In early spring of ’67, when I was living intermittently with Marilyn on East 10th Street, I received a phone call from someone who said he was Baird Searles—Drama and Literature Director for WBAI-FM. His name was unfamiliar, but I knew of WBAI and had listened to it on and off. In the year of his death, it had been my father’s favorite radio station.
“I really enjoyed that story of yours in Worlds of Tomorrow this last winter—‘The Star-Pit.’” Mr. Searles told me. “I was wondering whether you might like to write something on that order as, say, a radio play.”
I responded immediately: “Why not simply do ‘The Star-Pit’ itself?”
“Well, actually,” Searles said, in his oboe-esque voice, “that sounds wonderful! Why don’t you come in, and we’ll talk about it?”
The next Thursday, I went up to the private house on East 38th Street, four blocks down from Grand Central Terminal, where, in 1967, WBAI-FM had its offices and studios on the top two floors—and discovered, sitting at a desk in Searles’s office, my old friend Judy Ratner, whom I hadn’t seen in some four or five years. Judy was now Searles’s assistant. When Baird had mentioned to her he’d been impressed with the story, she’d mentioned that we’d been friends. Searles’s phone call had been the result.
During a vegetarian lunch among the three of us that afternoon, Judy (who had been a child actress on Broadway) said she’d love to play Allegra in the story. I said that sounded good to me—and shortly she gave me her copy of Madness, Sanity, and Civilization (later republished by Vintage Books as simply Madness and Civilization), a Signet-Mentor paperback with an orange cover, showing a badly reproduced woodcut of a medieval “Ship of Fools” in black. The book was by someone I’d never heard of before, Michel Foucault, though I’d seen the volume on the psychology shelf at the Eighth Street Bookshop, then on the corner of MacDougal Street and Eighth Street. But when, at home, I plunged into it, I was totally befuddled by its rhetorical pace and density.
Everyone soon called Baird “Bai” (pronounced “Bay”), the same way they soon called me “Chip.” A neat and compact man, with strawberry blond hair, Bai had once been a ballet dancer, but now smoked almost non-stop. (He was to die, twenty-five years later, in Canada, of emphysema complicated by lung cancer.) Initially at that first lunch I projected the play’s running time at an hour.
“Fine,” Baird said. “How much help do you need putting together a cast...?”
An energetic twenty-five-year-old back then, soon I had gotten in touch with an old high school friend, Daniel Weiseman—who had played Voice Three in Marilyn’s play Perseus: An Exercise for Three Voices, when we’d performed it six years before at the 10th Street Coffee Gallery. A year older than the rest of us in the play, Danny had seemed to know a good deal about theater back then. (Each night backstage he’d done our make-up for Perseus.) A chain of phone calls got a number from his parents in the Bronx, and I learned that, now using the name Daniel Landau, Danny was living in the East Village himself and was, indeed, acting and directing. I called him. Would he be interested in directing a play for WBAI?
“Sure,” he told me. “Bring it over.”
So I did.
In his apartment, just off 2nd Avenue, I read Danny a few pages of my story, and he decided immediately what I’d hoped he would: I was an adequate enough actor to do the main character. By the beginning of the following week, he had found five other actors. (Later I explained to Judy, that because Danny had put together the cast and because of all the work he was doing—none of us was getting paid for his or her considerable labor—I felt I had to let him choose the actors that he wanted. Judy would have been fine, but Danny’s Allegra, Randa Haynes, was very good. Although she understood, still Judy was disappointed.) We decided to assign multiple parts, and Danny dealt them out to each. An older, wonderful, rather dyky woman with a somewhat mannish voice, Phoebe Wray, got the somewhat sexually ambiguous part of Poloscki.
Young Walter Harris agreed to do the twin roles of Ratlet and Androcles. Walter was a student at the (old) High School of Music and Art, then at the top of the steps up through St. Nicholas Park—the same steps up which I had often walked to get to City College in the single year I’d attended. He knew Phoebe already from performances they’d done together at the Judson Poets’ Theater. The Harris family was (and still is) something of a Greenwich Village legend in that neighborhood’s extensive little-theater circles. Walter’s father, George Harris, Sr., his mother, Evelyn Harris, and all five children (Walter, his older brother George, Jr., and three sisters) were actors. What’s more, they were actors particularly interested in experimental and avant-garde theater. At the time, Walter had been having a run of luck: fifteen-years-old, blond, and handsome, currently he was in the midst of a string of 14 nationally televised commercials; also he was understudying for a part in the pre-Broadway incarnation of the 60’s smash-hit musical, Hair, at New York’s then-relatively-new Joseph Pap Public Theater. That same year, he also worked with and composed music for Robert Patrick as well as for Tom Eyen—all of whom, with Tom O’Horgan (who directed the legendary Hair), were names that would reverberate on and off Broadway over the next two decades, Patrick with Kennedy’s Children, Eyen with Dreamgirls, and O’Horgan with Jesus Christ Superstar (once Hair was over). But since, as a radio drama, my play did not require memorizing lines—and the parts were interesting—Walter threw himself into The Star-Pit with an intriguing combination of adolescent energy and laid-back professionalism.
Three years later, at eighteen, Walter would come down with bone cancer, loose his right leg, and become (in his own words) “a new-age monk for thirteen years” in a late sixties/early seventies religious movement called the Holy Order of MANS. Today, the most widely-known member of the Harris family is Walter’s older brother, George Harris, Jr., who went to San Francisco (where I knew him slightly in the ’70s) and who, under the name Hibiscus, started the Cockettes Theater Troupe. George/Hibiscus returned to New York, formed the Angels of Light Troupe, and in 1983 was one of the first men to die of AIDS. The article reporting his death in The Village Voice was the first time in print I saw the acronym “AIDS,” followed by its then-obligatory parenthetical expansion, “(Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).”
My agent Henry Morrison had recently moved to new and bigger offices on East 53rd Street and had actually gotten his own Xerox copier machine. (This was an age when there were no copy shops.) Kindly, he let me copy out pages from the magazine for the actors—which pages were ready for them by the second rehearsal.
Though I still have trouble with a small number of Walter’s line readings (it was sometimes difficult for Danny to get him to hit the right word), he was fun to work with. Along with all the other actors he worked very hard. Despite any of my quibbles, it’s a fine job. Forty-eight years later, when I asked him what he remembered from his time working on The Star-Pit, now an actor in Seattle, Walter wrote me: “What I remember most about The Star-Pit was how much fun it was playing those cool roles, and characters, like those I knew from my reading, and interacting with you and your Afro hairdo—the first Afro I remember seeing on anyone!”
Jerry and Randa were also wonderfully personable to work with. Over all, we had some six rehearsals in Danny’s living room—and Danny managed several other sessions just with me, since my part was three times as long as anyone else’s. Although it’s a bit dated, as old acting styles often become, the ensemble performance still generates some nice moments. Over the next couple of weeks, the piece began to pull together, developing an overall dramatic arch.
After a discussion with Danny and the other actors, I phoned Bai. “Would you like to sit in on a rehearsal?”
“Nope,” he said. “I trust you.”
At the next rehearsal, I told Danny and the rest: “Baird says he trusts us. He’s going to let us do what we want.” There was some surprise, and even some discussion; but the result was that all of us—already working hard—began working even harder.
Finally, on an afternoon in the first days of July, we all filed into a recording studio on the top floor of WBAI’s 38th Street townhouse.
Until that point, my several visits to WBAI-FM had been suffused with the palest green: Bai’s office was on the second floor, and until then my comings and goings had been dominated by sunny office windows, white plastic pots hung with ivy and spiderplants, light green runners on the stairs and along the halls, and pale green walls.
But now, as I climbed up to the third floor, WBAI turned black:
The uppermost studio spaces, in which until now I’d never been, were walled with dark masonite or black foam rubber, covered with hand-sized black cones, to increase the wall area that could absorb extraneous sound. Today, in its most recent offices and studios on the twenty-third floor of an office building at the east end of Wall Street, WBAI has at least eight studios. In 1967, on 38th Street, there were only three. One studio was always broadcasting. Another often housed the engineers for the current show.
During those weeks, we filled up the third.
At the end of an hour, being asked to move into another studio was such a regular occurrence, we got used to it. For the next three months, I only dashed through the smoke-hued lower chambers and rushed up into these black-walled rooms, with their turning reels, their little lights, their dials.
On our first studio day, I’d requested three hours of recording time for the actors.
Wisely Baird had booked us four—and, even more wisely, he had made sure it was on a day when no-one was booked in after us. We’d been promised the best and most creative engineer at the WBAI studios, a young man named David Rabkin. At the end of two hours of recording, however, David packed up, said a brisk good-bye—he was expected somewhere in Jersey—and left. Now Rabkin’s assistant, a friendly bear of a guy with glasses and a warm smile, Ed Woodward, took over.
We never saw Rabkin again.
Woodard remained with the project through a couple of hundred hours of post-production work. As soon as Rabkin was gone, Woodard suggested we record all the dialogue that takes place in the various starship hangers with a slight echo, to give the lines a sense of place and give the place a sense of size. When we played them back, immediately those scenes opened up and sounded far more authentic. Woodard suggested a dozen more technical ideas, actually, which enriched the show. Toward the end of the session, I recall standing around in the studio, with all the actors, while Ed recorded five minutes of room tone. When, a week later, Sue and I returned to lay in the sound effects, that small, clear plastic reel of “silent” tape made editing them possible
(A baker’s dozen years on, working on Frank Romeo’s two films, Bye-Bye Love and The Aunts, I was the one who made sure we had enough room tone to edit the sound.)
Three months later, however, when it came to assigning credits, some of us wondered why we needed to put Rabkin’s name on the piece at all. Bai said it was obligatory, though. Well, could we at least put Woodard’s name first, then? No, Bai told us: Alphabetical order was the WBAI way. (It wasn’t that Rabkin hadn’t worked while he was there. It was only that Woodard had worked so long and so hard.) Bai only recanted because, on the best and most usable of his own takes, accidentally he read it with Woodard’s name first. In all the printed announcements for the show, Rabkin leads.
With second and third takes, misreadings, coughs, excuse-me’s, and false starts, we finished laying down the naked dialogue somewhat before two that morning. Joan Tanner’s part had been finished by seven, and she had gone home. Walter and Jerry were done about ten thirty and left. Phoebe, Randa, and I—with indefatigable Danny—stuck it out till after one. A couple of Randa’s Allegra monologues had to be done three or four times. We’d been in the studio non-stop a bit over nine hours—and had recorded just under five hours of tape.
That night Danny and I cleaned up the pizza boxes and soda cans. Randa, Phoebe, and I said something about finding a place to have a cup of coffee. But, after looking around the midtown streets just below Grand Central Terminal for five minutes, we decided we were all too exhausted and instead went home.
That hot, hot summer, Marilyn was pretty much taken up by a stormy affair with a twenty-one-year-old half-American Indian poet named Link—himself the live-in lover of another writer, a cadaverous-looking 28-eight-year-old, Hunce Voelcker. Both Hunce and Link had been part of the Jack Spicer circle in San Francisco. My comings and goings in the second floor apartment at 10th Street got little attention.
Now and again Marilyn found herself involved with another of Link’s lovers, a bisexual twenty-six year old Irish-American printer, Harvey—four months out of the Navy and on his way to becoming a serious alcoholic. Though Harvey was a big, friendly, wonderfully nice guy, a couple of times I woke up on the foldout couch where most of us slept, to find him snoring away while (Ahem...) urinating against my leg. That same summer, during the time I was not working on The Star-Pit or off rehearsing with the Heavenly Breakfast, Harvey and I published Marilyn’s first book of poems, an eight-and-a-half by eleven inch pamphlet called The Terrible Children. On the cover was a photograph I’d taken back while I was in high school. The lettering was by our friend the artist Russell FitzGerald (another one-time member of the late Spicer’s circle). We printed five hundred copies. Together with Marilyn, we distributed finished copies to half a dozen bookstores in the Village and East Village area, where thirty or forty of them actually sold.
Forty-eight hours after our marathon taping session, I came back into the studio with Sue Schweers and the then-nineteen-year-old red-headed associate producer, Neal Conan. With Ed coaching us for the first hour or so, we began what turned into three ten-hour days of editing the five hours of naked tape, which produced the hour-and-fifty-minute dialogue-and-narration track, which forms the play’s basis.
Sue was an extraordinary flutist. She had dozens of instruments, some of which she had made herself. A number of them are described in my book Heavenly Breakfast (Bamberger Books, Flint Michigan: 1992), where she appears at “Lee.” She played the show’s lyric, breathy prelude on a length of industrial hosing with an inch an a half bore and arbitrarily cut-in fingers holes. Among the piccolos, tenor recorders, and shawms, the only classical silver flute you hear in the play is in the arpeggios accompanying some of Allegra’s radiant fantasies. A week later, over a few more hours of recording time, we laid down tracks for all the special effects: Everything from the “world wind” to the computer beeping in Vyme’s office is one or another (or a combination) of Sue’s flutes, sometimes electronically distorted.
I’ve never quite understood why, but the editing and the placing of the music and special effects took almost ten times as many studio hours to put together and lay in as had the editing of the dialogue. Moments I recall from the whole? We worked late in the studio every night during the week the Beetles’ new 45-rpm record of I Am the Walrus was released. Listening to it on the corner speaker over the workbench high on the wall, we laid in the computer blippings. Hey Jude was on the other side of Walrus. The next day, when Sue and I were in the studio again, somebody—possibly it was Ed—put together a tape loop of the today famous, but then unknown (I’d only heard it perhaps three times before on the radio that week), all-but-endless ending and started it playing over the studio speakers. We’d been working about twenty minutes, with the thing running on and on and on... when one or the other of us looked up, realized what was happening, and began to laugh.
The Star-Pit was recorded when four-track reel-to-reel recorders were the latest thing in studio equipment. Only a few, very big music studios had eight-track equipment. A previous Minds Eye Theater project had been a production of ten hour-long readings covering the whole of Christopher Morley’s wonderfully witty novel from the thirties, The Trojan Horse. Some twenty-six actors had been involved in that high-jinx project. (Then living in New York City and fresh from the Yale Drama School, with a degree in playwriting, the spectacularly talented writer Joanna Russ had worked on that project as “continuity girl.” Baird was the model for the character Jai Vhed in Russ’s second novel And Chaos Died . By the end of the Morley project, she’d had something of a crush on him.) It had been a logistics nightmare—mostly in terms of getting all the actors to show up when needed. The music had been canned, however, occurring only at each episode’s beginning and end; nor were there any sound effects—so that, as Baird finally confessed to us, our project was the most technically complicated The Mind’s Eye Theater had undertaken. Certainly ours ended up requiring the most hours of studio time.
At another point, when we were in sight of the end and tempers were fraying (because we were all beginning to see it was still going to require still another few sessions), our red-headed, then nineteen-year-old production assistant Neal suddenly exploded at me: “You know, Chip, you have the ugliest laugh of anyone I have ever heard in my life—and if I have to stay in the same room with you for five more minutes, I’m going to go crazy or punch you in your fucking jaw... if you laugh again at anything!” Then, overturning (accidentally) a blue cardboard coffee container with white Greek pillars on it, sitting at the end of the desk, he stalked from the tiny studio—leaving both Sue and me quite surprised, coffee splattering the floor between us.
Five minutes later, Neal was back—with a grumpy apology and a fist full of paper towels.
But a day later I was out seeing my sister in Brooklyn, when all of a sudden she laughed at something—and I realized we Delanys do have an... eccentric laugh. Indeed, it might be rough, cooped up with it in a tiny workspace, hour after hour, day after day, as Neal had been.
The music/special effects expanded the show by a full six-and-a half minutes. Now, with everything in place, The Star-Pit ran an hour and fifty-seven minutes.
I assumed we had a “director’s cut” and that next we had to set ourselves a reasonable playing time, then start trimming it down. The last things added to the show were Bai’s heads-in and tales-out announcements. That afternoon Bai invited Sue and me to come to his Upper West-Side appartment for dinner the following Saturday night, to celebrate the project’s completion.
In 1967, two years prior to Stonewall, on the written page the most notable thing about “The Star-Pit” had been its gender skewing. Several fanzines and two or three prozine articles had made it a topic of comment. Today, of course, it’s almost invisible. But Jerry Matts—that rara avis, a twenty-nine-year old straight male actor—was particularly tickled with it. “Now here, Chip, I’m playing your... husband? Wow!” He sat back on Danny’s living room couch and laughed. “I mean, am I supposed to play it kind of... you know, swishy?” (At the time the word “gay” was not in use.)
“No, darling,” Danny said. “You’re just supposed to play your own, dear, sweet, straight, very butch self. That’s the whole point!”
“Okay,” he said. And he did.
The greatest gender skewing in the printed version is, of course, the penultimate scene’s revelation that Poloscki is a woman—which revelation does not arrive on the page until halfway through her dialogue with Vyme. But even though we’d picked Phoebe for her somewhat masculine voice, because it was a radio play there was no way to preserve the ambiguity till the proper dramatic moment. As soon as Phoebe/Poloscki spoke her first line (“Who’s over there?”), her gender was clear—and we had to let the effect go. Even at the final recording session, however, where we simply needed Bai to read, deadpan, the list of actors and actresses and their parts, we had to take it two or three extra times, because the same thing that had occasioned so much wonder from Jerry (“Vyme’s husband, Jerry Matts”) now kept breaking Bai up. But not only was this a time (two years prior to Stonewall) without any notions of “gender skewing” or “gender bending,” along with the word “gay,” the word “gender” itself was rarely or never heard.
In ’67 Baird lived with his lover Martin Last in the apartment just across the air shaft from the apartment I live in with mine today, on the Upper West Side’s 82nd Street. That Saturday evening Sue and I left the Heavenly Breakfast commune on Second Street and took the IND subway up to the Museum of Natural History stop by Central Park on the Upper West Side. (Among the “musical” distortions of my essay about the commune: our trip to visit “January House” is actually our trip to Bai and Martin’s for dinner, with an account of a dinner at a cooperative run by painter Knute Styles, which we visited—Sue and I—a couple of years later during ’69 in San Francisco, substituted for dinner at Bai’s in New York.) In the living room over drinks, Bai and Martin showed off their new inflatable clear-plastic furniture. Then, moving to the kitchen, with Sandra Lay—daughter of popular science writer and government rocketry advisor Willie Lay—as a fifth guest, we sat down for a steak fondue. Conversation was largely about the Science Fiction Shop that Bai was planning to open up on Hudson Street, with Sandra as one of the partners.
What would be the final running time for the radio play, I asked Baird at one point.
“If it’s an hour and fifty-seven minutes long—” Bai shrugged—“then that’s how long it’ll run. No, we’re not cutting a second from it.”
I was astonished—and delighted.
The Star-Pit first aired on WBAI-FM in late November of ’67. It ran at prime time: five to seven o’clock in the evening.
Back at the Heavenly Breakfast, seated or lying on the Second Street apartment’s kitchen floor, everyone in the commune huddled around our old vacuum tube radio. I don’t think that day there was much heat. I recall some sweaters, a few overcoats. Once the show started, Janet’s three-year old son Andy announced: “Chip is in the radio,” then put his head down on it (because it was warm) and went to sleep for the remainder of the program. As I recall, there were only three brief station identification breaks in the whole two hours.
It was repeated the following Sunday afternoon (from three to five), when I caught most of it a second time while I was up visiting my mom.
After skipping a year, for the next six years The Star-Pit played annually over WBAI, usually around Thanksgiving—running from four to six in the morning, or sometimes from three till five a.m. For a while it was something of a New York autumn tradition. I stayed up (or got up) to hear it twice in that time. There was another year break; then it ran for three more years.
By the show’s tenth anniversary, WBAI had relocated in a large church basement on East 58th Street. That year I came in when they ran it, to reminisce about it for the listeners, before and after it aired. Since then, every two or three years, WBAI’s Jim Freund has found a post-midnight slot for it on one holiday or another, when someone working at the station wanted to take a night off.
Twenty years later, in 1987 for WBAI, Barbara Wise and I did a two-person reading, almost as complex as The Star-Pit, of an hour-long section from my 1985 AIDS novel The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals. Sadly, there were some technical problems. Although the acting was good, some all-too-elaborate sound effects were added by the over-zealous young woman who produced it, who thought that, because I was a science fiction writer, anything I wrote should sound “weird and strange and creepy,” and the idea that there were characters and a story, with motivations and relationships that had to be understood by the listeners had not occurred to her. She overlaid weird music arbitrarily through the whole piece and electronically distorted all the voices, until eighty percent of the words were unintelligible.
Around 1990, I learned that Danny Landau had died of AIDS.
Though WBAI-FM has run it twice, or possibly three times, since then, in the last decade The Star-Pit has been largely silent.
Jim Freund (whom I run into regularly, now recording a Dixon Place reading, now recording a set of readings at Readercon) has been promising to get me a cassette of The Star-Pit for a dozen years. Last month, when, two Saturdays in a row I came in to do his four o’clock in the morning show The Hour of the Wolf, kindly he transferred the drama to cassette. Coming out of their warn white cardboard boxes, from the upper shelves of the WBAI-FM archives, the two ten-inch aluminum reels on which the master tapes are still wound—so modern in 1967—today look like what they are: dinosaurs from another century. But with my partner Dennis’s help, here at home we’ve made some dubs.
I hope you enjoy this 30-year-old glimpse into the future.
Copyright 2005 Samuel R. Delany.