Hello there, dear readers! You thought I forgot about this little nightlife series of ours, didn’t you? Well, don’t doubt me, Mary. I didn’t! Come on in, though not too close. I’ve been sniffling my way through Kleenex box after Kleenex box for days. It’s fine though I’ve been drinking my miracle cures–hot toddys. Don’t tell me they aren’t medicinal, queens, I’m a doctor of journalism! Sorry this cold medicine is making me a little woozy with a penchant for quoting Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Anyhoo, I’m about ready for another dose of maniacal queer nightlife obsessing so grab yourself a hot drink and enter….The Ethyl Eichelberger Video Lounge!
Frequently performing at nightclubs such as the Pyramid Club, as well as more traditional Downtown performance venues such as P.S. 122, Dixon Place and La MaMa, actor, writer and drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger burst his way onto the stage–accordion in hand, developing his own unique style of historical high camp theater. Writing and performing his own plays, Eichelberger became known for embodying the roles of famous past queens from Queen Nefertiti to those Greek divas Clytemnestra and Medea.
An extremely hysterical and poignant writer, as well as actor, Eichelberger excelled at turns of phrases, which slyly referenced drag and queerness such as “Isis knows it hasn’t been easy/It’s a lot of hard work being a queen/ And there are factions out there who don’t like what I represent/ Tough noogies! I have a right to be here”
Born James Roy Eichelberger in Illinois, Eichelberger was always fascinated by theater, graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1967. After working as the lead character actor in the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, Eichelberger returned to New York where he began working with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company as an actor and wig designer. An enormous and visible influence on Eichelberger’s own hilarious productions from his use of drag to his appropriation of historical texts to his embrace of the ridiculous, Charles Ludlam encouraged Eichelberger to write his own plays.
Changing his name to Ethyl upon his return to New York, Eichelberger was an intimidating figure in drag with his tall frame–made even larger by his heels and wigs, as well as his penchant for wearing wonderfully off-putting makeup. Eichelberger also had a tattoo on his back of himself in drag as an angel. An inspiration for artists as well as audiences, Eichelberger was a frequent muse for photographer Peter Hujar, posing for several stunningly beautiful studio portraits, which portray a stillness counter to Eichelberger’s energetic performances.
Beginning in 1972, Eichelberger performed in over thirty of his own plays, which featured not only his acting and accordion-playing, but also fire-eating, cartwheels and splits. In addition to performing as historical divas including Jocasta, Lola Montez and Carlotta, Empress of Mexico, Eichelberger also wrote Leer, a play that whittled down Shakespeare’s King Lear into three characters, unsurprisingly all of which Eichelberger played.
In his later career, Eichelberger began performing in more mainstream productions including Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors on Broadway and The Threepenny Opera with Sting.
In 1990, unable to tolerate the AIDS medications available at that time, Eichelberger committed suicide in his Staten Island home. Despite his outrageous stage presence, Eichelberger was a very private person and only after his death did most learn that he had been HIV positive.
Even after almost 25 years since his death, Eichelberger remains a monumentally iconic presence in the Downtown theatrical and performance scene.
So grab another hot toddy and let’s watch Eichelberger at his best (Many of these videos, like most of the nightlife video documentation from this period, comes from Nelson Sullivan). If you’ve got an accordion, play along, queen!
And just for fun, spot Ethyl (along with a ton of other favs) in one of my favorite campy videos by Fred Schneider: