Party Out Of Bounds

Excavating The Filthy History on John Waters’ ‘Bill’s Stroller’

John Waters, Bill's Stroller, 2014, Umbrella lightweight stroller with silkscreened linen and spiked, leather belt (Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York)

John Waters, Bill’s Stroller, 2014, Umbrella lightweight stroller with silkscreened linen and spiked, leather belt (Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York)

Why hello there! Come–sit down, take your snow boots off and have a swig from our flask. What are our plans for tonight? Naturally, we’re headed to Beverly Hills…no, of course, not THAT awful Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. We, here at Filthy Dreams, have been waiting with baited breath for tonight’s opening of Beverly Hills Johnour first and foremost filth elder John Waters’ exhibition at Chelsea’s Marianne Boesky Gallery. Of course, we immediately began salivating at the news that Waters will be showing a “sequel” to his dog shit-stained crass classic Pink Flamingos–a line reading of the original script as recited by children.

Speaking of children, one of the works in the exhibition that we are most excited about and filth-spired by is Bill’s Stroller, a baby carriage made from leather bondage straps for Waters’ baby Bill. Of course, Bill isn’t a real baby, queens. Corresponding with Waters’ “love for dolls” as he snarled at Marion and me during a book signing in front of our own doll daughter Carol Anne, Bill is an aggressive-looking Reborn Doll. If you’ve never seen Bill, just take a look at one of Waters’ classic Christmas cards:

Bill and his proud father (via dreamlandnews.com)

Bill and his proud father (via dreamlandnews.com)

Isn’t he hideous? While I hesitate to mock any child, Bill certainly looks wretched and boy, has he got the personality to match! I know a future juvenile delinquent when I see one.

Not only is Bill’s Stroller built to be baby’s first bondage buggy, but the stroller also features fabric covered in the logos of former sex clubs in New York and San Francisco. It’s never too early to teach your baby about Blow Buddies!

As he explained in ArtForum, Bill’s Stroller was inspired by Provincetown’s Gay Family Week, commenting on the drive of many in the gay community to conform to normative middle class values. In recent years, the mainstream gay community has exchanged sex clubs for play dates, tubs for kiddie pools and slings for strollers. As Waters himself described to ArtForum, “I’m trying to pay tribute to the passing of time for an outlaw minority that is now eager to be middle class.”

In order to resurrect some outlaw tendencies and revel with a somewhat off-putting glee for Waters’ show, we are going to delve into three vanished New York clubs emblazoned on Bill’s Stroller for our weekly  random Friday Party Out Of Bounds post. So jump in a tub, strap yourself in and let’s revisit the Meatpacking District when it was full of urban decay and illicit acts instead of wealthy douchebags and boutique stores.

1. Hellfire Club

Hellfire Club (Photo © Gregoire Alessandrini; via his website, New York City 1990’s)

Hellfire Club (Photo © Gregoire Alessandrini; via his website, New York City 1990’s)

Located in the basement of 28 Ninth Avenue, the Hellfire Club was a mixed BDSM club active in the 1980s. Perhaps the club with the closest connection to Waters and his Dreamlander friends, Hellfire was a favorite of Waters, underground film and writing superstar Cookie Mueller and their friends in New York. In Chloe Griffin’s superb oral history of Cookie Mueller, Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, Mueller’s friends, including Waters, describe in hilarious detail their experiences at the Hellfire Club.

As Polyester co-producer and the owner of the land that would become Desperate Living‘s Mortville, Peter Kroper affirms the importance of Hellfire as their choice nightlife spot. As Kroper recalls, “Hellfire was one of our favorite places. I went with Sharon and Cookie. John Waters and I would go to the Hellfire like it was one of our local bars every time John was in town…” (210).

While the Meatpacking District is currently clean and classy, the trip to the Hellfire club was a distinctly different experience. As Mueller’s friend and Dreamlander Steve Butow explains, “Now it’s a chic area, but in those days it was junkie drag queens and after-hours gay bars with back rooms. You could check your clothes. Straight couples would come from Queens dressed in polyester and would change into S&M outfits or walk around nude. People would get whipped. Disco had died, but you could still get high and hang out all night, just it wasn’t a disco–it was in Hellfire” (210-2).

Perhaps the most illustrative and vivid description of the club comes from Kroper, who details the layout of the club, as well as some of their notable regulars.  As Kroper states, “Hellfire was three floors below street level. It was like an abandoned subway stop. It had these columns and the rainwater from above would seep through two floors and end up as these stalactites. The floor was always a little wet, as if it had been raining. There was a bar in the middle of the room–horseshoe-shaped–and the drinks were really cheap, like $1.50 for a Jack Daniels. The main room had some slings and there was always this guy there called Pops who kind of looked like William Burroughs. He was in his seventies or eighties and he had really shiny black shoes and pull-up socks, like over-the-calf socks, and nothing else–nude otherwise. He’d be sitting in one of those torture chairs, a leather swinging chair, beating off the entire night in the corner” (212).

For John Waters, the Hellfire provided endless entertainment and inspiration without even participating. As Waters remembers, “You could go to Hellfire and totally not participate. You could go and watch everything” (212).

However even though Waters could watch, that did not mean he wouldn’t encourage his friends to delve into the sexual deviancy of the Hellfire. As Kroper reveals, “I was with John once and he says, ‘Bathrooms over there.’ and he smirks and I go get in a line of men. The guy in front of me steps up to what I think is a porcelain urinal but instead it’s a bathtub with a guy in the tub and you piss on the guy. That was the men’s room” (212).

Not only did the men in Waters and Mueller’s group of friends explore the Hellfire, but Mueller herself, always ready for a party and a performance, provided some amusement for the Hellfire patrons. Kroper remembers, “One time Cookie said she had to go to the bathroom but she didn’t want to wait for the women’s bathroom so she disappears somewhere and then Sharon tells me to come here and took me into one of the back cubicles with the little sex scenes and there was Cookie, squatting, taking a piss surrounded by guys just watching her. She just couldn’t hold it anymore!”

When a girl’s gotta go!

2. The Toilet

While The Toilet boasts probably my favorite name of all the former sex clubs in the city, it is near impossible to find longer descriptions of its…well…plumbing. However because of my endless adoration of the name, I felt it warrants inclusion in this post. As the site New York City: A Gay History, which documents many of these disappearing clubs, explains, “Yes that really was the name and oh boy was it an ever fitting name; what a toilet it was. You name it and they were doing it there.”

Located at 400 West 14th Street, The Toilet was active in the 1970s. I’ll let New York City : A Gay History explain the rest: “they were packing them in this dark and WET place. I stress wet because, well, it was truly a toilet. Lot’s of water sports here. In order to enter The Toilet, one had to ride in a really creepy, dark, unmarked elevator that’s door was entered directly from the street itself.”

3. The Mineshaft

Washington Street — © Brian Rose, via brianrose.com

The Mineshaft on Washington Street — © Brian Rose, via brianrose.com

Perhaps the most famous or infamous ex-sex club on dear Bill’s Stroller is The Mineshaft at 835 Washington Street. Opened in 1976, The Mineshaft was a members-only gay club. With no sign at the entrance, only increasing its illicit allure, the Mineshaft is responsible for much of the leatherman aesthetic with a strict doorman-enforced dress code to match. A maze-like space, the Mineshaft featured dungeons, a recreation of a jail cell and the ever popular, bathtubs.

Even though many other clubs are name-checked in academic papers, memoirs and other writings, no sex club seems to have the lasting effect and theoretical power as the Mineshaft. From ethnographies to critical texts, the Mineshaft continues to exemplify a specific time period in the history of gay sexuality and the performance of masculinity.

(via mattsko.wordpress.com)

(via mattsko.wordpress.com)

In his book Beyond Shame: Reclaiming The Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, Patrick Moore explores the potentially transformative power the act of frequenting the Mineshaft. Comparing participating in the sexual culture of the Mineshaft to a performance, Moore states, “The Mineshaft seems to have functioned as a sort of main ‘set’ for the playing out of powerful fantasies” (19).

Describing the almost “mythic qualities” given to the Mineshaft by gay writers, Moore quotes, “In his novel The Golden Age of Promiscuity, Brad Gooch describes the music that was so much of the atmosphere, ‘music that included Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and many other minimalists…music that was labeled ‘sleaze’…By dawn there would always be full electronic Vangelis chords mixed with Mahler while attendants stuffed black hankies and paper towels into…cracks in the wood and cement that were admitting offensive rays of morning’s early light.’ (20).

Sadly the Mineshaft, like many others, closed in 1985 by the Department of Health, a part of the crackdown on bathhouses and sex clubs during the city’s panic surrounding the spread of HIV/AIDS.

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