John Vaccaro, who, as the cofounder of the theater troupe Playhouse of the Ridiculous, created his own iconoclastic, provoking stage world and helped advance the course of Off-Off-Broadway theatre, died August 7 in Manhattan. He was 96.
Through his over-the-top, anarchic productions, Mr. Vaccaro sought to demolish the conventions and inhibitions of the theater. Scripts drew on film, literature and folklore. Performances were broad and shameless; he frequently cast amateur performers. Personalities from artist Andy Warhol’s circle were also used. Homosexual themes were embraced at a time when they were generally shunned. Makeup and costuming was heavy and glitter was everywhere.
"Anybody could be in the Playhouse of the Ridiculous theatre,” said performer Penny Arcade in the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “It was all street stars. Homosexuals, heterosexuals, lesbians—it didn't matter, nobody cared about those things. It was all outsiders."
The titles of the works telegraphed it all: Heaven Grand in Arber Orbit, Conquest of the Universe or Where Queens Collide, The Magic Show of Dr. Magico, Persie, a Desert Cheapie, The Nutcracker in the Land of Nuts. The company performed in a variety of small spaces, including La MaMa ETC and Judson Poets Theater, beginning in the mid-60s.
The New York Times once described one play as “the nonplay that is a pastiche of lines from Shakespeare, Aeschylus, 1930s movies, grand opera, TV commercials and comic books, in no apparent order.”
Mr. Vaccaro’s best-known protégé was Charles Ludlam, the actor and playwright who would eventually part with Mr. Vaccaro and form his own company, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which enjoyed greater fame and popularity. Some observers, however, felt Mr. Vaccaro’s artistic contribution to be the greater.
“In my opinion, John Vaccaro was more important than Charles Ludlam,” said Leee Black Childers in Please Kill Me, “because Ludlam followed theatrical traditions and used a lot of drag. People felt very comfortable with Charles Ludlam. Everyone's attitude going to see Charles’s plays was that they were going to see a really funny, irreverent, slapstick drag show. They never felt embarrassed. But John Vaccaro was way past that. Way, way past that. John Vaccaro was dangerous.”
John Joseph Vaccaro was born in Steubenville, OH, on Dec. 6, 1929, to Italian immigrants Salvatore Vaccaro and Mary Gelato. He had a troubled upbringing. He became a drug addict at 15, and continued using drugs until his mid-20s. Later, he suffered a mental breakdown.
He moved to New York City and became involved in the underground art and film community of the early ‘60s, including acting in Jack Smith's Normal Love and Flaming Creatures, and performing in the happenings of Robert Whitman and Walter DeMaria.
In 1965, he founded the Playhouse of the Ridiculous. Most of the company’s early plays were written by Charles Ludlam, Kenneth Bernard or Ronald Tavel. The first production was the 1965 presentation at the Coda Gallery in New York of two Tavel one-act plays, Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro. Vaccaro directed.
In a widely quoted line, Tavel, at the time, wrote, “We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous." (Mr. Vaccaro espoused a different origin story regarding the company’s name.)
Reviewing a 1967 Tavel play, Gorilla Queen, The New York Times wrote, “Gorilla Queen is the avant-garde's Hellzapoppin— outrageous nonsense that impresses you with its energy even when you are doubting its sanity. What's under the surface? A native theatrical shrewdness on Mr. Tavel's part, first of all, that tells him how to extend nonsense for nearly three hours without getting stale.
“Gorilla Queen may be nothing more than a gigantic put-on,” the review continued, “but who can object to being put-on when it is done with the verve shown here?”
John Vaccaro stopped directing in the 1980s. He was living on John Street in downtown Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers came down on Sept. 11, 2001. He was displaced again 2011, when the East Village bar he lived above, Mars Bars, was torn down to make way for an apartment building.
He is survived by a sister, Barbara.