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Here at The Eye of Faith we worship the spirit of individuality. Escaping the everyday, and letting your uniqueness shine is something Andy Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis was no stranger to.

Born February 19, 1947 in New York City; Jackie Curtis slayed the scene with a gender bending style and booming persona that should never be forgotten.

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That’s why we’re bringing her from the clutches of the past to the forefront, and it’s no better time, really; gender is undergoing quite a shift in this last decade, and many changes are still abound.

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Our faithful correspondent John Wisniewski spoke with film maker and author Craig Highberger whose 2005 film “Superstar in a Housedress” explored the star’s groundbreaking art and life!

{ J.W. } What interested you about the life of star Jackie Curtis, Craig?

{C.H.} I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is Andy Warhol’s hometown. My Uncle Sam Highberger had gone to Carnegie Mellon University with Andy and was in some of his classes and talked about him and so I became aware of and I loved Warhol’s art and that whole world. I also loved new wave cinema and without telling my parents I snuck out to these film screenings at Carnegie Mellon of Warhol’s films “Chelsea Girls” and “Flesh”.

And in “Flesh” there is this scene I will never forget, in which Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, in drag, are sitting on a couch reading a movie magazine and chatting while nearby Joe Dallesandro is getting a BJ from Gerri Miller! I was 16 years old and I mean this was just fabulous to me!

In high school I was very aware of what was going on in New York City, pop art, Max’s Kansas City, the Warhol scene. I knew I wanted to be a part of that.  There was a magazine out of New York called “After Dark” magazine that had these really hot photos of Joe Dallesandro, and Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling by photographer Jack Mitchell. I wanted to go to film school in New York and meet Andy Warhol and the Superstars and that is just what happened.

I was a freshman at NYU the fall of 1972, it was just a few years after Stonewall and gay liberation was happening and the first NYU gay student group wanted the University to allow the group to meet officially on campus and the administration did not immediately agree to this so there was a big demonstration announced – a sleep-in, actually in the basement of my dormitory at NYU and Jackie Curtis showed up for it in his signature drag, because Jackie knew that there would be press coverage and maybe TV cameras and Jackie was a publicity hound. And I was just entranced, I recognized him immediately and introduced, told him I was from Pittsburgh, that I loved Andy Warhol, that I loved him (Curtis) in “Flesh” and “Women in Revolt”, that I was majoring in film and television and wanted to film his plays and performances documentary style.

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We became instant friends. And I went around with Curtis to parties, to Max’s Kansas City, we hung out with Holly Woodlawn (who is still a great friend), Candy Darling, and I met Andy Warhol a couple of times. 

In 1974 Jackie played the starring role in his play “Glamor, Glory and Gold: the Life and Legend of Nola Noonan, Goddess and Star”, it was off-Broadway at the Truck and Warehouse Theater on the Lower East Side across the street from La Mama directed by Ron Link. And I told Ron I wanted to film the entire play and he allowed me to if I would show it at cocktail parties for his prospective backers. So I did that.

Everything about Jackie was amazing and exciting and I really wanted to make a documentary about Curtis’ life from the moment I met him. I loved Jackie. 

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{J.W.} How and when did Jackie Curtis meet Andy Warhol?

{C.H.} Jackie told me in August 1967 he and Candy Darling were walking in Greenwich Village and Jackie saw Andy Warhol and Fred Hughes coming out of the Leather Man store on Christopher Street.

Warhol had just bought some leather pants. Jackie ran up to Andy and introduced himself and asked for his autograph on the shopping bag Curtis was toting around. Warhol asked Jackie what was in the bag and Curtis told him it was satin shorts for the tap dancing scene in his play “Glamour, Glory and Gold” which was opening in September, Jackie invited him to come.

Jackie told me he went to the Factory with four tickets and gave them personally to Andy Warhol. He came and afterwards congratulated Curtis, the author and the start of the performance, Melba LaRose, Jr. played the lead Nola Noonan, and Candy Darling played Estelle and was reviewed as a woman.  Curtis asked Andy Warhol for a review quote and Warhol said of the play:  “For the first time, I wasn’t bored” which they used in advertisements! 

{J.W.} Jackie starred in the Paul Morrissey directed film “Flesh”. What was that like for Jackie? How did this film come about, Craig?

{C.H.} Warhol’s “Flesh” was Paul Morrissey’s response to “Midnight Cowboy” which was filming on location in New York City in 1968. Morrissey knew that Hollywood would tone down the subject matter and nudity and wanted to do something more gritty about a hustler (played by Joe Dallesandro) working the streets trying to raise money for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion – talk about controversy in 1968 – that very concept was designed to stir up publicity and fill movie theater seats, especially with Warhol’s name attached to it.

Warhol and Morrissey already knew Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling and so Morrissey came up with an idea to have them sit on a couch and talk extemporaneously about a movie magazine while Joe Dallesandro is getting a blowjob from Geri Miller practically next to them in the same room!

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This was Jackie’s dream, to be in a movie in theatrical release on the big screen, and you bet that Curtis went to every screening and that it propelled him into more self-publicity (I believe this was the moment Curtis had 1000 Jackie Curtis shopping bags printed up which were sold in Greenwich Village head shops)!

{J.W.} Could you tell us about The Jack Mitchell Archives, Craig?

{C.H.} When I first began thinking about making “Superstar in a Housedress” I knew I would need lots of archival photographs of Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, Andy Warhol and the whole crowd. And I immediately thought I need Jack Mitchell photographs, he photographed them more than any other photographer. But how was I ever going to afford license fees? I got on Google and did some research and found that Jack Mitchell had retired in 1995, he lived in New Smyrna Beach, Florida and he did not have a website. So I thought I will offer to do a website for him and to be his webmaster in exchange for the rights to his photographs. And that is just what happened.

Jack and his partner Bob Pavlik came to the opening night of the film at Film Forum in New York and everyone was there, they were very impressed, and loved the film and seeing his photographs in a feature length film in a theater with a packed audience. And the film toured film festivals and we had a theatrical run and it was broadcast on cable and Jack loved it all. It brought him new attention. And I called him and said I know what my next documentary subject is and it is you!

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+Jackie Curtis by Jack Mitchell+

I want to do a film about your life and work. And he was very pleased and excited. He put me in touch with people who were old friends and people he had photographed who loved his work that I could interview on camera, like Broadway diva Patti LuPone, playwright Edward Albee, Alvin Ailey dancer Judith Jamison, famed choreographer Merce Cunningham, and many others.

And I made the film “Jack Mitchell: My Life is Black and White” and Jack said that it was the greatest honor of his life. He and Bob came to the opening in New York and they came to film festival screenings and Jack did Q&A sessions afterwards with me and he loved it so much.

About a year later Jack and Bob called me and told me that they had decided to leave me Jack’s archives, the entirety of his life’s work, all the vintage photographs, his negatives and color transparencies, his files and memorabilia, everything. Bob died in 2009 at the age of 77 during an operation. Four years later on November 7, 2013 Jack died just weeks after his 88th birthday. I was there with him when he passed away and moved his archives to a vault.

A few months later I began the full time work of cataloguing and digitizing everything. It is a huge job. Jack Mitchell’s career as a professional photographer began just after World War II, when he moved to New York City and continued for about the next five decades. The negative files are almost 6000 photo sessions and there are thousands of boxes of color transparencies as well. There are 77 boxes of vintage prints. I have been working on it for almost two years and have many years of work left. It is very exciting and I make new discoveries with every box I open and every negative file that I scan.

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{J.W.} What was Jackie Curtis’ finest hour?

{C.H.} Jackie Curtis’ finest hour?  Any of the countless hours Jackie performed – whether is was in his hit play Glamour Glory and Gold, or Cabaret in the Sky, Vain Victory, or singing at his grandmother’s Slugger Ann’s Bar – Curtis was an incredible star of amazing brilliance. So many people remarked upon his being a genius: La Mama founder Ellen Stewart and comic icon Lily Tomlin among them.

Jackie Curtis had an electric charismatic magnetism that enthralled and thrilled audiences. I loved Jackie. Jackie put all of himself into every performance for the love of the art, and that is why it is really impossible for me to zero in on one performance, one hour, one moment. Now that he is gone, I think of him and a whole kaleidoscope of incredibly beautiful moments of sublime artistry blossom in my mind. As others have said, he was sui generis – absolutely unique.

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{J.W.} What will your next book be about, Craig? Any other projects that you wish to tell us about?

{C.H.} I have been working on the Jack Mitchell Archives (cataloging boxes of vintage prints, and scanning negatives and color transparencies) since Jack’s death two years ago. There is a lot of material for my memoirs including several years I spent running around with Curtis. I am going to work at what may be my memoirs, but potentially could take a new form (film or multimedia) because I have the journals, and visual and audio elements as well.

Also, I decided to post five of my documentary films on Vimeo for reasonably priced on-demand streaming, as well as downloadable for iPhone and iPad. Here is the link: https://vimeo.com/craighighberger/vod_pages/sort:videos/format:thumbnail

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SPECIAL THANKS TO JOHN & CRAIG FOR THIS INTERVIEW

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UNTIL NEXT TIME,

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