1st, 2018. Upcoming film screenings and events are listed here.

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