Friday, August 24, 2007

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER: The Electric Circus


To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here

No Chipotle burrito and taco restaurant has ever made me as sad as the one that sits on St Marks Place. I can't be overdramatic and say that every instance of gentrification is a bad one, but this particular case, standing next door to a gourmet grocery store, is a bit more notable than most.

For it stands in the place a former clubhouse and dance hall built all the way back in the 1830s but reached its culture preeminence just over 40 years ago.

The building's backstory sets a juicy notoriety for its later events, as it was a rowdy 19th century meeting place for political and ethnic dissents, throwing yearly carnivals in the street (often mocking the political giant of the day, such as Boss Tweed) and sparking at least one bloody gunfight in 1914 between rival Italian and Jewish gangs!

It sat through some of the 20th century as the Polish National Home (Polski Dom Narodowy), a community hall and restaurant for Polish New Yorkers (whose influences can still be seen all around this area of the East Village). At a certain point in the 1960s, part of the space was opened as a small bar by Stanley Tolkin, whose watering hole Stanley's Bar at 13th and Ave B was already a huge magnet for the bohemian set.


The bar at St. Marks Place attracted the same crowd and, now being 1966, eventually drew the interest of Andy Warhol who, with his film-making collaborator Paul Morrissey, rented the upper rooms from Tolkin, fancied the original Polish name (Andy was of Polish descent) and its new moniker "the Dom," moved in on April 1966 for a series of legendary events he would collectively called "the Exploding Plastic Inevitable."

It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol's talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico. The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet's strange atmospheric music and Warhol's performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street -- according to the New York Times, "everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton" -- way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.

Warhol moved on, and the name would change for a short time to the Balloon Farm. The next year it was sold to Jerry Brandt, who decided to take the avant garde (but rather elitist) Warholian approach and mainstream it into the Electric Circus. The new incarnation helped  define the wild visual and colorful aesthetic of the hippie 60s, a virtual overload of light machines and live music. Sometimes it took its name seriously:

"A young man with the moon and stars painted on his back soars overhead on a
silver trapeze, and a ring juggler manipulates colored hoops and shaggy hippies
who unconcernedly perform a pagan tribal dance...Stoboscopic lights flicker over
the dancers, breaking up their movements into a jerky parody of an old-time
Chaplin movie."

-- Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties (New York:
Abbeville Press, 1990)



And while audiences pulsated to the swirling lights, in the throes of LSD, bands would materialize onstage, often in long jam sessions. It should be no surprise to find out that early incarnations of the Grateful Dead and the Blue Oyster Cult got their start here.

Much as the psychedelic revolution itself died out once the next decade started, so too did the Electric Circus. In March 1970, a bomb exploded on the dance floor (!) injuring 17 people, which couldn't have done much for its waning popularity.

It was eventually turned into a church-run craft center and a community center for substance abusers and the homeless through the 80s and into the 90s. As gentrification swept through the East Village, most of St. Marks remained intact; you can still find rows of punk tee-shirt shops, tattoo and piercing parlors, St. Marks Comics and Kim's Video.

What you can't find is the remnants of the Electric Circus. The building is now the aforementioned Chipotle and a grocery store. And in one corner -- in a move that is either a throwback to its old days or the biggest slap in the face in the world -- is a gift store that sells branded products from CBGB's, another legendary East Village rock club that has since been closed.

Here's what it looked like when I first moved to the city:



(I apologize, I have a few links to post where I got some of my information, but I can't do it from this computer. However some information was obtained at the excellent New York blog: http://streetsyoucrossed.blogspot.com. I'll post the links when I get back on Monday. Have a great weekend!!)

25 comments:

  1. I loved seeing that photo. I was a young and naive college student the first time I went to the Circus. I spent most nights the summer of '68 there. Great memories. I'm writing about my post college life in the city. Do you have any other EC pics?
    Ethel

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  2. Hi, I am Jerry Brandt who conceived The Original Electric Circus On Saint Marks Place, I Still Have Wonderful feelings about the EC I have some nice photos i could post but don,t know how??
    love u all........ Respect Jerry Brandt

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  3. Hi Jerry !
    I'm working on an article for a French web magazine about the Electric Circus and I'm very interested by your story and pics.
    Is it possible to have more details ?
    I of course can give you more about the site.
    thanx to let me know.
    Sophie

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  4. What memories. I started working at the E.C. as a ticket taker. I say working, but in reality we didn't get paid, we got let in for our work. I then went on to work with Pablo, the lighting company that did all the E.C.'s light shows.

    Like Woodstock, if you remembered much of what happened at the E.C. you weren't really there.

    Jerry, if you are listening, always wanted to connect again with Stuart.

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  5. I worked at the Electric Circus, 67-68-ish. I was the fire-eater, and mime/clown, working with another mime named Michael Grando. Larry Pizoni was the director of the circus show. We had a trapeze artist named Sandy (I think), and security was a biker club called the Aliens (which worked, unlike Altamont). Everytime I'm in NY, in the East Village, I stop on St Mark's and bow my head. I wanted to have someone put up a plaque, but nobody in the stores knew who to call.

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    1. the trapeze artist was Sandy Alexander [of the Aliens]... he became the pres. of the NY Hells Angels.... he passed away a few years ago.

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  6. thanks to all whom are interesten
    jerry brandt u can reach me at
    jb18@att.net

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  7. Hello all. I wrote my musicology dissertation about the Electric Circus and I would LOVE to interview each of you about your experiences for my ongoing project. I hope to build a website soon but in the meantime, if you wanted to contact me I'd be delighted to talk with you: mcglone.molly@gmail.com My name is Molly McGlone and now I am advising and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.

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  8. I was there with a group from my college the night it was bombed. Quite the experience for a group of students from a small university in North Carolina.

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  9. I was there and enjoyed the Sponge Room every time I went!The Chambers Brothers played live and I remember..'All You Need Is Love' playing...Wow what glorious memories!

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  10. I was there and enjoyed the Sponge Room every time I went!The Chambers Brothers played live and I remember..'All You Need Is Love' playing...Wow what glorious memories!

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  11. Hello there...I am searching for an original 1969 doors concert poster from the lectric circus.I would be willing to pay $3,000 cash so if you happen to have some then please do give me a call.I also collect vintage bob dylan and jimi hendrix concert posters. Thanx for your help! Andrew 310-346-1965

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  12. wow,what times my friends and i had there. It was at the EC that i heard the Beatles " fool on a hill" for the first time. the light shows were amazing

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  13. Yes WOW, I was one of 5 or 6 people who worked at Limbo for number of years across from the Electric Circus I was there at the opening Night and then on for a long time I remember we use to give discounts to the Circus employees so we get in free can not tell you how many times I was in there but it was allot!!!! It was great time back then... Fillmore East was around the corner and Max's Kansas City was not far away It was a place to be seen and slap 5 East Village was where it was at back then

    Joseph Batista

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    1. Joe... maby i know you from that 1968-69 era..... did u know a girl named Cathy Lamb that lived down 4th st?

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  14. I loved that place ... saw The Ike & Tina Turner Revue & Dreams, among others....halcyon days,indeed.

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  15. Oh Wow, I love this blog, im so excited, after all these decades to hear from people who got to experience the the most amazing Electric Circus, as I did. By far dancing myself into a dazed, psychedelic trance, while absorbing the magical energy of the Chambers Brothers sing TIME, was right up there in my top ten of life altering experiances. I was a runaway, living with new friends in the Village. I used to panhandle on St. Marks Place, and spend all my money on clothes at the Limbo,pizza, and tickets to hear my fav bands, except for the times I used to get in for free. Im in the last phazes of completing my book about my Hell and Heaven living on the streets of NY as a kid in the 60s. hit me back, I'd love to hear more from ya all. Sonny... RebelThredz@gmail.com

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  16. Possibly "The Electric Circus"??

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeZZuQzcEZc&feature=channel&list=UL

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  17. I can't remember exactly how I arrived at St. Marks Place that first night. I had never been to St Marks Place and I certainly didn't know about EC. I was just following a friend of mine who was interested enough in the new culture to find out where to go and what to do. There must have been some kind of happening that night because the streets were full of people. People were hanging all over the stairs leading up to the circus. And, you didn't have to pay. We just walked in. I still remember it emotionally. The big room was completely decorated with fabric amorphously draped on walls and spanning corners and cornices. Projectors behind the fabric ran continuous short loops of films. Of course it was dimly lit so as not to wash out the films. People were everywhere and moved mysteriously in the smoky dim light. I was born in Brooklyn and had already lived a few years in Manhattan, but I never saw anything like this before. The next time I saw EC the decor had changed. I never paid to get in because I was a member of the PABLO Light show.

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  18. By the second time I went to EC, I was associated with Pablo LS - I never ever paid to get in. I only had to tell the ticket taker that I was a member of Pablo LS and they would let me in with no further questions. I recollect that there were a number of acts that night but the only one I can remember was Doctor John, He was spectacular. He and his entourage entered from Stage Right decked out in full Mardi Gras costumes. They threw sparkly dust into the air. Dr. John had 3 girl backup singers with him. They had beautiful voices. I couldn't take my eyes off their sexy serpentine moves. Everything in the act worked together. Dr John put on a very professional show... XXX

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  19. What remarkable memories! Just a hop skip and jump to the Filmore East, or Max's Kansas City, and CBGB's or even Club 82...it was all there. Peace and love music and drugs. I grew up in that remarkable clusterfuck of good feelings. I cannot believe I am still alive. If I had to do it again, i would! lol...growing up
    in the apple's village all that i saw and did...well I thought it
    was only there and nowhere else. Little did I know that we were the pioneers of what music and fun is today. I know I really sound bipolar but im still freaked out by it all. Love and peace to everyone from a true hippy!

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  20. I remember two things about the electric circus from my one visit in 1969. One was the fact that the walls were not at a right angle to the floor, which combined with the strobe lights and swirling crowd, made for a delightfully disorienting experience. The other was a dark room off to the side where couples -- or even strangers I suppose -- could sit and smooch. In addition to all kinds of nooks and crannies for this purpose there was a rotating upholstered carousel in the middle of the room, divided into sections, one per couple. Anyway what triggered my online research just now was seeing the E C as a setting for a scene in Mad Men, where the characters were, you guessed it, smooching.

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  21. sex, drugs, and rock n roll, the circus was the epitome of all that the psychedellic period was.
    too bad you youngings have no idea how fun and liberating the time was.

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  22. I went to a Catholic boarding school and called myself a weekend hippie. When I came home on weekends (1968-1970) I'd be at The Circus or The Cheetah uptown. I loved the Circus. I didn't even know it had just opened.

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