On a Wednesday night in early October, 2006, a proudly voluptuous African-American woman named Tangerine Jones stumbled onto the stage of the Bowery Poetry Club
and lethargically tried to take off her evening dress. But before she could get herself unzipped, Jones collapsed on the stage holding an empty bottle of red wine.
It was all part of an act, of course. The audience went wild over this pseudo-risqué version of the Hokey Pokey. Jones was one of a lineup of bold and brassy entertainers who performed in October’s rendition of Surf Burlesque on the Bowery, whose theme was “fallen women.”
For the performers, bar staff, and even audience members who had paid eight dollars to see this evening of campy strip tease, the show had a certain “lost New York” feel about it.
Burlesque may be back in style, but clubs that cater exclusively to non-traditional comedy and performance are a dying breed in downtown Manhattan, where an ultra-competitive real estate market has rendered the future of counterculture performance quite uncertain.
In 2003, the Lower East Side club, Surf Reality, held its last evening of alternative comedy because owner Robert Pritchard couldn’t pay the rent. For ten years, he had been paying $3,500 for two adjacent lofts—one that housed the club and the other that housed his family—at the corner of Stanton and Allen streets. Then one day, the landlord asked for $8,000 for the 2,500-square foot combined space, plus two percent more every year, in addition to property taxes.
In an October, 2006 interview with this reporter, Pritchard explained that his club had survived for a decade as a haven for “Art Stars” whose brand of edgy humor was not accepted at conventional clubs. Somewhere between improv comedians and performance artists, the Art Stars created a culture of acceptance at their open mikes to give performers room to push the boundaries of self-expression.
Although he was admittedly “the world’s worst businessman,” Pritchard did not stand a chance against the onslaught of development that had begun to infringe upon his beloved Lower East Side.
While Surf Reality helped give rise to comedians like Dave Chappelle, The Upright Citizens Brigade, and Sarah Jones, all of whom have since caught the attention of the mainstream entertainment industry, Pritchard did not seek fame for his little loft theatre. All he wanted was a place for performers to be themselves. Many others had the same noncommercial ambitions, and for several years, the Art Star community flourished in the dingy tenements of the Lower East Side. Now these venues are an endangered species.
It is almost unthinkable, by today’s standards, that these clubs did not sell alcohol or other refreshments. They relied on nominal fees paid by performers, who in turn were compensated by money paid at the door. Nowadays, selling alcohol is almost essential for a small performance venue to survive. “There were seven storefront theaters is 1998 on the L.E.S. Now there are zero,” said Reverend Jen
, a local open mike celebrity and friend of Pritchard’s, in an email. “Luna Lounge where I performed on Mondays got bulldozed. Collective [Unconscious] where I did my open mike for ten years, got bulldozed and Surf Reality where I performed every Sunday night is now a Bikram yoga studio.”
To walk through the Lower East Side in 2006 is to see that the starving artist of yore no longer has a place amongst hipster lounges, boutique restaurants and couture bakeries.
Yet it was only ten years ago that the musical, “Rent
,” first glorified the struggle of downtown bohemians to live and make art in a city whose corporate transformation was disenfranchising their creative community, block by block. This struggle, which was still pertinent when the show debuted in 1996, ended with the closure of clubs like Pritchard’s.
But where did the Art Stars go? Not necessarily to the outer boroughs, as one might expect. In Surf Reality’s case, the “show goes on” in the same neighborhood that forced Pritchard to close his own doors. He hosts Surf Burlseque every month at the Bowery Poetry Club, located at 308 Bowery at Bleecker St. “I’m not disgusted,” he says, when asked why he has not turned his back on the borough that shunned him, “I’m just sticking up for what I believe in.”
By booking space at likeminded venues that have beefed up their food and liquor sales in order to stay open, Surf Reality is surviving in a piecemeal fashion until it can stand on its own two feet once more.Surf Burlesque
is just one example of how the anti-establishment former club owner has managed to keep his legacy alive. Pritchard also hosts monthly installments of Radical Vaudeville and Faceboyz Open Mike
(an institution itself since the heyday of Surf Reality) at MoPitkin’s House of Satisfaction
, on Avenue A at Third Street.
These shows are considered cultural vanguards amidst the traditional poetry slams, standup comedy, and other “safe” forms of entertainment around them. “Things are becoming homogenized very quickly,” said Tangerine Jones, in an email. Jones just started performing Burlesque in 2005 but has lived in New York for several years. “I think the performance venues shutting down is indicative of a larger issue in this city. The arts don't have the sort of organic space to gestate as they did before.”
That larger issue, according to Pritchard, is that money is now more important than anything else. “We’re a market with a town around it and we used to be a town with a market in it.” Yet he does not deny that this market, to some extent, is vital to a venue’s success. In reference to the yuppies who have become his new neighbors and are starting to become audience members, Pritchard says, “we need them. We seduce them. Then we insult them. We say ‘buy our art,’ but don’t steal our aesthetic.’”
It would be hard to imagine a Lower East Side without this aesthetic, which may be why Pritchard and his Surf Reality cronies are still holding their ground.
Copyright © 2006 by Suzanne