Friday, December 4, 2009

Welcome to Cerebrum. Do you have a reservation?



FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION Cerebrum
Broome and Crosby streets, Manhattan

The 1960s were a decade of experimentation, and not just for people. As rock and roll tripped out, so did the places you went to hear it. No longer were clubs merely about alcohol and frivolity, music and fashion. A nightclub could create 'happenings', self-conscious environments of pleasure; recreational drugs helped.

The most glamorous example of this sort of public venue in downtown Manhattan was probably the Electric Circus, psychedelic haunt of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, mixing light shows and performance art onto a dance floor of fashionable mods. But even the swirling, mohair environments of the Factory's favorite club paled in comparison the experiments going on at Cerebrum.

I have to say, part of my fascination with Cerebrum was the hard time I had in researching this article. The place was open less than a year (winter 1968 to summer 1969), and its participants were on the true art fringe. Its most famous patron was most likely Jimi Hendrix -- who stole the club's designer John Storyk to create his fabulous Electric Lady Studios -- but I found virtually no mentions of this in biographies. In fact, it took me a few articles to even clarify that the place even existed, that it wasn't a mass acid hallucination conjured up by a frothing artist in a Nehru jacket.

Cerebrum, which opened in November 1968, was not a mere club but, as New York Magazine calls it in March 1969, a "place implicitly geared to voyeuristic impulses."

Located at 429 Broome Street at Crosby Street in SoHo, Cerebrum was the brainchild (ahem) of a group of underground theater artists who decided to turn their highly groovy loft parties into regular events, combining theatrical flair with the frippery of psychedelic drug culture.

Chief among the creators was Ruffin Cooper Jr., son of a Texan banker would later achieve some renown as a abstract photographer in San Francsico. To the surprise of no one, his other collaborators, all fabulously creative, would soon be connected to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, still in its early days of absurdist productions: Richard Currie the lighting designer, Bobjack Callejo its set designer.

Imagine the city at night with the radio on. You're listening to WNEW-FW and the sweet sounds of Allison "Nightbird" Steele, when suddenly you hear an unusual commercial describing a strange experimental nightclub, an "electric studio of participation." A "super, electric, turned on, far-out fantasy land. Two 3 hour sessions nightly. 8 to 11 and 11:30 to 2:30 am. Reservations are necessary. Call 966-4031. But above all get to CEREBRUM."

Behind the unmarked door on Broome Street, the collective pushed the boundaries for the bizarre.

Arriving at the darkened street -- SoHo's warehouses have yet to meet haute couture in 1968 -- you press a small lighted doorbell and enter an entirely dark room. A voice asks, "Welcome to Cerebrum. Do you have a reservation?" You are, after all, in a 60s speakeasy. After passing muster, you're lead into an orientation room, take off your shoes and pay your admission (anywhere from $1 to a pricey $7, depending on the night.)

Ghostly figures inhabit Cerebrum, lost in trances*


At Cerebrum, you let everything go. Your clothes even. Once inside, you were asked by a kind young fellow dressed in silver to get completely naked. He then handed you your ensemble for the evening -- a flowing, diaphranous robe, hooded and silky, faux futuristic.

Once garbed, you are led inside via a ramp to a gigantic white room, trippy projections on the wall, distortions of a wide variety of music buzz around you, a thin, scented fog sitting in the air. There's no liquor, only water and marshmallows, served by the so-called 'Cerebrum guides', who led visitors through this strange psychedelic spa. No gabby conversations at a crowded bar, only people sitting and staring.

The club was divided into elevated platforms which you could visit to experience the unique stimulants taking place there -- headphones with groovy music, musical instruments, balloons, kaleidoscopes, children's toys -- reclining on white pillows on lush white carpeting. Sometimes the 'guides' came along and smeared menthol on yoru lips or tingly lotions upon your skin.

Clearly, it wasn't those marshmallows enhancing your experience here. Cerebrum clientele were a stoned, listless lot, lost in the vague, spectral imagery and sounds. In Currie's own words, from a biography on the Ridiculous Theatre Company, "Several people said that it always looked like it was going to become an orgy at any moment."

Time Magazine called it "a theater without a stage show, a cabaret without food or liquor, a party without an occasion"; the fact that Time was there at all meant it was on the cultural radar, at least with drug-friendly, downtown fashionistas. But its novelty drew only the bravest of trendy crowds.

Cooper explains it this way to Time: "We are trying to overturn every entertainment convention—the 'sit here,' the 'look that way,' the 'dance over here'."

Enter the parachute. You like the parachute.*


Eventually they break out the parachute, with patrons grabbing each side and watching as the white billowy fabrics flaps back and forth in the air. Like what you did in elementary school, except with lots of stoned adults.

Cerebrum stretched the boundaries of interactive theater within the environment of an incredibly chill-out party. And like any good off-off-Broadway production, it closed a lot sooner than it should.

It shuttered early summer of the very next year. The reason was rumored to be mob related. Keep in mind this was the summer of riots outside the mob-run Stonewall bar. But most likely a concept of this type is probably not meant to last. With the 70s on the horizon -- with CBGB's, the Mudd Club, and Studio 54 at the door -- a club like Cerebrum seems positively quaint.

FUN FACT: Less than 40 years later, Heath Ledger would die a couple doors down, at 421 Broome Street. Ledger was 28 years old when he died, Cerebrum habitue Hendrix was 27.

You can read here a short recollection by Bart Friedman here, and there's a nice academic description of the experience here.

*Photos above are by Ferdinand Boesch and are from here. I'm sorry they're so blurry, but I copied them from a paper and I just had to have pictures of this place to accompany the article.

But the greatest treat is that there's actual video evidence that this place actually existed, narrated by Ruffin Cooper himself. This video takes awhile to load, but it's worth it:

19 comments:

  1. Great Post! Kind of hard to picture the same Jimi Hendrix from the Monterey Pop Fest. at Cerebrum. The Clubbers in the video playing with that large grey Baloon/Ball remind me more of the Orb scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper.Do you think this was the same crowd that would frequent Plato's Retreat on a Friday night a decade later?

    BTW I've been following and enjoying your stuff on Networked Blogs and also write about NY History @ http://apps.facebook.com/blognetworks/blog/family_archive/

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  2. Wow! Impressive research there. A while back someone asked me if I knew anything about a club where the patrons had to change into white robes and I didn't know what to tell them...dis must be de place!!! Those orbs remind me more of Rover in "The Prisoner." Cerebrum might've been a little too arty-farty for my taste had I been alive back then, but I'm still digging the concept.

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  3. I really doubt that this place was "mob related". Since there was no alcohol or cigarette machines, the mob wouldn't have been interested in making money off the admission of a couple of bucks from a few dozen people.

    The mob was involved in more traditional discos at the time.

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  4. Hi

    The idea for Cerebrum came out of my loft at 18 Wooster Street, above the theatre where Dionysius in 69 played where I did light and sound shows. We had come back from a musical event in Omaha..'Ruffin Cooper's New World Sound Machine' (Ruffin Cooper, Bob Jack Callejo, John Brown, Jeff Rudnick and myself) and we thought we should take it public. We had shops on 6th Avenue by O'Henry's Steak house and on Canal street which financed it. The mob did try to heavy hand us but didn't get in as a friend of ours was a don. They even went so far as to seed some of the robes one night with fleas....
    It's refreshing to hear that it gave enjoyment to
    some people.

    David Randolph
    London England

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    1. Hello David,

      I work for a record company dedicated to reissue obscure psychedelic and progressive music from the 60s-70s. If you got unreleased music from Ruffin Cooper's New World Sound Machine or anything releated to the Cerebrum club, please get in touch

      All the best
      Alex

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  5. Mr. Randolph,
    I am doing a research paper and stumbled across your comment on this article. The sources on Cerebrum are very interesting yet do not fully describe some of the topics I am hoping to address.

    Would it be possible to ask you a few questions about Cerebrum? If so, could you please email me at set1@rice.edu? It would be incredibly helpful if this were possible.

    Thank you very much,
    Sloane

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  6. I worked as a hostess at Cerebrum back then with my then boyfriend Sky Blue. I was a student at NYU at the time and one of my professors came in one evening.
    I think I got an A after that. Could it have been the
    see through robes?
    Katy K, Nashville TN

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    Replies
    1. Hi Katy, Yes, it coulda been the robes or as I like to think of them, 'diaphanous gowns'. Such a trip, discovering this site. I've been talking about Cerebrum for years and sometimes I wonder if it really happened. I was one of the '3 superguys and 3 supergirls" who answered Ruffin's ad for same in the Times or was it the Voice? Do you remember his silver space suit? So many memories of that place. If you can't place me by name, I stayed with Alan of Lafayette St. and cooked those Friday night spaghetti dinners up there. Speaking of diaphanous, do you remember Gerri?, John Storyk's wife - - -OMG. Any word on Sky Blue? That's it for now, from Philadelphia. . .Hank Brann

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    2. Katy, Moondog is hank(now henry)brann

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    3. Hi I went to work at Cerebrum shortly after it opened for a couple of months or more...My friend Alan Sperl was inventing some interesting psychedelic art toys fro the club...I stayed with him and John Brown on Prince St. I believe it was...later I also stayed at Ruffin Cooper's basement apartment on West End Ave....My interview consisted of tripping with the founding fathers of Cerebrum a couple of days after arriving at Alan and John's place...it was a blast...a very fond memory indeed....Hi John, Richard, Bob...and to Ruffin in the celestial sphere....and to all the lovely interesting people I met and worked with during that short part of my fun filled life...Love and Hugs...Janii

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  7. As member of Ruffin Associates I designed the lighting for Cerebrum. It was pre computers so it took 22 of us to light, project and guide the experience. Many happy memories. We closed in June of '69 mostly because we couldn't afford air conditioning.
    Richard Currie

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    1. We only spent $8,000.00 of JB's money to build the place. Yes, many happy memories. signed Hank Brann

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  8. Great to read this post. I was on Broome Street today looking for a knitting store. Memories of Cerebrum came to mind and it was great to see that it is on the internet. I remember getting into the white sheets and playing with a child's toy. It was a lighted thing with colored pegs that you placed into holes to make a design. I held it up to my face and thought I heard someone comment on that, watching me. I was 20. I don't remember an orgy, perhaps I went on an off night. Now, I knit, drink herbal tea and have cats. Everything changes.

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  9. I've been listening to Henry Brann's stories of Cerebrum for years..finally turned to Google to learn more. Great to find this....

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  10. For years, I've been hearing Henry Brann tell stories about Cerebrum. Great to find this post!

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  11. I attended Cerebrum once. I was from NJ and poor, had to save up for the experience (gas, tolls, admission, etc), so glad I did. A wonderful evening. At one point I was walked up to the front where other attendees were encouraged to start wrapping me in aluminum foil from my ankles to the top of my head, being careful around my nose so I could easily breathe. When the wrapping was completed I couldn't budge and had to be supported from falling over! Then someone shouted "free Bob"! What felt like hundreds of hands started ripping piece after piece of the foil off of me, until indeed I was "free". A fun, collective experience!

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  12. Hi I went to work at Cerebrum shortly after it opened for a couple of months or more...My friend Alan Sperl was inventing some interesting psychedelic art toys fro the club...I stayed with him and John Brown on Prince St. I believe it was...later I also stayed at Ruffin Cooper's basement apartment on West End Ave....My interview consisted of tripping with the founding fathers of Cerebrum a couple of days after arriving at Alan and John's place...it was a blast...a very fond memory indeed....Hi John, Richard, Bob...and to Ruffin in the celestial sphere....and to all the lovely interesting people I met and worked with during that short part of my fun filled life...Love and Hugs...Janii

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  13. I Went to Princeton with John Storyk. He graduated before me and moved to the Village with his new bride, Geraldine. They called me up and asked if I would like to spend a couple weekends with them working on this nightclub project they were doing. I did and was there for the opening. It was unforgettable to say the least!

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  14. I was involved in Cerebrum but am probably not remembered much even though I essentially ran the place in the partners names for most of the five months after the opening month's excitement. But I sorta lived there. Well, not sorta... I camped out in the basement for about four months when I had a falling out with my roommate.

    There are a lot of fuzzy memories in this thread. Fleas in the robes? I spent almost every day of seven months with the "partners" (Ruffin, Bob-Jack, John) and never heard that one. We didn't send the robes out, we walked them over to a laundromat in a duffel bag and washed and dried them every morning, ourselves. Da Boyz would've never had access to them. Nice urban legend in the making, though.

    Ruffin wasn't living in a "basement apartment" on West End, but a very nice "street level" apartment. I know, I tried to take over the lease when he was taking off to hang with Wavy Gravy for a while (if you ever see a virtually unknown film called The Great Medicine Ball Caravan, Ruffin's in a scene when the "caravan" hit Taos, I think it was).

    A lot of the "confusion" on some of these points stems from the fallibility of human memory. We all remember things through different filters and constant repetition (and it is constant - for those of us who were involved) makes that coffee shop discussion version more real in our memories. But a lot of the differing impressions are because of the way the place came into being and then existed. There was a strong coterie of creative/artistic types in the beginning, but once the place got going the day to day operations were left to the lowly paid "volunteers". One or another of the partners would generally show up of an evening, we'd spend ten minutes bitching about how little we took in that night (or occasionally oohing over the rare decent night), and we'd go up to one of the booths and play with the equipment for a while. The "mixer" was whomever felt like doing it that night, but John G. Brown got dibs any time he was present. The visuals were also John's doing for a large part. But "in the beginning" they were hand painted/masked slides, all coordinated and themed and scripted. By the third month it was people playing with the klieg lights on the master board and an occasional attempt at coordinating things into an "environment". (Remember the plug line, anyone.... "Environmental Participatory Entertainment". We were full of ourselves, weren't we?) For most of the place's existence it was mood lighting coordinated to go with the music and the music was anything that that night's "mixer" wanted to put on.

    Can anyone confirm that Ruffin Alcorn Cooper who passed away in California in '92 was "our" Ruffin?

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