‘Pyramid Pioneers’ pays tribute to revolutionary East Village venue where everyone could perform almost anything

Pyramid Pioneers gather together at Howl! Art Gallery
Together again: Pyramid people reunited at the Howl! Archive gallery : Seated, center, Ann Magnuson, Seated, L-R: Danielle Lesniewski, Eileen Dover, Edgar Oliver, Paula Sjunneson, Tabboo!, Joshua Fried, Tigger, Jeff Streeper Standing, L-R: (unidentified) , Elspeth Walker , Kevin Malony, Aleta Joy Wolfe , Nora Burns, Doud Landau, Doug Bressler, Julie Hair, Heather Litteer, Susan Martin, John Kelly, Kestutis Nakas, John Jesurun, Agosto machado, April Palmieri, Katy K, Anne McInnis, Kristi Rose, Jorge Clar, Jody Kurilla, Trey Speegle
Photo by Bob Krasner

The origin story of the legendary East Village club the Pyramid is now in print.

Reading “We Started a Nightclub” is a bit like immersing yourself in a fairy tale, although we’re guessing that the sex and drugs involved will probably prevent Disney from ever animating it. But there’s something magical about the story – and tragic as well.

In the most perfect of places, a tiny nightclub was born, and open to just about everything — music, drag shows, performance art, theater, rock, disco, opera, Shakespeare, gay, straight, transgender and more personalities than stars on Broadway.

Its heyday was in the early 80s, when the East Village was New York City’s version of the Wild West. In 2005, at Wigstock, Kestutis Nakas suggested to Brian Butterick (also known as Hattie Hathaway) that there should be a book about the club. Butterick agreed and, against the advice of pretty much everyone, insisted that it be an oral history.

After over 100 interviews (about 75 made it into the book) and the sad passing of Butterick, Nakas – along with Susan Martin – completed the project. A mix of anecdotal history and photos, flyers , press releases and memorabilia, “Nightclub” is essential reading for anyone interested in the fascinating history of the neighborhood.

The launch of the book was feted last week with two events that brought together many old friends and gave them a chance to reconnect and celebrate the ones who were gone, the many who were lost to AIDS, addiction and violence.

“Pyramid Pioneers” is a show at the Howl! Archive gallery that digs extensively into ephemera and vintage photos from the club. The packed crowd on opening night was treated to readings from the book and the chance to reminisce.

“Many of us attended for our own participation in the creation of the book,” said club veteran April Palmieri. “And also to honor those people who have passed away. I feel like if I show up, perhaps people would be reminded of my best friends who I performed with at the Pyramid club including Wendy Wild, John Sex and Ricky Rothschild. We honor the past, live for now and are open to the future.” 

Book authors Susan Martin and Kestutis Nakos with an image of the late Brian Butterick (aka Hattie Hathaway ) who originated the book concept but sadly passed away before its completion
Steven Menendez and April Palmieri at Howl !
John Kelly at the Howl! Pyramid show. He’s in one of those vintage polaroids by Trey Speegle
Artist and performer Tabboo! (right) with book copy editor Jorge Clar and one of the many posters that Tabboo ! created for the Pyramid in the 80’s
Eileen Dover doing a reading at Howl !

Susan Martin, the former Pyramid publicist who went on to found the arts organization Some Serious Business, produced a celebration of the club with the help of Kevin Molony (TWEED) and Damiani books in the best possible location: Baker Falls, the current occupant of 101 Ave. A, where it all went down back in the day.

Featuring Pyramid vets Hapi Phase, John Kelly, Edgar Oliver, Ann Magnuson and more, the evening was “an amazing time warp — like time stood still,” according to the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley: “There was and is so much talent and whimsy there. Just the right dose of fun!”

“I had imagined this reunion for so many years,” added Nakos. “It was weird in moments but really great at others. Ann Magnuson was phenomenal. It was like I was back at work there … but hoping that nobody offered me any coke!”

Doug Landau, a former club owner himself (King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut), mentioned that, “The Pyramid celebration was wonderful for what it was. Really just a little taste of days past. Besides from the dearly departed of which there sadly are so many.”

The event on April 20 included a new act of John Jesurun’s popular “Chang In a Void Moon,” a long running surreal serial of dramatic (and quite amusing) non-sequiturs.

Jorge Clar, the book’s copy editor, noted that Pyramid wasn’t a typical nightclub.

“Although the Pyramid is generally remembered for its drag shows, it was also a fusion of experimental theater and trailblazing DJ sets,” he said. “Playwrights like John Jesurun, Kestutis Nakas, Mark Oates, and many others presented plays and serial dramas in 20-minute intervals that were preceded and followed by mind-bending sets from DJs like Sister Dimension, Walter Durkacz, Jody Kurilla, and Ivan Ivan.”

The audience was treated to a brand new episode of ‘Chang in a Void Moon’
East Village legend Edgar Oliver
THe Karload of Klowns featuring L-R: Jorge Clar as Palimpsesto, Hapi Phace as Puddlez, Patrice Fortier as Poppers (usually played by Gail Thacker) and Nora Burns as E the Mime
Tigger! performed a character that he originated on the Pyramid stage back in the day, ‘Tawny the Tigress’
East Village supergroup Rimbaud Hattie: L-R: Doug Bressler, John Kelly, Heather Litteer, Julie Hair
Ann Magnuson did a rousing set in the headline spot

Catherine Tambini, an actress turned documentary filmmaker who appeared in Nakas’ infamous staging of “Titus Andronicus,” commented that,“It was a festive evening filled with memories of all those who graced the stage of the Pyramid and a tribute to all those we lost in the big war of our generation – AIDS. Wonderful performances by Ann Magnuson, John Kelly and the Chang in a Void Moon gang along with an array of others who gave it their best for the glory of the old Pyramid. Thanks to Kestutis Nakas and Susan Martin for bringing us all back together to celebrate their wonderful book.”

Martin found the evening “really overwhelming … the memories and the friendships of those times all came alive. It was wonderful how vital and alive all the performers were, and they still have something to say. I don’t have the words to really express it.” 

Magnuson ended the evening by inviting all the performers onstage to dance while the whole crowd sang along to “Age of Aquarius.” Nakas mused that the lesson of it all is that the Pyramid “represents the sense of what is possible when people believe in their artistic mission.” 

“We Started a Nightclub” is available from someseriousbusiness.org and at the Howl! Gallery through the run of the exhibition. More info here: howlarts.org/event/pyramid-pioneers.