Onboard at The Pyramid: 1984–1988
November 8, 2016
An Oral History with David Yarritu 10/15/2016
In the eighties, the Pyramid Club became an off-center playhouse for a small community of queers and artists who weren’t interested in the mainstream gay and drag scenes. At the East Village club, an intimate group of artmakers, friends, and lovers was born; and it thrived for the better part of a decade, producing a lot of well-known performers and defining a new queer aesthetic. The onset of AIDS intersected with the Pyramid’s peak and as a result, the club was witness to the creation and disappearance of a community.
David Yarritu was a member of the pop group ABC and involved with the New York East Village art scene, where he danced and performed at clubs like AREA and the Pyramid. David, now a freelance art director and stylist, moved to New York from Texas in 1983, landing at the Pyramid on his first night: “I had heard it was the place to be.” Michael Musto described it in Downtown as “smoky, dirty, narrow, crowded, and totally fabulous.” Beyond that long, narrow, very dark space, was the dance floor, and beyond that a stage. Said David: “The stage had a trapdoor, more like a hole, which led to a ladder that went down into the basement. The drag queens would have to shimmy up the ladder to perform.” David met a lot of his closest friends at the Pyramid in those first couple weeks. He also met his boyfriend, Max DiCorcia, who would later die of AIDS.
When I meet with David, he starts by telling me about that first night. “I knew right away that I would have to start dressing differently because my best outfit in Austin would not be the best outfit here. But I was very proud of what I was wearing.” A vintage green plaid flannel shirt, pegged jeans he’d had custom tailored, and a sailor cap (“to be sexy?”). “And to let people know you were onboard?” I ask. “Yes,” he says. “I was onboard! Onboard at the Pyramid.”
I moved to New York in the fall of ‘83 and by February I was dancing at the Pyramid. The first time I ever danced was on Valentine’s Day. I dressed as Cupid. I made a satchel and some arrows out of dowels and cardboard and spray-painted them gold and put glitter on them. And I wrote up these little love notes and handed them out to people all over the club. It would be like: Kiss the person on the cheek that’s standing next to you. Like little activities to try to make love happen.
I met everybody in the Pyramid scene within the first couple months. I met my friend Jimmy [Paul], Tabboo! and Jack [Pierson] and John Sex and and Hapi Phace, and lots of artists and performers. And lots of people who died.
I became friends with Tabboo! [Stephen Tashjian] in the first couple weeks. He was always very proud of his Armenian heritage, and whenever he had the chance he would remind you that Cher was Armenian. Cher was a big go-to person for him to impersonate, emulate, admire, and a big inspiration for his looks. When I first moved to New York he was already doing the Pyramid ads in black and white that were in every alternative paper. Tabboo! had a lot to contribute in terms of the graphic look of the Pyramid. He would do a lot of the décor.
Hapi Phace was best buddies with Tabboo! I think at one point they lived in the same building. Hapi Phace, whose real name was Mark [Phredd], was the instigator of the gay night on Sunday, Whispers. The premise was that it was a suburban gay club: Whispers. There would be announcements like: “Whoever has the Subaru, your lights are on.” Hapi would always introduce Tabboo! as “T-A-B-double-o. All that taste and just one calorie.”
Whispers was every Sunday night. Sister Dimension was the DJ and there would be dancing and a little show. I worked at a fancy deli on the Upper West Side but was barely making enough money to live. So I would supplement that with dancing on the bar at the Pyramid. They would pay me 50 dollars a night.
Part of me was really anxious to meet everybody as soon as I could and be part of the Pyramid scene. So I thought dancing was a good way to be visible. When you’re dancing on the bar it’s like being a fly on the wall. You’re looking down and you can see people hooking up and having arguments and nobody’s watching you. You think the whole world is watching you but nobody gives a shit. Drinking, dancing, trying to flirt.
There were a lot of great performers. My boyfriend, Max, did sets for Lypsinka. Lypsinka performed a lot at the Pyramid. John Epperson. He was a unique performer. He would cringe if you called him a drag queen. His real-life job is as a pianist for the American Ballet Theater. Incredible pianist. He would do these performances where he would make audio collages out of snippets from old TV shows and campy movies, which he would lip synch to. His whole thing was to never use his own voice for any reason. So you never knew what his voice was like. It got really twisted—it was really good. He had a group called The Tweed Ensemble, a little theater group for which he would wear a tweed ensemble.
International Chrysis was another Pyramid performer. She was a very glamorous drag queen—she’d had boobs put in and her lips injected with collagen and she was very voluptuous. And she had this real raspy husky voice, super sexy. She was Salvador Dali’s muse and hung out with him all the time. She was like old-school, the real deal, showbiz, all these other people were more of a post-modern arty kind of drag, like “drag about drag.”
Tom Rubnitz was another really interesting figure in the Pyramid scene. He did all those videos—like Pickle Surprise and Strawberry Shortcut, Drag Queen Marathon. I remember him one time asking me if I wanted to go see The Smiths. I barely knew who they were. But of course I said yeah. Frank the folk singer was the opening act, and I sat with Tom and the B-52s at my very first Smiths concert. I just remember thinking it was all so glamorous, and so generous of him to take me.
John Sex was a very handsome sexy guy who was sort of like a really cheap Elvis. He played the guitar and would wear these very gaudy suits and spray his hair up like three feet in the air. I never thought that he was particularly talented; he was just so cute and sexy and hardworking. I remember that he used to announce that his family came over on the Mayflower and their last name was Sexton. But they left off the “ton” to reduce the stigma and that’s why he ended up being John Sex. He also had a group of backup singers called The Bodacious Tatas and they were these three chicks that would do backup choreography behind him while he was doing his thing.
Lady Bunny is still a really good friend. She came a little bit later with the Atlanta bunch, which included RuPaul, Larry T., who wrote [RuPaul’s 1992 single] “Supermodel,” and Lahoma Van Zandt. A tornado hit the Pyramid when Bunny arrived. She was so obviously talented and larger than life and just took the Pyramid by storm. When she first made the scene she wouldn’t sing, she would lip synch. Traditional numbers like Patti LaBelle. She would lip synch to “Popcorn”—do stupid things like that. No one was threatened by her, they were just happy she was around. It’s pretty amazing to think that probably the two of the most famous drag queens in America, Lady Bunny and RuPaul, started out at the Pyramid.
RuPaul would perform with a backup dancer called Trade. At that time RuPaul wasn’t particularly sexy or turned out visually, she was really kind of a mess. She would lip synch to, like, a Jody Watley song, in a cheap spandex dress from 14th street. Ru has banter now but she didn’t then. You got to watch people sort of develop their talent over the years. Lady Bunny, though—she just arrived as full-on Bunny.
Ethyl Eichelberger was like a bard at the Pyramid. She had these epic poems that she would sing while playing the accordion. She wasn’t pretty by any means but she was very tall and decorated in this hodgepodge way—like necklaces made out of plastic garbage.
Ethyl would ride around on a bicycle that was 15 feet tall. You would look up and there would be Ethyl, in drag, riding around the East Village.
I remember there was a guy named Mr. Fashion, I don’t think anybody ever knew his real name. He would just come every night to the Pyramid in some incredible outfit that he put together with spit and glue and something from the thrift store. He was always posing, doing these fashion poses. He always looked amazing. I don’t even know what Mr. Fashion did. That was the thing. It was like you had hundreds of friends but you didn’t know anything about them. Like you didn’t know where they came from, what they did during the daytime, where they lived. It was a strange thing.
Like me, a lot of kids had moved to New York from wherever—Bumfuck, America—and just could not wait to get away from where they grew up. I always tell the story that when I was growing up in Texas I would ride my bike a couple miles to Barnes and Noble at the mall, so I could sit there and read Interview Magazine and After Dark and all the magazines about New York. I never had the money to buy the Interview but I would sit there at the Barnes and Noble and read it. So by the time I moved to New York, I knew about all these people, from the Pyramid and other places. Like I knew who John Sex was and Wendy Wild and Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring and all those people. It was so exciting to move and then all of a sudden it was like, Oh my god—there’s that person that I’ve seen pictures of in Interview for the last several years!
To be continued…
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