Sunday, March 21, 2010

H.M.Koutoukas; A Remembrance by LJP

My (4) parents moved to Greenwich Village because it was a different kind of place, with all kinds of people. People who were made to feel “different” or who actually were could be comfortable being themselves. It was still a place where differences were celebrated, reveled in—together. The children of Villagers, took this for granted and expected the whole world would catch up pretty soon. If that meant homogenizing in the “melting pot” of New York that would be okay, too. “Fun City”. This was before New York was yoked with the nickname of “The Big Apple” which any way you look at it, is all about moolah.
It’s impossible to bring the range, breadth and scope of Harry (H. M. Koutoukas) or The Village of the 1960’s and 70’s into focus in a few words or pages but in 1959 Harry moved to that Greenwich Village. That Greenwich Village, one of acceptance, promise and hope, exploration and artistic experimentation lived on in Harry until his death.

Harry lived and died at 87 Christopher St. in Apartment No. 9. During his time there, I lived in the building both with my family and (later) without. I was eleven when we moved in and twenty-one when I left for Los Angeles. I got to know Harry from the privileged perspective of childhood.

Very early in our residency, Harry told me that the electricity in his apt. was “generated by albino cockroaches who took turns running on a wheel in his bathtub”.

If he didn’t actually have the roaches mesmerized, he had me.

His mailbox bore a single name; Diana Prince (the actual identity of Wonder Woman). If undesirable mail or bills addressed to Harry somehow managed to get through, he would leave them unopened, mark them with an inked rubber stamp that read: DECEASED and drop them back into the mail.

An elderly Italian lady (Rosie) and her middle aged daughter who also lived in the building would stand in the doorway and people-watch on warm afternoons. Rosie loved the street show but she couldn’t rectify her devout Catholicism with her love of Village characters or her special fondness for Harry. Rosie explained to him that he shouldn’t worry. He wasn’t a homosexual. “You’re just refined.” she said.

“Yes, dear” he’d say with genuine affection.

Harry stayed out late into the night and would often be writing during the afternoons. He liked to wear outfits he called Cos-TUMES. Everything was theater to Harry, it was his “normal” and that exaggerated approach to life itself, translated well through him and his work. He moved with a unique kind of fluidity which he once described to my mother as being “like the inside of a washing machine”. Swooping was so much more interesting and fun than rounding a corner or picking up a bag of groceries in the usual fashion. Harry’s huge protruding eyes and active brows made his expression one of constant awe, and surprise. Those eyes didn’t land on much, they cased everything around him—even if you were sitting across from him engaged in a quiet conversation. Still, he was taking it all in, he heard you and it was all being absorbed for later, to be written into a poem or one of his “camps”. His exotic style could be imitated but not with the intelligence, wit and force of his personality. This sometimes made him hard to please and people had extreme experiences and trying times working with him on his plays. His restless search for perfection of character in life, writing, performance weren’t all style, they came from an exceptional scholarly man.

Even though Harry was highly educated, a philosopher-playwright, he wouldn’t quite allow anyone to take him completely seriously. Doing so seemed to wreck his party. I knew I could never entertain him as well as his own mind was already doing. Still, for whatever reason, he indulged me with his time and gifts until his death. He was one of a very few people when I was young who made me feel as though I had some value as a person in the world.

Someone at his wake mentioned how he would take a word or a concept and change it around to make you completely rethink it, like “to live is to loathe” the original being “to live is to love” (Samuel Butler). All the ironies, and contradictions were intentional and made him memorable to everyone. Everyone who knew remembers things that he said. All told, it was not his attire, his body or his words, but his *being* in the world that was most exquisite and vivid. True Harry was a gas.

In 1972, when portable video first captured the public attention, Rudi Stern (of Electric Circus’ Theater of Light and Let Their Be Neon) invested in the bulky equipment and started the Global Village collective. The idea being that video was going to unite us in the way that the internet finally has but with heART. Harry wrote a script, a play for fire escapes called Suicide Notations. Some of us in the building were conscripted to play parts along with other cast members and we took over the fire escapes on the front of our building for the day while Rudi and crew taped us. (I’ve tried to find out if this video still exists but to no avail. Stern died of cancer in the 90’s)
Later, when I graduated from High School (to no pomp and circumstance and no proud parents) Harry danced up to me on the street and said “Darling. I’ve written a play for you. Rehearsal starts Sunday. The pay is 25.00 a week. I’ll send someone to pick you up.” I was a cocky teenager with a ton of rage and energy, no focus of attention and no real confidence of any kind. That Sunday, to my great surprise, Harry sent Benton Quin, the man who was to play “Eunice, the woman next door” to my apartment. We walked across town together to La Mama E.T.C. and I played "Cordelia Wells, The World's Most Perfect Teenager". The play was "Grandmother is in The Strawberry Patch". Grandmother was played silently from a rocking chair by one of Harry's favorite actresses, Mary Boylan. Harry directed.
Mary Boylan (TVLandPhoto)
On opening night, about ¼ of the way through the play, with critics in the audience, the actress playing my mother went up on her lines and the rest of us struggled to throw lines and reminders to help her get back on track. After a minute or two of this fumbling, Harry came lunging onto the stage from the back row shouting "This is professionalism? Go back. Go back and start again!" So we did.
Later that night, the actress who played my mother was fired and instantly replaced by Harry's psychotherapist. I never knew if she was really his psychotherapist or if that was part of the theater. His casting methods were clearly of the Schwabs drugstore* variety. With Harry it was good to believe in the drama of everything, not to resist it. It always led to feeling/being present in the world even if only by making you self-conscious, second guess yourself, feel like fleeing. Experiencing all and everything was part of the process. After the Village Voice review came out he said. “Darling, I’ve given you a career. Go be an actress.”
And for 20 + years I was an actress. I studied and I worked hard at it mostly because Harry told me to. He jump-started a sense of purpose in me. And sometimes, I even made a living at it – and other times I wanted to kick him in the ankles for diverting me from what I might have been. When I would credit and/or blame him for my career, he would raise his crazy eyebrows and say, “Dar-LING!” and laugh. I always think of Harry as one of my angels. When he came to see me when I appeared on Broadway or told me he was proud of me, that was my OSCAR.

Six years after “Grandmother is in The Strawberry Patch” I was in L.A. at the Whisky-A-Go-Go seeing Nico, when I ran into Tomata du Plenty (Cockettes, Screamers). He said “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I saw you at La Mama in “Grandmother is in The Strawberry Patch” and Harry Koutoukas charged the stage and made you all start over. Was that part of the play? Because that was grrrreat!”

Around that time Harry began calling the people he populated his plays with his “Gargoyles” and told me I was one of the early graduates of The School for Gargoyles. It’s the only degree I hold. In an uncharacteristic move that relieved many but surprised more he also got a telephone. He made sure to tell me. “I’m in the book. Under B. A. Gargoyle.”
Since then, I visited Harry year after year, every time I returned to New York. We enjoyed great and challenging times. We also always had closure. I saw him bitch but never complain, even when he lost a toe to diabetes.

In the last two years of his life, a number of people he felt deep kinship and connection to passed away, two of them were tenants in the building on Christopher almost as long as he was, another was his twin brother (once a bishop in the Greek Orthodox church). Harry seemed to fade. He was having more and more difficulty breathing and getting around, in spite of the donation of a motorized scooter by Yoko Ono (another former tenant of 87 Christopher St.). Dubbed “The Glittermobile” it definitely gave him some extra mileage.

The last time I saw him, in September of 2009, was at his apartment. He was sitting on the side of his bed wearing a very chic and expensive robe. He lit his cigarette right next to his oxygen tank. I thought he was going to blow us to kingdom come right then, but you could never stop him from smoking, even when he was admitting to coughing up bits of lung.

In the spirit of his favorite author, OUIDA, who said “Christianity has made of death a terror which was unknown to the gay calmness of the Pagan.” I thought—okay, I’m on board. This is part of being friends with Harry. Exploding would just have to be looked at as another great adventure we were on, the next, better play.
Some of Harry's Gargoyles
Harry took risks of all kinds, especially with himself. Those who knew him well know that he had many opportunities to die over the years but did not choose them. When I spoke to him approximately February 28, 2010 he was tired, didn’t like for people to have to help him up the stairs, was upset that he wasn’t able to get out and about, said he didn’t want the doctors to remove any more of his foot. This was as close as he’d ever gotten to complaining to me. He was still fiercely and fearlessly himself and I believe he made a choice.

He asked Judson Church’s Rev. Donna Schaper for the “full” Greek Eucharist upon his death. The Eucharist, in Greek Orthodoxy is a metaphorical sacrifice for both the living and the dead. He stayed with the play until he finished the last act.

When the attendees sing Harry out with his own song, “The Rhinestone Crucifix” it won’t be funereal, it will be coda.
To me, Harry's keen intelligence, his very particular faith and loving nature, sharp wit, exotic wardrobe, eccentric talent and his many mysteries will always make him archangel, patron saint, mother/father of all true Greenwich Village denizens. He might well have hidden a pair of giant wings under that famous cape.

That last time we spoke, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him, he said “Think good thoughts.” I did and I will. Photo by Andy Zax
Thank you, Harry. Thank you.

Michael Ellick Sermon on occasion of the passing of Harry Koutoukas

Note: In posting this later, extended version of my remembrance of Harry, somehow the earlier comments were lost. I'm hoping to get them back. In the meantime, please feel free to ask questions, to comment and post again. LJP
Photographs (except where noted) copyright Lisa Jane Persky


Anonymous said...

Very moving Lisa. Love this, loved Harry, love you.


michael said...

Lisa Jane - your memoir is pure Harry. I can't imagine a description that more perfectly sums up his essence. Harry was a close friend to my family, the Harris acting clan of off-off-Broadway My mother was long ago dubbed "a Gargoyle" by our "Sinister of the Arts" (a title Harry wore with pride). In 1966 I was the drummer for "Pomegranada", the lovely operetta about Vanity that Harry and Al Carmines created at Judson, and worked with Harry on other projects. Across the decades my mother Ann, in particular, remained involved in Harry's productions as an actress. In 1982, when my older brother George (aka Hibiscus) died from AIDS at St. Vincent's Hospital ( at age 32), Harry was there with my family at his bedside. They all sensed the moment when my dear brother's soul seemed to fly out the open window. As the family struggled with their grief, Harry sat up, looked toward the window and exclaimed, "Won't you reconsider?" His heartfelt plea expressed how everyone was feeling - and infused the moment with a measure of mirth without taking anything away from its gravity.

Lisa Jane Persky said...

Michael- Thank you for commenting. Your brother was one of the loveliest humans. They've left a tremendous void, our irreplaceables, but not in our hearts.

the slackmistress said...

I commented before that this is a lovely tribute, but reading the extended version brought up this weird sense memory.

When I was growing up in WhiteBread, Midwest (mayo is a birthright! Jello is our official dessert! The two black kids have white parents!) this was the sort of world that I so desparately wanted to live in. (Since I obviously did not fit in where I was.)

While I've read about it from an adult's perspective, I've never read anything about what it was like to be growing up in that world. I hope this is part of some greater/larger LJP project...

Anonymous said...

Yes'm, Ms Lisa, I remember it all.

-love to you,

Harvey Fierstein

Sis Irijah said...

i remember fondly my visit to 87 christopher street...i did NOT want to leave with my parents...i wanted to stay...FOREVER!!!
joanne (jody) carone

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