The Chelsea Girls (1966)


B/W & Color - 16mm - sound - 24fps - 3 hrs. 15 mins (split screen) - filmed summer 1966 - two segments scripted by Ronald Tavel

Cast: Marie Menken - Mary Woronov - Gerard Malanga - International Velvet (Susan Bottomly) - Ingrid Superstar - Angelina "Pepper" Davis - Ondine (Bob Olivio) - Albert Rene Ricard - Ronna Page - Ed Hood - Patrick Fleming - Mario Montez - Eric Emerson - Ari Boulogne - Brigid Berlin

Music: The Velvet Underground - Lighting: Paul Morrissey & Billy Name - Camera: Andy Warhol - Executive Producer: Paul Morrissey - Producer: Andy Warhol - Video Version: Paul Morrissey (Video version copyrighted 1993 by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. and Paul Morrissey)

Chelsea Girls screening instructions

The FDC's original screening instructions for The Chelsea Girls

William Rotsler ("There's a New Kind of Film: The Underground Movement," Adam Film Quarterly, No. 3, November 1967): "There are new kinds of movies going around... Today there's Andy Warhol. In one film alone - Chelsea Girls - he has sadism, masochism, whipping, transvestites, homos, prostitutes, a homosexual 'Pope," boredom, stunningly beautiful girls, depravity, humor, 'psychedelics,' boredom, truth, honesty, liars, poseurs, color, black and white, split screens (two reels are projected at once), boredom, and it's four hours long." (Warhol Film Ads)

The Chelsea Girls was Andy Warhol's his first major commercial success and catapulted many of the participants into superstardom - Ondine, Nico, International Velvet (Susan Bottomly), Brigid Berlin and Mary Woronov. When Mary Woronov's mother saw the film she sued Warhol because her daughter had not signed a release. Warhol eventually paid all the actors $1,000.00 each to sign a release. (DB)

The Chelsea Girls is made up of various scenes shot at the Chelsea Hotel, the Factory and at various apartments including the Velvet Underground's apartment on West 3rd Street in the Village. Nico, Brigid Berlin and Susan Bottomly (International Velvet) lived at the Chelsea Hotel at the time the film was made. Brigid said that she spent about one night a week in her own room and the rest of the time visiting other people in other rooms. (DB240)

The Village Voice ad that announced the premiere of the film indicated which sequences were shot in which rooms, but the numbers were fake and later removed when the Chelsea threatened legal action.

Village Voice ad, September 15, 1966
(Warhol Film Ads)

Note also that Edie Sedgwick's name is misspelled in the ad. It's interesting that her name was included at all because her footage was cut from the film, although it's unknown whether it was included in the premiere. According to Paul Morrissey, Edie asked for her footage in "The Afternoon" segment to be taken out of The Chelsea Girls, saying that she had signed a contract with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. (EDIE283) Earlier in the year, in about February 1966, she left the Factory after an argument at either the Ginger Man restaurant (according to Warhol biographer Victor Bockris) or Maxwell Plum (according to Gerard Malanga). She had become increasingly demanding about money, was angry that she wasn't being included in the Velvet Underground, felt that people in New York were laughing at her in Warhol's films, and had become increasingly egocentric. Many of Warhol's stars would later complain about not being paid, or not being paid enough, but what underground actors did get paid during the '60s? Nobody forced Warhol's actors to appear in the films. Many were willing to accept the lack of recompense in exchange for a chance at superstardom. Warhol was used to making "art" films. He was not very good at getting releases from people who acted in films that he considered "art" any more than you would get the subject of a portrait to sign a release form.

Edie was also reportedly under the impression that Bob Dylan's manager was going to make her a legitimate movie star, but her erratic behaviour fueled by her addiction to drugs got in the way of success. (It's not clear whether it was actually Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, who promised her stardom or Dylan's friend Bob Neuwirth. Edie had an affair with Neuwirth who, like her, had connections to the college town of Cambridge.

Also cut from The Chelsea Girls was Nico's footage with Randy Borscheidt ("The Closet") which was later released as a separate film. However, both Edie's segment and Nico's segment are listed as part of The Chelsea Girls in the The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, 1961 - 1970:

Chelsea Girls

(The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1961-1970 , pp. 169-70)

The Their Town segment of The Chelsea Girls featured a script by Ron Tavel based on an article, "The Pied Piper of Tucson," in Life Magazine in March 1966 about a serial killer. (AD30)

Nico, Brigid Berlin and Susan Bottomly (International Velvet) lived at the Chelsea at the time The Chelsea Girls was made. Brigid said that she spent about one night a week in her own room and the rest of the time visiting other people in other rooms. (DB240)

Ronna (aka Rona) Page, the person who Ondine verbally and physically assaulted in The Chelsea Girls, was actually a friend of Jonas Mekas who had sent her to the Factory. She also hung around with Gerard Malanga and appeared in Warhol's film Bufferin with Malanga. She accompanied Gerard to poetry readings as well as appearing onstage with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable when they played the Boston ICA in 1966. (GMW56-9)

Warhol shot the footage for The Chelsea Girls from June to September 1966. It was generally improvised except for two scripts sent in by Ron Tavel who mailed the scripts to Warhol from Los Angeles - one being the "Hanoi Hannah" segment featuring Mary Woronov. In August 1966, Jonas Mekas asked Warhol for a film to screen and Paul Morrissey and Warhol assembled 12 of the films they had shot into The Chelsea Girls. According to Victor Bockris the reels of film were shown on two screens in order to reduce the time of the film from 6 1/2 hours to 3 hours 15 minutes. (LD256)

The Chelsea Girls opened at the 200 capacity Film-Makers' Cinematheque on September 15, 1966. It returned there for a second week from October 19 - 25, and again from November 6 - 9, with many of the performances sold out. Due to the film's popularity, the Film-Maker's Distribution Center (FDC) booked the six-hundred seater Cinema Rendezvous at 110 West 57th Street to show the film. The FDC had been founded by Jonas Mekas and his underground film cronies in order to distribute underground films to commercial theatres.

The Chelsea Girls opened at the Cinema Rendezvous on December 1, 1966 - "making it the first underground movie to get a two-week run in a midtown Manhattan art theater." (DB248) The estimated investment for the release was $ 15,000, which included cinema rental, advertising and publicity expenses. It netted $5,000 for this screening which was split equally between the FDC and Warhol. After its run at the Rendezvous, it was moved to the Regency Theater of Broadway at 67th Street, playing three daily performances for more than a month. It then moved to the York Cinema on the East Side, with the FDC making arrangements with the Art Theater Guild who had art house cinemas throughout the country. (DB249)

The film cost approximately $1,500 - $3,000 to make and in its first nineteen weeks of release in New York, it grossed approximately $130,000 at the box office. Following reviews of the film in the national press, it was booked into cinemas in Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, San Diego and Kansas City. (DB249) When the film played Boston, the cinema was raided by the vice squad and the manager found guilty of four charges of obscenity and fined $500.00 for each charge. According to David Bourdon, Andy was "delighted" as it meant that he would be able to say that the film had been "banned in Boston" - "traditionally a publicist's dream." (DB254)

When the film was initially released, Newsweek praised it as the "Iliad of the underground". Not all reviews were so favourable however. Rex Reed wrote, "Chelsea Girls is a three and a half hour cesspool of vulgarity and talentless confusion which is about as interesting as the inside of a toilet bowl." (LD258)

Gary Comenas