Ronald Tavel and Andy Warhol's Factory
Gary Comenas (2008/revised 2009)
“Ronald Tavel was – and is – ahead of his time. The Life of Juanita Castro was one of the best productions of the Berlin season.” (Diedrich Diederichen, Jahrbuch Theater heute 2001: Sitzen und Schauen (Friedrich Berlin Verlag, 2001), p. 126)
For an essay on Ronald Tavel's theatrical career - see Conquest of the Ridiculous: Ronald Tavel, John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam.
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Ronald Tavel was part of Andy Warhol’s silver Factory during its “golden age” - from about November 1964 through 1966/early 1967. Warhol had started the Factory in early 1964 and moved it to more business-like premises after being evicted in late 1967. As Andy Warhol’s sole scriptwriter Ronald Tavel’s observations are indispensable for an understanding of Warhol’s filmmaking career. Tavel witnessed first-hand, for instance, the rise and fall of Edie Sedgwick who starred in many of the films he wrote, and he also authored the only scripted segments of Warhol’s most famous film, The Chelsea Girls. He was awarded an Obie Award in 1969 for an Off-Broadway musical version of one of these segments – titled Their Town in The Chelsea Girls and Boy on the Straight-Back Chair as a musical. While still working for Warhol, Tavel founded the Theatre of the Ridiculous (aka the Play-House of the Ridiculous), the first productions for which were plays based on two scripts originally written for Warhol – Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro. Andrew Sarris, the film critic for the Village Voice, referred to the film version of Juanita Castro as “an unheralded masterpiece” in 1965. The play was last performed in Europe in 2001 in Berlin – the same year that it was performed in Moscow as part of the “Warhol Week Festival,” sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Prior to his involvement with Warhol, Ronald Tavel worked with underground filmmaker Jack Smith who Warhol (via Pat Hackett in Popism) would later credit with influencing his own film technique – “the way he used anyone who happened to be around that day, and also how he just kept shooting until the actors got bored.” Tavel was the sound and prop man for Smith’s underground classic Flaming Creatures which starred Mario Montez who would go on to become Warhol’s first transvestite “superstar” when s/he appeared in Warhol’s film Harlot, which Tavel also participated in.
The cast lists of the films that Warhol made from Ronald Tavel’s scripts read like a “who’s who” of the Factory. In addition to Edie Sedgwick they included International Velvet, Ultra Violet, Ingrid Superstar, Gerard Malanga, Billy Name, Bibbe Hansen (the mother of the recording artist Beck), Ondine, Mary Woronov, Dorothy Dean (known as the “black Dorothy Parker” and the first door person at Max’s Kansas City) and Marie Menken. In addition to writing the films Tavel also often appeared in them.
Andy Warhol first met Ronald Tavel in the autumn of 1964 when Warhol’s art assistant Gerard Malanga took the artist to the Café Le Metro to hear Tavel reading from a novel he wrote, Street of Stairs, which was later published by Maurice Girodias, the founder of The Olympia Press, who also published works by Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov and William Burroughs. Having already made some of his well-known silent films like Sleep and Empire Warhol planned on making sound movies and needed someone to write dialogue for the films. Impressed by Tavel’s reading, he asked him to participate in the making of his first sound film, Harlot, starring Mario Montez. A week after the filming Warhol shot Tavel for a screen portrait lasting approximately four minutes – one of the many screen portraits that Warhol shot which became known as his “Screen Tests.”
Screen Tests and Suicide
Although Warhol’s four minute(ish) screen portraits would become known as Screen Tests the two films which at the time were actually titled Screen Tests were both written by Tavel and lasted approximately 70 minutes each. The first was Screen Test #1 (filmed January 23, 1965) featuring Warhol’s then-boyfriend Philip Fagan with Tavel as the off-screen “Tester’s Voice” – described by Tavel as “a disembodied examiner intent on humiliating the auditioner; and whose exasperation and vehemence grow when the intended victim becomes unimaginative in response, reticent, evasive, or withdrawn.” The format was repeated for Screen Test #2 (filmed February 7, 1965) with Mario Montez as the “auditioner,” apparently believing or pretending to believe that s/he was auditioning for a film version of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, with hilarious results.
“The film, essentially a relentless inquisition, poses some difficult questions: Am I, in my heard but unseen role, delivering a carefully studied performance as a neurotic and sadistic administer of screen tests, or are we being confronted with a gay man’s real-life projecting of his self-hatred onto a blatantly defenceless transvestite? Is it possible that the transvestite, Mario Montez, doesn’t know the occasion is simply a Warhol movie and not a genuine screen test – for Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris no less, a melodrama which Warhol would be incapable of realizing even if he had wanted to, and he most certainly would not have?”
When Tavel was later asked, at a screening of the film in Berlin, if Mario ever spoke to him again after the shoot, he responded “Of course he did. Every American wants to be in movies. Screen Test #2 was, to be sure, an ordeal for him: but many have given their lives for less than what he achieved – the central attention in a work that will outlast most of Hollywood’s.”
Screen Test #2 was followed by another film featuring a Tavel script – Suicide (filmed March 6, 1965). The subject (or victim) of the film this time was “Rock B.” who Tavel describes as a “classically small-featured French film actor who jet set his time in a kind of frenzy between expensive hotels on either side of the Atlantic.”
“The script or blueprint of Suicide… is unusual in being so extensively self-explaining, not just of its distinct, filming process, but of what actually did transpire that evening in the crowded, press and idler-filled Factory.
In frame of the stationary camera was to be Rock’s belly-up wrists, side by side between his seated knees. I would hold the script he’d not seen before that night, up at a comfortable distance from his eyes and safely out of camera range. On it, he is clearly instructed to read all his own lines while I read (and play) everyone else in his life needed to breathe the circumstances that led to each attempt at suicide…. Shortly before the camera rolled, he [Andy Warhol] ordered a voluptuous varied bouquet of festively coloured, huge flowers from a local florist. ‘Since this is in Technicolor,’ was all he said to me…”
A basin was set under Rock’s wrists and Tavel was to pour water over his “scarlet scars” into the basin to symbolize the blood of the subject’s suicide attempts. The scene was interrupted, however, when Rock made an early departure angrily throwing the basin of water at Tavel who ended up playing Rock’s part as well. Tavel recalls that the film ends “with a sad, long look at the broken flowers in the re-set basin while I, now playing Rock as well as his familiars, drone the misadventures on to a conclusion. The aftermath: It still being winter, I came down with a good cold; Rock however, returned when the Factory was nearly deserted and stole a painting for his pains.”
Warhol filmed The Life of Juanita Castro about a week after Suicide. Tavel appears in the film seated amongst the unrehearsed actors on chairs facing the camera, feeding them lines as well as directions (“Everyone think hard now about the fate of the guajiros, and stare solemnly into the camera.”). The cast included Ultra Violet (known for her amorous liaisons with Salvador Dali and John Graham) as a member of the chorus or “Family” and a drunken Marie Menken as Juanita Castro. The real-life Juanita Castro was the sister of Fidel Castro who had defected to the United States and spent much of her time publicly criticizing her brother and other members of Castro’s extended family. Life magazine had reported her comments in an article published August 28, 1964 titled “My Brother Was a Tyrant.” Time magazine had reported on her defection in their July 10, 1964 issue in an article titled “The Bitter Family.”
The idea for the film originated at a dinner that Warhol and Tavel went to at the home of Fidel Castro’s brother-in-law, Waldo Dias-Balart. Gossip at the dinner veered toward the in-fighting amongst Castro’s siblings, particularly the comments of Juanita, and Warhol suggested they make a film about her life. Tavel was well-placed to write the film having visited Castro’s Cuba prior to the U.S. travel ban and having also written poems about the country. Many of his friends were Cuban and he had recently had a Cuban lover. He wrote the script for The Life of Juanita Castro on February 20, 1965 which was filmed by Warhol in mid-March, 1965 and first shown on March 22, 1965 at Jonas Mekas’ Cinematheque.
From Andrew Sarris, “Films,” The Village Voice (December 9, 1965):
“The creative force behind Juanita Castro is not so much Warhol, actually, as Ronnie Tavel, who wrote the script, and acted the key role of the stage manager, and very good he is in both capacities… Tavel reads off lines to be repeated in turn, by Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, Juanita Castro and Che Guevara. Fidel, Raoul, and Che are played by relatively pretty, Latin-looking girls, Juanita Castro by Marie Menken, an independent film-maker, who in this context, comes over like a lady longshoreman… The whole thing is outrageous… making a comment on a revolution that has long since been consigned to camp. The whole show was given away when word got out that Fidel Castro wanted to be played on the screen by Marlon Brando and Raoul by Frank Sinatra. From that point on, Cuba became the property of Andy Warhol and Ronnie Tavel, and they have made the only valid statement I have seen on the subject in the past several years.”
Edie Sedgwick appeared on the scene not long after Tavel became involved with the Factory and she quickly gravitated to starring roles in Warhol’s films. She first appeared briefly in Horse, a film scripted by Ronald Tavel featuring amyl-nitrate fuelled performances by Gregory Battcock (who later edited The New American Cinema, A Critical Anthology published by Dutton in 1967) and real-life sado-masochist Tosh Carillo.
“... somehow, they [Edie Sedgwick and Chuck Wein] showed up on the set of Vinyl... and they showed up to see it being shot... This really pissed me off because I had rehearsed it for a week. He [Warhol] gave me the idea behind it because Warhol gave me the Burgess book, A Clockwork Orange, and said that he had purchased the film rights from Anthony Burgess, and he wanted me to do it... So, I took the book and read it... but I only used the first half of it because I got bored and just stopped in the middle of the novel.
So, then we rehearsed it for a week... But when she [Sedgwick] showed up with her hair dyed silver, no less... he [Warhol] asked her to sit right on the set. She said, 'What should I do?' He said, 'Well, there's no part for you. So just sit there.' And she ended up stealing the film and becoming a star overnight... "
At the celebrity-filled “The Fifty Most Beautiful People” party hosted by film producer Lester Persky at the Factory in the Spring of 1965, Edie, according to Warhol, attracted more attention than many of the more established Hollywood celebrities. He noted in Popism (via Pat Hackett) that “Gerard [Malanga] always said that it was at ‘The Fifty Most Beautiful People’ party that the stars went out and the superstars came in, that there were more people staring at Edie than at Judy [Garland].” Ronald Tavel was also at the party and later recalled his own impressions of the event.
“The crowded affair boasted attendance by Judy Garland, Zachary Scott, and Freddie and Isabelle Eberstadt; and Montgomery Clift, whom I told I thought was ‘seasoned enough and ready now’ to appear in a Warhol flick (out of it, he said, blankly, ‘Thank you’); and stunning Rudy Nureyev, at the peak of his popularity, who danced feverishly with his male lover. Then he shattered the equipment of the paparazzo who snapped them in the act. I spoke to most everyone at that gala, for in the flushed expression of all present you could read their belief that they partied that moment not only in the center of New York’s art life, but the world… “
In addition to Horse and Vinyl, the films that Ronald Tavel wrote with Edie in the cast included Bitch (March 1965) which also featured Marie Menken; Kitchen (May 1965) which included photographer David McCabe in a non-speaking role; and Space (July 1965) with Dorothy Dean and the singer/songwriter Eric Andersen. Norman Mailer reviewed Kitchen for the Sunday edition of The New York Times.
"I think Warhol's films are historical documents. One hundred years from now they will look at Kitchen and see that incredibly cramped little set, which was indeed a kitchen; maybe it was eight feet wide, maybe it was six feet wide. It was photographed from a middle distance in a long, low medium shot, so it looked even narrower than that… I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look at Kitchen and say, 'Yes, that is the way it was in the late Fifties, early Sixties in America. That's why they had the war in Vietnam. That's why the rivers were getting polluted. That's why there was typological glut. That's why the horror came down. That's why the plague was on its way.' Kitchen shows that better than any other work of that time."
The Chelsea Girls
Ronald Tavel scripted the Hanoi Hanna, Radio Star and Their Town segments of The Chelsea Girls. Filmed in the summer of 1966, Hanoi Hanna, Radio Star featured a mesmerizing performance by an androgynous Mary Woronov playing Hanna opposite International Velvet as “Victor” and Ingrid Superstar as “Scum.” Tavel notes about Woronov’s performance, “Film students today often take Mary for a very convincing drag, but I find her no more epicene as Hanna than Hollywood’s hard-boiled female legends from Davis and Crawford to Turner, Stanwyck, Russell and Reynolds…” Both Woronov and Ingrid Superstar had appeared in two Warhol films scripted by Tavel earlier in the year – Hedy which also included appearances by Jack Smith and Gerard Malanga and Withering Sights which featured a live score by The Velvet Underground.
Woronov would later achieve Hollywood fame as “Miss Togar” in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. After leaving the Factory she appeared in more than ninety films and television programs – including the art-house success Eating Raoul. International Velvet (Susan Bottomly) retreated from public attention after leaving the Factory and Ingrid disappeared completely. As with Edie, drugs took their toll with Ingrid. After leaving her home for a pack of cigarettes in the late 1980s, she never returned. The New York Post reported her disappearance in February 1987. After she disappeared her parents took out an ad with the message “Come back so we can play Morning Dew without feeling sad," but received no response. She is presumed dead although no body has ever been found.
About Hanoi Hanna, Radio Star, Tavel comments, “The political vision of Hanoi Hanna, Radio Star is more detailed than that in The Life of Juanita Castro: not different, but more specific (America’s romance with war) and more compassionate… Sentimentality, here as in every proto-conditional analysis that was to follow, is absolute anathema.”
A theatrical version of Hanoi Hanna by Tavel was performed at Edward Albee’s Playwright’s Unit in 1970 as Vinyl Visits An FM Station.
The other segment of The Chelsea Girls written by Tavel, titled Their Town, also included Mary, Ingrid, and Velvet, along with ballet dancer turned Warhol superstar, Eric Emerson. The film was inspired by an article that Warhol had seen about a series of murders in Tucson, Arizona.
“Andy was concerned about an article in Life called ‘The Pied Piper of Tucson’ that dealt with a short (5’1”) and strange young lover named Charles Schmid who’d killed a number of teenage girls over a period of years and buried them in the desert. His attention was nailed from the start with the fact that ‘the townspeople,’ as he put it, ‘knew about the murders and never said anything – including the mothers of the girls!’
… The importance that Andy attached to this project is evident in its pre-meditation, it being the most elaborately produced of his films. No other was tried out so many times or with so many different approaches. And there were plans for rear projections of its murder sequences as silent flashbacks, to accompany a static present of heavy dialogue… The work’s originality stems in great part from Billy Name’s gelling [use of coloured lighting gels] shrewdly, multiply reflected in the glass-chipped disco ball, a street-found object that was a fixture at the Factory, and that he rotated on the floor for shootings.”
In addition to using at least some of the footage from Their Town in at least some of the versions of The Chelsea Girls that have circulated over the years, an approximately 70 minute print of the film was released as a separate movie in 1966 and a 30+ minute sequence from it (restored in 1989) was included as a sequence in The Chelsea Girls from September 15, 1996. In 1969 Tavel was awarded an Obie for his Off-Broadway musical version of Their Town titled Boy on the Straight-Back Chair. In 1972 Tavel earned a second Obie for his play Bigfoot.
The Final Script
The last film that Ronald Tavel wrote for Andy Warhol was actually a script for Edie Sedgwick. Tavel recalls, “He (Andy Warhol) told me he’d like a screenplay based on Charlotte Bronte’s oft-recycled Jane Eyre and oddly, as a vehicle for Edie. Oddly, because though she’d pop up at the Factory from time to generously spaced time, she was long past her days as a Warhol “star” so to speak, as well as the health needed to undertake so much work. But the producers judged her press bankable and so the opening spirals make clear that the script is constructed around leotarded Edie. Of course, while I was at work on the project it became evident to Andy beyond dispute that Edie would not pan out…”
Jane Eyre Bare was written by Tavel in late 1966 and early 1967 but it was never filmed. Amphetamine (“speed”) had taken its toll on Edie. Later in the year she would start shooting for the non-Warhol film Ciao! Manhattan, co-directed by David Weisman and John Palmer. Warhol had credited Palmer as co-director of Empire in 1964. Although there is a fictional subplot in Ciao! Manhattan the film documents Edie’s last years and the extent of her drug problem and the side-effects of the many shock treatments she received during her short life.
Drugs were taking their toll on a lot of the Factory regulars. Ronald Tavel particularly remembers the effect it had on Danny Williams who had been Warhol’s boyfriend for a short period of time and whose life is documented in the award-winning film, A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory, directed by Williams’ niece Esther Robinson.
My sense of the Factory… is caught in that filtered heat of the late summer, late afternoon sun falling through its streetside windows, and on Danny Williams at his desk, increasingly bizarre in appearance, his hair matted, his glasses broken, encounter by encounter progressively lost to amphetamine… I would sit next to Danny at his massive desk and watch him scoop out the grime from its chisel-work with a penny. How many speed-freaks have I stared at in wonder doing that!...
And then one day Danny was gone. On September 5th, I took a call at the Factory from his mother, asking anxiously if we had seen her son or knew of his whereabouts. ‘Andy,’ I relayed, ‘she wants to talk to you. She’s very worried.’
‘Oh,’ he groaned, ‘what a pain. He’s a pain, now she is. Tell her I’m not here.’
‘She knows you’re here: I just said I’ll get you.’
He didn’t respond. He knit his brows and turned away from me and kept working. After I hung up on Mrs. Williams, by way of admonishing me, he concluded dismissively, ‘I don’t care where he is. He’s just an amphetamine addict.’
Three days later, Gerard told me that he’d learned they found his car by the water, he wasn’t sure where, a river in Connecticut or the ocean off Cape Cod, with all his clothes piled neatly beside it. Danny had drowned himself.”
That was in September 1966. In November an incident occurred at the Factory which further convinced Tavel that he needed to leave.
“… in November the nerve-shattering, Sammy the Italian incident occurred, in which a spaced-out friend of Ondine’s took a gun to Andy’s head and began to play Russian Roulette. If equally dramatic, it seemed to me one could live longer on the theatre scene: and I as well was enjoying my longest run there at the time, a double bill of a composite of my (by then) four different Screen Test scripts, called simply, Screen Test, plus Indira Gandhi’s Daring Device.”
After leaving the Factory Ronald Tavel continued to write and perform plays. Some, like The Life of Juanita Castro, were based on the scripts he wrote for Warhol and others consisted of completely new material. During a period in the 1990s he taught contemporary poetry and screen and play writing at the National Taiwan University. He moved to Bangkok in 1997 where he completed a new novel prior to his death in March 2009.