PLAY-HOUSE OF THE RIDICULOUS, PERFORMER, MUSICIAN
Ruby Lynn Reyner is a seasoned performer with a longstanding career, notably as the leading actress in John Vacarro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous (1967-1988) theater troupe. In addition to her theatrical pursuits, Ruby is the frontwoman of the band Ruby and The Rednecks. She is also one of my closest friends.
I met Ruby when I was fresh into New York City, alone without friends and not yet taking a stab at establishing a social life. She was riding on her red (everything is red with Ruby: hair, clothes, make-up, glasses, accessories) scooter and hit a man casually walking with his Whole Foods grocery bags down 14th Street. As she drove away without stopping to check in on him, I saw the sticker on the back of her scooter that read, “I Don’t Give A Fuck.”
A few days later, I saw her sun tanning in Union Square. I walked over, and we talked. I immediately realized she was the pivotal Downtown New York City fixture, Ruby Lynn Reyner. For nearly seven years, Ruby and I have been the best of friends. We laugh, sing, and talk about Downtown drama 50-plus years ago through current. It is always a blast when we hit the town. One night at midnight, we went to an open mic piano-backed night at Alan Cumming’s club, Club Cumming. Surrounded by young queer types—a foreign concept to many elders—Ruby proudly exclaimed she had no toes and started singing Cry, the Johnnie Ray hit written by Churchill Kohlman. Johnnie Ray was a closeted gay singer who had his biggest hit in 1951. As soon as she belted the first lyrics about a sweetheart writing a goodbye letter, the audience wept. They then laughed at her ridiculous shticks and erupted in thunderous applause.
We have countless memories together, and I cherish our laughs—so many of
them. It shakes me to my core when Ruby is sick and in pain. She is at that point in her life. Being a radical performer stuck in a time warp is not a healthy lifestyle with a retirement plan. It is difficult for a person who fought the system their entire life to adjust to a government-dependent life in their old age. We sing Cry, and then she gets mad at me, throws her hands in the air, and yells that she cannot harmonize with me. This is on video!
Without a doubt, Ruby’s time in John Vacarro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous shaped every aspect of Ruby’s life. The Play-House of the Ridiculous dismantled previously venerated foundations of the art form, rendering naturalistic acting and classical narrative structures no longer indispensable requisites for a work of merit. Extravagant performances, surreal narrative arcs, and ostentatious stagecraft and attire came to characterize this theatrical progeny, which sought to jolt, disconcert, and challenge the sensibilities of unsuspecting audiences. She is a contrarian with a great sense of memory. Mega rock stars KISS stole their make-up from her, and proto-punkers The New York Dolls opened for her. There were no ripped jeans in fashion before Ruby and her ridiculous Rednecks. When I pushed her to describe the sense of freedom representative of the times, she compared it to “doing everything that would shock your parents.”
I am honored to be the Executor of her Artistic Estate. Most of her archive, spanning over 50 years of off-the-wall material (Warhol through Singing in The ER), is digitized and available on our site. Do not call it ephemera! It is timeless and larger than something so esoteric. Folks, we are talking about countless scripts, playbills, flyers, and audio and video recordings. As a kicker, I uploaded an interview I conducted with Ruby in 2020, which is excerpted below.
—August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project
“I love theater. I immediately knew that I was built for the stage and that it was built for me. It was like something I had dreamt of my whole life. As a teenager, I would sneak into New York City. I went to college for a few months but then dropped out and moved to the City. I worked at a clothing firm and met a girl named Sara Screech. We modeled coats together on 7th Avenue. People would approach us and say, 'Come here, darling, let me feel the material.'
One day, Sara invited me to a rehearsal for Heaven Grand and Amber Orbit, the play she was in with the Play-House of the Ridiculous theater troupe. It was at the director John Vaccaro’s loft on Great Jones Street. It was an unfinished and fabulous and huge loft. As soon as I walked into his loft, I never looked back.
John looked at me and immediately said, 'Get on the stage!' He booked me right on the spot. I played a firewoman with Sarah Screech. I thought and hoped that I would one day play the leading character, Alice, the Conqueror’s Wife. I told myself that something would happen to Beverly Grant, who was playing the Conqueror’s Wife. Right before the play started, Beverly Grant twisted her ankle. Before I knew it, Ondine and Louis Walden came to my apartment and said, 'You're going on tonight as Alice, the Conqueror’s Wife—Queen of the Universe.' So, my dream became realized, and I went on that night with no rehearsal.
It was Off Off Broadway, and we got away with everything. Anything went. It was shocking. It was disturbing. It was innovative. It was like an acid trip. There was nothing sacrosanct. In the play Cockstrong, we had a 12-foot penis that hung from the ceiling. The penis was hooked up to the faucet in the dressing room. The penis came at the climax of the Kama Sutra ballet and sprayed water all over the audience. It was during a heatwave. The air conditioning was broken, and the audience loved it.
We had a song that went, 'Formaldehyde baby lives in formaldehyde swims in formaldehyde. Where do the four winds blow? She's the Esther Williams of the sideshow.' It's hard to explain how we got away with it and what the sense of freedom was like. I would say it’s like doing everything that would shock your parents. You can't do things like have a 12-foot dick hanging over the stage and cumming over the audience anymore. You couldn't have a play with a formaldehyde baby. Come on.
Of course, there was glitter and glam as well. I had one review where the reviewer said, 'I would love to have the glitter concessions at Ruby Lynn Reiner’s makeup table.' I didn’t buy glitter. John would order glitter in barrels. Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn would cover her body in baby oil and roll around in it on the ground. She would be completely covered from head to toe in glitter. You would sleep and wake up with glitter all over your sheets. Even if you showered, there would still be glitter. One time, John ran backstage and said, 'Don’t use the red glitter! Don’t use the red glitter! It’s made out of glass.' I had been using it on my lips and thought it was crunchy.
The plays would be packed. Word would get out, and we never needed to promote them ourselves. People would come from all over. You would have people in mink coats sitting beside people in ripped-up jeans. Back then, we ripped our own jeans. They didn’t come pre-ripped. People would come to see what gay theater was, and gay theater was fabulous. We weren’t judging anything or anyone. We were harmonious. We lived together and performed together.
Acting shaped who I am and is my entire life. Theater taught me everything. One day recently, my neighbor came over with her daughter. She said Irina has a part in this play, and she has stage fright. She asked if I could talk to her. I said, 'Listen, no matter what you do or how you screw up, nothing will scare people away from loving you. They are going to love you no matter what you do.' And that's the way I feel about the theater.”