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RUBY LYNN REYNER (1948-2024)

Basking in the Sun

By August Bernadicou

Ruby Lynn Reyner, Theater of the Ridiculous, Play-house of the ridiculous, john vacarro, charles ludlam, jackie curtis, holly woodlawn, candy darling, ruby and the rednecks
Ruby Lynn Reyner by unknown, circa 1970.

Ruby Lynn Reyner, comedienne, actress, musician, and star of John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous theater troupe, passed away peacefully on March 10, 2024. She was 76 years old.

Ruby was born on January 27, 1948, and raised on Long Island, New York. Her mother was an actress, and her father was a physician. Her first job in New York City was in 1967 when she modeled fur jackets on 7th Avenue. During this time, she met Sara Screech, an Off-Off Broadway actress.

One day, Sara invited her to a rehearsal for Conquest of the Universe, the play in which Sara was performing with the Play-House of the Ridiculous theater troupe. The rehearsal was at director John Vaccaro’s loft on Great Jones Street. Upon entering the loft, Ruby felt an immediate connection.

John looked at her and said, “Get on the stage!” and booked her on the spot. She played a firewoman but harbored hopes of playing the leading character, Alice, the Conqueror’s Wife. Right before the play started, Beverly Grant, who played Alice, the Conqueror’s Wife, twisted her ankle. Later that day, actors Ondine and Louis Walden went to Ruby’s apartment and told her that she was going on later that night as Alice, the Conqueror’s Wife. Her dream became realized, and she went on that night without rehearsal.

Tony Zanetta, who also acted with the Play-House of the Ridiculous, reflected, “Ruby was the perfect leading lady for John Vaccaro’s frenetic, demented Play-House of the Ridiculous. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.” Another one of Ruby’s contemporaries, Agosto Machado, said, “Ruby Lynn Reyner was a force of nature much admired. She dazzled. She was the true reigning queen of the Play-House of the Ridiculous years after she left. She made such an impact.”

Without a doubt, Ruby’s time in John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous shaped every aspect of her life. The Play-House of the Ridiculous dismantled previously venerated foundations of the art form, rendering naturalistic acting and classical narrative structures no longer necessary 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. When describing the sense of freedom representative of the times in an interview with The LGBTQ History Project, Ruby compared it to “doing everything that would shock your parents.”

Besides working with John Vaccaro for over 40 productions, Ruby acted with other directors and, with her co-writer Gordon Bressac, created and produced several musical variety shows, including Voidville 1 and Vandals of 1981. In the 1990s, she wrote, directed, and starred in Singing' in the Islands and Christmas in the Islands.

In 1972, Ruby formed her band Ruby and the Rednecks with her long-time collaborator John Madera. After witnessing her performance when singing her song "Beat Me Daddy," James Wolcott of The Village Voice periodical wrote, "Ruby threw out an oversized Teddy Bear, shrieked, stomped on the bear, kicked it, clawed at the audience while her claque roared back their delight… Ruby [is] going to make it big because she has what it takes.”

While the Rednecks did not release any music during their heyday, they did produce a studio and live album, which featured Jayne County, in 2008.

Also in 2008, Mark Mann and HBO released a documentary on Ruby called Finishing Heaven, which examines filmmaker Robert Feinberg's decades-long struggle to complete his debut feature film, Heaven Wants Out, which starred Ruby. The film revisits the tumultuous production journey of Feinberg and Ruby. Finishing Heaven was nominated for an Emmy. Heaven Wants Out was eventually completed and released in 2009. The film also features Holly Woodlawn, Mary Woronov, Ondine, and the photographer Francesco Scavullo.

Toward the end of her life, besides directing and starring in Singing in the ER (2019), a satirical play about her own hospital experiences, she was known to a new generation as “the lady who is always sun tanning at Union Square.” Like it was back in the 1970s when she would hold court at Max’s Kansas City, a New York City club, Ruby would fend off fans and spectators who were curious about a petite lady always wearing all red and shimmering in tanning oil. It was a fitting last chapter for a lady who shined bright and wanted the world to slap on SPF 100 just to be around her.

Ruby is survived by her brother, numerous cousins, fans, and friends. The contents of her vast performance archive can be viewed here, and here is The LGBTQ History Project's recent feature on her.


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