Thursday, December 10, 2009

CRUCIBLE OF CREATIVITY: Ethel Eichelberger



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The crowd was swelling. Go Go boys writhed like gargoyles above an eager mass of dancers. People looked fantastic. New York City Punk was morphing into new wave, no wave, hardcore, ska punk, skinhead, straightedge, and a style so fleeting it didn’t even last long enough to get a name…I’ll call it Vegas Punk.
On the night of April 12, 1984, Ethel Eichelberger was dancing for tips on the Pyramid bar. He wore three platinum wigs piled into a pompadour, a fifties poodle skirt with multiple stiff slips, black opera gloves, diamond bracelets, two pairs of diamond earrings glued to each ear and six inch, red vinyl, platform Maryjane shoes. Ethel had a lavender neon sign that glowed near his feet, which read: “Ethel.” I yelled to get his attention.

Ethel bent down, took two dollars from my hand, and tucked it into his imaginary cleavage.

Then he laughed in his male voice and handed the money back to me: “Oh Phoebe!”
Ethel was an alumnus of the Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He expanded on Ludlam's serio-comic style, performing one-man shows about the greatest women in history. He did shows with names like Catherine was Great, Klytemnestra, Mrs.Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch Kids, and Mimi the Maid.

“Phoebe, did you eat today?” Ethel said. “Go buy yourself a cheese sandwich.”
Ethel stood up in all of his six-foot-five-inch glory. He turned, showing the huge tattoo on his back: a crude but sincere angel playing a harp. When Ethel got the tattoo he told the ink artist,
“Make it big! Big enough to be seen from the stage.”

As if to embrace the scene, Ethel spread his gloved arms like black wings, and twitched his jeweled, feathery fingers.
The crescive mass of moving-man-flesh surged toward the stage, and Emcee Ann Craig, a dark beauty with a size 0 silhouette, stepped into the green spotlight. The DJ stopped the music. Anne’s voice rose above the laughter of young drinkers.
“Bon Vivants! Addicts! Friends! I am proud to introduce the first band of the night: Carbon!”
Ethel cheered. He raised his knee up over his arm, using the bent inner elbow as a hook, waving the long black stockinged leg high in the air. He was doing the Can Can! I recognized the step from Toulouse Lautrec’s prints of Parisian cabaret artists. Ethel was screaming and smiling and dancing, but Carbon wasn’t quite ready. They were testing their equipment. A microphone squealed.

The Pyramid still stands at 6th St. and Avenue A. It hasn’t changed. There’s no ambiance, no d├ęcor. There are no glitzy effects, no smoke and bubble machines, no lasers. The Pyramid is dirty, dusty and it smells as it always has: like a bar. It’s nothing more than a badly lit brown box, a 3000-square-foot unfinished space with a great big stage and an excellent PA. But you don’t need a million dollar renovation to make an art renaissance; all you need are a few geniuses, a place for them to perform and a kick-ass sound system. And we had it all.
” Phoebe let’s do a show together,” Ethel said. “Right here at the Pyramid. We’ll call it Toulouse Women! We’ll do it in French and English! With two accordions!
“Moulin Rage!” I said.
Ethel screeched, “I’m Jane Avril!”
“I’ll be Yvette Guillbert! Oh Ethel…I’m so honored…”
Ethel stopped dancing. The leg hung from her arm like a fishnet apostrophe.
“Phoebe, strong women make me feel strong.”
“But who will play Toulouse Lautrec?” I said.
Ethel planted her feet on the bar, put her gloved hands on her hips and looked down at Michael Oppedisano. He gazed adoringly at Ethel.

Michael and I met during a production of Jean Genet’s The Balcony at the Performing Garage in Soho. I was the resident composer for the Wooster Group and Michael O was an actor. We acted and improvised and worked with Willem Defoe, Spalding Grey, and Ron Vawter. Micky O and I were the youngsters of the group: we became best friends. He was a multitalented artist, a homosexual, a short, swarthy Jean Cocteau look-alike from a poor family in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Michael O didn’t have a penny but he was fabulously rich in imagination, talent and style. Michael worshiped Ethel. He begged, “Let me! Let me play Toulouse!”

The opening chords of the band drowned out Michael O’s plaintive lisp. Carbon was an ensemble fronted by a guy playing an amplified ironing board with a bow. He was bald and dressed in black from head to toe: it was Eliot Sharp. The music was atonal, intelligent, beautiful and insane. I looked at the crowd. They were loving it.

In the mid to late 80’s East Village clubs were patrons of serious experimental music and performance art. Why not? The Pyramid existed primarily to sell drugs, so Bobby Bradley, who fronted the club, could afford to throw his favorite artists a bone. Hence, Ethel, at 42, long in the tooth and no beauty, could pick up a few shekels for his ingenious one man productions by performing the occasional Go Go dance; and Eliot Sharp, one of the most innovative guitarists on the planet, had a chance to flex his large brain, playing an ironing board—a charmingly extravagant act of goofball minimalism. The Amplified Ironing Board was going over well: the crowd was cheering.
Ethel turned back to me and touched the stacked heel of his sex toy Maryjanes.
“My feet are killing me honey.”
Ethel Eichelberger, blessed seraph of my memory, greasepaint genius, much-missed pal, leapt off his pedestal and disappeared into the crowd. His set was over.

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