Few nightclubs exemplified the excesses of the drug-fueled ‘60s like the Electric Circus. Trapeze artists, mimes and jugglers illuminated by pulsating strobe and black lights created a psychedelic atmosphere; predictably, the Circus became the club of choice to smoke pot and drop acid. But the Electric Circus also presented a powerhouse array of rock bands, many of who would become superstars: Sly and the Family Stone, Dr. John, Deep Purple and the Allman Brothers Band all played the Circus early in their careers.
Like East Village venues the Academy of Music and the Fillmore East, the site of the Electric Circus was a music hall decades earlier. The building at 19-25 St. Marks Place was a ballroom called Arlington Hall in the early 20th century. Restaurants and bars gave way in the mid-’60s to a nightclub created by Andy Warhol and director Paul Morrissey that featured the Velvet Underground as house band. By 1967, the Electric Circus moved in, expanding on the theatrics and lighting effects of Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” experience.
By 1971, the Electric Circus had lost its cachet and closed; its reputation never recovered from a bomb that exploded on the dance floor the previous year, injuring 17 people. Some of the musicians who performed at the Electric Circus talked with Bedford + Bowery about the club that billed itself as a place to “play games, dress as you like, dance, sit, think, tune in and turn on.”
Genya Ravan, Ten Wheel Drive
Oh God, it was great. It was definitely a circus, any way you look at it. People danced, it was just a great vibe. When I think back to those days, I smell patchouli and musk. I smell a little grass. I got high just breathing the air there.
It had a personality of its own. It was a great stage, a long stage, we all fit on there. Don’t forget, we were 10 people. A small band could play there with ease but a large band could fit on there with ease as well.
There was nothing intimate about that club, the Electric Circus. It was a balls-out, rock ‘n’ roll joint, a music joint. I can’t call it just rock ‘n’ roll because they had everything. The audiences were not just tuned into one particular thing. It was all genres of music.
I worked there a lot with Tony Williams Lifetime. Ten Wheel Drive, being a rock-jazz band, we pulled in the same people as Tony Williams Lifetime. Tony Williams is a sexy man. We were doing a sound check and I said, “Do you mind if I play your drums?” And he goes, “No, go ahead.” And I went and I played a funky beat and he stared at me and he goes, “I love you.” (Laughs) Of course he was staring at my crotch at the time! He was something. Oh man, did I love watching him. They were very wild days. They were great days.
Genya Ravan was the lead vocalist of jazz-rock band Ten Wheel Drive from 1969 to 1971. Today Ravan continues to tour and is heard on Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius radio.
Morton Subotnick, electronic music pioneer
I performed there a number of times; I actually helped develop it. In the year before it opened, Stan Freeman and Jerry Brandt came to see me at my studio on Bleecker Street because I was doing all this multimedia stuff and they had bought the name “Electric Circus.”
They had an idea about an electric circus, like a discotheque or a public space that was timely. They didn’t know what it would look like or what it would be. My studio was full of strobe lights and all sorts of stuff. So I gave them a demonstration of what an electric circus would be in my studio that night. They started bringing people up to fund it and they were giving me $200 a day for doing it, which was a lot of money to me.
After about the third or fourth time, they said, “This is great. When we open, we’ll give you $4,000 a year as long as the Electric Circus is open whether you do anything or not but if you would do something, you could become the artistic director.” So that sounded great to me so that’s what I did.
Don Buchla designed the whole sound system. The sub-woofers were huge, they were actually attached to the floor so you could feel the vibration of the sub-woofer. And of course people were moving, so once everybody moved together with that, it was pretty impressive.
Tice Latham contacted me; she was producing concerts of new music. She believed in the future of technology and art. We decided to start a series called the Electric Ear, which were Monday nights.
The Monday concerts, they were wild, they were terrific. We had avant-garde theater. Sal Martirano had this fantastic multimedia piece called “L’s G.A.” It was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with an actor wearing a gas mask with a microphone in it and helium pouring in. With helium coming in, the voice goes up and down as he recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with electronic music flying across the proscenium and anti-war movies going everywhere. It was fantastic. That gives you a sense of what was going on.
Electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick created his breakthrough work “Silver Apples of the Moon” in 1967. Subotnick today tours extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe as a lecturer and performer.
Charlie Chin, Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys
The Electric Circus was supposed to be a circus so there were people who were there every week. There was a mime, Michael Grando. One act was a guy who walked around in a gorilla suit and he used to do tumbling and other stuff. There was a woman, she used to come out dressed as a nun and walk into the crowd with her head bowed and her arms folded. But then she’d take her arms out of her sleeves and reveal that she had rubber balls and she would start juggling them.
They plastered the walls and got rid of a lot of the right angles. You were under the impression that you were in a big cavern. They had one area that was filled with large tubes that you can crawl into. There were little nooks for people to crawl into and hang out. It was sort of a statement against the idea of a uniform set of seats lined up facing in all one direction.
We were there dozens and dozens of times. Because we were the house band, we were wandering in and out all the time. We would get a call at the last minute, nine o’clock or something, and we’d get over there and open because somebody was late.
Some of the acts were notoriously late, Sly in particular. Sly and the Family Stone was not only late, but frequently didn’t even show up. One of the worst incidents was when we opened up for Sly. Sly didn’t show up for an hour and a half and it was pretty obvious they were not going to get there. We were told to go onstage. We got started and the crowd got really ugly. The house held about 2,000 people on the floor. The guys closest to the stage realized we were not Sly and the Family Stone. So they started screaming, “This is not Sly! Where’s Sly? We want Sly!”
And the next thing I knew, I hear this low rumbling crash, which is the sound of an amplifier being knocked over. And I look over and I see the bass player, Roy Michaels, pushing people away and unplugging as he’s trying to get back to the stage door. And that was it, they came piling over the front of the stage and it was the only time I can remember there that the crowd actually rushed the stage. We made it out the back and security had to come out but it was pretty crazy, it was pretty wild.
There were a very large number of casualties from drug overdoses. You would see security carry people out all the time, people raving, screaming, convulsing in the bathroom.
Larry Packer, Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys
There was a room there called the foam rubber room, a dark room. I remember my aid being enlisted to carry an OD’d dead body out of the foam rubber room. A young lady.
When you think of the place, it’s all the blinking lights and the strobe lights and the overpowering loud thumping, thumping, people fist-pumping in the air. That was the Electric Circus crowd. You had all these kids – this was really hippie stuff, it was kids from New Jersey and Brooklyn. It was a heavy scene — it was pulsating, almost intimidating and frightening now that I look back on it.
I remember night after night with the Chambers Brothers, that was a standard bill. I remember seeing Ike and Tina Turner there, Baba Ram Dass and Timothy Leary with Wavy Gravy. We opened for Deep Purple. If there was a band like that, there was only one dressing room and when there was a touring band coming in, you relinquished the dressing room to them.
It was the place to go for a while. People said, “Oh man, the Electric Circus, that’s the scene, what a great place.” That went on for a while but those things come and go.
Guitarist Charlie Chin and fiddler Larry Packer were members of Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, the Electric Circus house band that scored a hit in 1969 with “Good Old Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Today Packer performs with rockers Hair of the Dog; Chin is Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco.
Skip Prokop, the Paupers
We played really, really loud, and it was thunderous. We were doing psychedelic stuff long before we knew that’s what we were doing. We were a relatively straight band so we weren’t necessarily getting stoned to go out on stage and do all kinds of crazy stuff.
Clubs like the Circus were the spot to go to hear great music. If you were into smoking weed or dropping acid or whatever, that’s where you’d go to get off on the music and the vibe. It was the perfect environment for all of that. Very free form dancing and just kind of grooving out.
The last time we played there was just before I left the band and started to put Lighthouse together. That’s where I met [keyboardist] Paul Hoffert, who had come down to see the band. At that point I had the idea of a big rock orchestra, which turned out to be Lighthouse. So I remember it as a key pivotal point in my career.
After leaving the Paupers, drummer Skip Prokop formed jazz-rock band Lighthouse, which scored a hit in 1971 with the Prokop-penned “One Fine Morning.” Prokop continues to tour with Lighthouse and is preparing his autobiography, planned for release in December 2013.
Donny York, Sha Na Na
It was preposterous that we were a bunch of undergraduates from Columbia University and we were going to make it big in the music biz. In 1969, our big hill to climb was securing an agent. The William Morris Agency got us a booking at the Electric Circus. The idea was we had better make the audience in the Electric Circus eat out of our hand. They did sign us because we appeared and the audience did go bananas.
The dressing room was well away from the crowd. I remember it being a dimly lit place where we had to grease our hair at mirrors with portable lamps. We were 12 individuals at that time and to have us all in the one room together, we were definitely sharing that space.
I spent most of my time in the dressing room. I took a lamp in the corner and caught up on my leftover college work that had taken short shrift during the Christmas holidays. I had to make sure that I was not going to flunk out of school while I was trying to become a rock star at the same time.
Original member Donny York continues to perform with Sha Na Na, the band that brought their outrageous theatrics and love of ‘50s rock to Woodstock and the movie Grease.
East Village resident Frank Mastropolo is a freelance journalist and former television network news producer. You can find his concert photography here.