Bar-04_Bette Bourne

Bette Bourne
Actor, Performance Artist

A video by Michael Kasino, Produced by Larry Mitchell

Letter from Bette Bourne

‘There’s always life at the Terminal Bar’: This is the title Larry Mitchell has given to Chapter 2 in his novel ‘The Terminal Bar’, which was published in 1982. It describes precisely what The Bar was like: its appealing ‘seediness’ and an atmosphere, to which all the people I shall mention contributed. I’d say that underneath this atmosphere varied gems could be found and were found. There was friendliness, affability through familiarity, and really just acceptance of each other; but there was nothing ‘soft’ about it. It had its own edge. I was taken there on my first night in New York at the end of the summer of 1980, where I’d come to seek my fortune. Boy, I certainly found it. There’s nothing like success in New York.

Two of the many people that were influential in my work were Jimmy Camicia and Frank O’Looney. In 1976 Jimmy Camicia brought the work of ‘The Hot Peaches’ to London. I was so excited by their material, and their performing style that I hung around them until thy gave me a job! We toured Europe together, and the next year I now realised you didn’t need money to start a Theatre Group. So thats what I did. I started THE BLOOLIPS. We were very successful, and brought our show, ‘Lust in Space’ to New York, and played it at the Theatre for the New City: then on 2nd Ave at 9th street. Then we went on to the Orpheum on 2nd Ave. where we ran for some months.

I’d met this wonderful man, Frank O’Looney in London working in the Gay Liberation Front office in London’s Kings Cross. It was a couple of rooms in a basement, under a ‘lefty’ bookshop. I’d asked him, if he could he find somewhere for me and my lover Paul to stay if we came to New York City, and he said he would . . .and he did so. In fact he‘d found places for all six of us to stay. This was the first time I’d taken BLOOLIPS, my queer theatre company to New York City. Paul and I settled our things in his tiny apartment on 5th street (on Manhattan’s Lower East Side). Paul went to bed and Frank took me over to The Bar to meet the local crowd. These guys were mostly standing in the corner nearest the entrance to the street, where people could still take in what the action that was on 2nd Avenue, between 3rdand 4th streets. Well, I don’t quite remember what I was talking about, but I was gabbling on and on about this and that. I was probably stoned to some extent and had got them going, laughing and so on. Then I suddenly stopped dead and said, “Am I talking too much?” Everyone roared laughing. What a thing for a queen to say . . . in New York! It was something. Unpretentious is the big word in that bar . . .and most everyone took that on. Nobody had any money really, and they all were doing what they could to survive.

Bill Rice seemed to be the ‘head honcho’ (in the sense that no one could bullshit him; and if they tried they would pay the penalty of revealing themselves as foolish.) Bill was an unusually generous man and a shit-hot painter and actor. Also he was a sort of guru to the people in that neighbourhood . I only had to mention that I’d just done The Importance of Being Earnestin England and he said, “Why don’t you do it here, in my backyard.” So we did. It was hilarious. All the people in it were part of the local community and so were the audience. We did it one very hot summer afternoon in Bill’s back yard on E 3rd between Bowery and 2nd Avenue. The casting was a hoot. I played Lady Bracknell. Clio Young, a very tall and well-built queen, played my daughter, Gwendolen, in a huge summer bonnet, with a deep- southern accent . . .`a la Tennesee Williams. So when I said “Won’t you sit here Gwendolen?” and she replied “I am quite comfortable where I am thank-you, Mo-ma” instead of Ma-ma it was hilarious–especially to my English ear. She was perfect, unhurried and very funny-grande! Lola Pasholinsky played the priest, Cannon Chasuble, a bit like a rugby player; and she was side-splittingly funny. Bill of course, was Miss Prism, with very pulled in cheeks, desperately proper and twittery. Oh there were so many good things. Afterwards, Peggy Shaw of Split Breeches came and thanked me for doing the project; for she understood the local importance of doing Earnest! It’s at these times when I felt really included in The Bar crowd. And this was one of several local gigs I was involved in. There was no money involved, thanks to Bill’s generosity. Everything he did was ‘given’, for he saw the vitality in the local community. I also directed him in shows, and he repaid me by ‘holding the centre’ of most of them. Ulla Dydo, the Gertrude Stein scholar, made her Loft on 2nd street and 1st Ave available for rehearsals. I directed Bill inKing Lear there and she played a small part of Curan. She was a really surprisingly skilled and a ‘true’ actor it turned out. She also threw a party for my sister Val who she’d never met. Val came up from Colorado to visit with me in New York when I played Quentin Crisp at the New York Theater Workshop on 4thstreet between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Later that night we all went for a final drink at The Bar where Val met many of my Manhattan friends, including Ray Dobbins who wrote many plays for BLOOLIPS. Larry Mitchell wrote Get It While You Can, which was cast with local actors. I directed that at the Theatre of the New City. The artistic directors, Crystal Field and George Bartenieff, had invited BLOOLIPS, my company from London, to play there; and we did so successfully for months. We used to go to The Bar every night after the show. That Bar was the local hub of things. I could write a long list of names of the people I knew from The Bar but it would take a long, long time. I worked with and liked so many of them. I don’t think I ever worked in such a close-knit community in my life. Many of us are still in touch and write and call each other regularly. These are a few people not yet mentioned, whom I’m quite happy to talk about.

Tony (Fish) Nunzietta, a good crooner.
Mark Tambella, technical director at La Mama Theatre.
Gary Indiana, writer and director and actor.
Evan Lurie, musician.
John Vacarro, director, and no mistake!
Richard Morrison, visual artist, and Larry Mitchell, writer. They took Paul and I in many times in their beautiful apartment. They came to London and we had lots of good times. Larry and I toured southern England in our BLOOLIPS van the first time he was here,. Richard is a terrific painter. I have a beautiful painting by him that he gave to me hanging at home in my room.

Yes, many things emanated from that Bar . . .local productions of plays or shows, art shows and local gatherings of all kinds. There were plenty of discussions (and rows) as well. It was about the most ‘real’ bar I’ve ever been in; and Bill Rice, as well as Jim Neu, the playwright, were very much at the centre of things. On the left, as you walked in, there was a pool table; and at the back there was a juke box with some very good music on it. The Bar was part of ‘home’ in the City for me, and the first port of call for me whenever I got to the City. I hear from my local spies that it is ’coming back’. Yes, I like The Bar and hope it will revive. It would be so good.

Ever Bette Bourne.