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The Chelsea Girls (1966) cont.

by Gary Comenas (2017)

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The banning of The Chelsea Girls by a Boston judge in June 1967 didn't prevent it from being shown in another American city (Chicago) that month. It was also screened internationally in June for three evenings in Berlin. A review of the Berlin screenings appeared in International Times magazine:

The International Times, No. 15, June 16, 1967

In Chicago the same month, The Chelsea Girls was shown at the Town Underground theater. A "Cinema Treasures" site user who attended the Chicago screening in 1967 describes the venue which was later re-named the Park West theatre. Previous to showing The Chelsea Girls, the cinema had changed to an "adults only" policy. Although The Chelsea Girls screening did not get raided, the cinema was later raided "shortly after" showing the porn film, Deep Throat.

KenC on the Cinema Treasures website, November 5, 2006 at 6:58 pm:

I have three memories of the Park West theatre. In the late 50s - early 60s, when it was the Lane Court, it had a policy similar to the Parkway, Mode, and DeLuxe theatres: mostly triple features; 3 or 4 changes a week. Sometime in the mid 60s it went to an ADULTS ONLY policy, and a name change: Town theatre. For a VERY short period of time, it was called the Town Underground theatre. It was at this time I made my first trip there, to see Andy Warhols “THE CHELSEA GIRLS”, one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen (although there was some funny dialogue). This was in 1967- perhaps 1968. Don’t remember much about the theatre - rather plain, with a pretty wide auditorium. My second trip was quite memorable: After being banned in Chicago for a number of months (a year?) “DEEP THROAT” had its Chicago premiere at the Town theatre. My buddy and I went on a weekday afternoon; the theatre was packed. This was sometime in 1973. So, the Park West did not come into being until 1974 - perhaps 1975. Shortly after seeing “DEEP THROAT”, the Town was raided; the police confiscated the film. I’m not sure if the Town continued operating as an adult theatre after the raid. It may very well have closed for good as a movie theatre in mid to late ‘73. (See Cinema Treasures, here.)

Andy Warhol was apparently meant to visit Chicago to promote the film but failed to show up. Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun Times published an "Interview with Andy Warhol" on June 23, 1967 in which he noted that Warhol didn't show up in Chicago on Thursday June 22, 1967. According to Ebert, Warhol "was supposed to spend Thursday through Saturday" in Chicago promoting the opening of the film.

INTERVIEW WITH ANDY WARHOL (See Robert Ebert website here)
by Roger Ebert
June 23, 1967

Andy Warhol forgot to come to Chicago again Thursday. "It's a funny thing," the pop artist and underground filmmaker said. "It's like I keep forgetting to come to Chicago."

Warhol was supposed to spend Thursday through Saturday here promoting the opening of his movie, "Chelsea Girls," at the Town Underground Theater.

Warhol is the artist who created the Pop Art movement out of paintings of Campbell Soup cans and Brillo boxes.

In the last two years he has moved to underground movies, including "Sleep," an eight-hour study of a person sleeping; "Empire." a day-long study of the sun's shadow moving across the Empire State Building; and "Mario Banana," in which an actor named Mario Montez eats a banana.

"Chelsea Girls" is a four-hour film using a split screen to show simultaneous action in various rooms of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.

His agent promised that Warhol would bring along Ingrid Superstar and Nico, two of the leading players in the movie. They were supposed to arrive late Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

"We kept getting these calls saying Andy was coming, Andy was on his way, Andy was rounding everybody up," said John West, a spokesman for the Town Underground.

"I spent all night at O'Hare, meeting every plane - but, no Andy."

Warhol's agent, Lester Pierske [sic - Persky], told The Sun-Times Thursday he guessed Andy just didn't get around to catching a plane.

A call to Warhol reached him at The Factory, which is the name of the New York Studio where he paints and films.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Chicago, I guess I just forgot. I have all of these things to do, see. I'm making this full-length feature called 'Since.' which is going to be 25 hours long. So you can see there's a lot of work involved in it, and I really wanted to get it finished this weekend."

Warhol was reminded that he also failed to show up in Chicago last September for the opening of his"Exploding Plastic Inevitable."

"Yeah, I guess I did at that," he said. "We had just come back from California and everything was..."

His voice drifted off.

What about Nico, the blond actress who has been romantically linked with him?

"Oh, Nico would love to come to Chicago," Warhol said.

"Do you think I should send her? She's out in Monterey at the folk-rock festival. I was just talking to her."

And what about Ingrid Superstar?

"She's right here," Warhol replied. "Say hello, Ingrid."

On June 26, 1967 Ebert gave the film one star and criticized it as "3 1/2 hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them. If Chelsea Girls had been the work of Joe Schultz of Chicago, even Warhol might have found it merely pathetic." (See Robert Ebert website here.)

On July 12, The Chelsea Girls returned to the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in New York (still operating out of W. 41st.) for a few nights - it ran July 12th to the 14th. The ad proclaimed that it had been "busted in Boston" and "censored in Cannes". (The same ad advertised "Films for the children and family by children...." on other nights).

Village Voice ad, July 13, 1967

In late August, the film (and Warhol and entourage) travelled to San Francisco for its opening at the Presidio Theatre on Wednesday, August 23, 1967. They gave an interview to the Berkeley Barb on August 28th which appeared in the September 1 -7, 1967 issue of the Barb.

There is some confusion about the San Francisco trip because in Popism, the Presidio Theatre is named as a theatre in Los Angeles when it was actually the name of a cinema in San Francisco.

Blogger Richard Lewis, has written an account of a trip he made to San Francisco in 1967. He includes a trip to the Presidio Theater for the premiere of The Chelsea Girls. (He incorrectly remembers the date of the opening as early September when it was actually late August.)

Andy Warhol and Ultra Violet at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco, 1967 (Photo: Richard Lewis)

Richard Lewis:

... in my final week on the West Coast I made two trips to each of the different theatres run by The Committee. First to see their production of “America Hurrah” on Montgomery Street and then two days later to their “Improvised Satirical Revue” with Carl Gottlieb on Broadway... In between my trips to the theatre I watched Mimi Farina on TV from Golden Gate Park singing Tuli Kupferberg’s “Morning” and Dino Valente’s “Lets Get Together”. I also made a final trip to the Fillmore to see The Byrds.

My last outing before I was due to head back to New York was to go to watch the crowd outside the Presidio Cinema for the Premiere of Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls. Sure enough a large American automobile arrived and out got Andy Warhol, Ultra Violet and Nico. They stood around for photos and then went in where they chatted to the audience and had a cup of coffee and generally hung out and made themselves available to anyone who wanted a word or a picture. On Monday September 11th I took a Greyhound east and three days later arrived back in New York...

Lewis mentions Mimi Farina's television appearance and a performance by the Byrds at the Fillmore. Mimi Farina's TV appearance was on August 24, 1967. The Byrds played the Fillmore on the 7th, 8th and 9th of September 1967.

The Chelsea Girls caused controversy not only in the press, but also for the family members of some of the people who appeared in it. Brigid Berlin's socialite mother, Honey Berlin, was horrified when she saw it in New York and Mary Woronov's mother sued Warhol for showing the film without a release signed by her daughter and settled out of court. (L&D259)

Like most of the actors in the film, Woronov wasn't actually living at the Chelsea Hotel when she filmed her scenes. According to Warhol biographer, David Bourdon, only Nico, Brigid Berlin and Susan Bottomly (International Velvet) lived at the Chelsea at the time. 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)

Many of the scenes from the film were also not shot at the hotel, including the scene where Ondine verbally and physically attacks Ronna (aka Rona) Page. Page was a friend of Jonas Mekas who had sent her to the Factory. She was also a friend of 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)

Angelina "Pepper" Davis, the girl with the southern accent who is abused by Mary Woronov, later befriended one of Eric Emerson's girlfriends, Krysteen Walraven who gave birth to a child with Eric - Monique Walraven. (See "Wonderboy: The life, loves and death of Eric Emerson," here.)

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. (LD256) 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)

According to Warhol biographer David Bourdon, 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. It was later booked into cinemas in Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, San Diego and Kansas City. (DB249)

The Chelsea Girls in England

The Chelsea Girls wasn't shown in the UK until 1968 and when it was shown, it was a heavily edited single screen version. A 120 minute single screen version of the film was shown by the New Cinema Club at the National Film Theatre in London on February 2 and March 22, 1968. The New Cinema's blurb for the screening noted "The full version is not available for this country. We believe it better to present this version than none at all..." (NC)

The screening was also announced in the International Times by David Curtis.

David Curtis (International Times, No. 24, January 19, 1968):

Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls is to be shown at the National Film Theatre by the New Cinema Club once in February once in March in all night program of films. There is an interesting story attached. Like many of the impoverished N.Y. film-makers Mr. Warhol will always sell the rights of his films to the highest bidder. In this case Mr. Louis Scher, who seems to have been quite unaware of the existence of a censor in this country - perhaps he hadn't seen the film. Originally scheduled to run 7 1/2 hours Warhol reduced the length of the picture (a revelation of the vice and delights of the life in the Chelsea hotel in N.Y.) to 3 1/2 hours by the simple and highly successful device of running two reels at once (the order in which they are shown varies - the soundtrack is a mix). Since then it has doubtless changed hands several times. It has been before the censor more than once. Then about six weeks ago in what one can only interpret as a last attempt to make the grade THE FILM WAS CUT BY FIVE AND A HALF HOURS: it will run at the N.F.T. for two hours on one screen. I hasten to add that Mr. Derek Hill is only putting it on as he is convinced that its owners will never allow the full version to be shown, and he feels that some Chelsea Girls is better than none." (DC)

Derek Hill was the founder of the New Cinema Club. (See Derek Hill, 16/01/13, here.) Although David Curtis relates the cause of the cuts to the censor who saw the film "more than once," a review that was published after the screening in Sight & Sound magazine gave "reasons of practicality" as the supposed reason for the cuts.

James Price ("The Chelsea Girls," Sight and Sound magazine, (British Film Institute), Spring 1968, Volume 37, No. 2):

The version recently shown in London by the New Cinema Club was truncated: one screen, one image at a time, and less than two hours long. Why? Wrong reasons of practicality, one supposes.

A poster in the collection of the Tate Museum in London, described as being "designed for the release of the movie in London by graphic artist Alan Aldridge," is dated 1967 although, as noted, the first public screening of the film in London was in 1968. (see here). Although the film was usually advertised as The Chelsea Girls in the U.S., it was advertised simply as Chelsea Girls in the U.K.

Poster designed by Alan Aldridge for the The Chelsea Girls screening in London

The uncut version of The Chelsea Girls was shown later in 1968 at the Arts Lab in London:

Poster for The Chelsea Girls at the Arts Lab in London (Source: Barry Miles, "Early Days of the Underground Scene" (blog), Lux, September 22, 2016, here.)

The Drury Lane Arts Lab was started by Jim Haynes in June 1967, with assistance of the co-founder of the International Times, Jack Henry Moore. The venue included a cinema, a theatre, an exhibition space, a book stall and a cafe. (JI3515) David Curtis who is quoted above in the International Times was involved in the programming of films at the venue. He notes, "We were the first place to show Warhol's Chelsea Girls as a two screen film. (Derek Hill had shown it earlier as a one screen film.)" (DCI)

The screening of the film is noted in the schedule for Arts Lab that appeared in issues 38 and 39 of the International Times. The description confirms that it was being shown "in its original continuous uncut two screen version." (See schedule for Wednesday, August 28, below and the "Films" section in the following issue.)

International Times no. 38, August 23, 1968, p. 13

International Times, no. 39, September 6, 1968, p. 16

The following year - in 1969 - the New Cinema Club, who had previously screened the cut version of The Chelsea Girls at the National Film Theatre, presented the uncut version. The flyer for the screening confirmed that "This is the full version on two screens side by side running for three-and-a-half hours." It repeated the claim that the cut version was because of the British Board of Film Censors, but didn't explain how it was possible to now show the uncut version.

Flyer for The Chelsea Girls at the Hanover Grand Film Theatre, London, 1969

The dates at the Hanover were also announced in the International Times.

When The Chelsea Girls was originally released in New York, it got mixed reviews. Newsweek referred to it as the "Iliad of the underground, " but film critic 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) The reviewer for the New York Times ended his review by noting that "If it was Mr. Warhol's aim to show that the really appalling thing about sin is the boredom it springs from and ends in, he has succeeded too well in The Chelsea Girls. ("Andy Warhol's 'Chelsea Girls' at the Cinema Rendezvous," The New York Times, December 2, 1966).

The "boredom" of the film had been noted in Roger Ebert's review of the Chicago screening and was also mentioned by the underground press. William Rotsler wrote in Adam Film Quarterly, "In one film alone - Chelsea Girls - he [Andy Warhol] 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." (William Rotsler, "There's a New Kind of Film: The Underground Movement," Adam Film Quarterly, No. 3, November 1967)

But the most interesting scenes in the films are the ones that are the most boring - when a superstar stops acting like a superstar and we glimpse reality for just a few minutes or seconds. Boredom was, to a degree, what Warhol was after - hence films such as Empire and Sleep. The "boredom" of Warhol is something that needs further examining in both his films and art. Isn't repetition, by it's nature, supposed to be boring?

From Popism (p. 154):

I'd sit on the steps in the lobby during intermissions and people from the local papers and school papers would interview me, ask about my movies, what we were trying to do. 'If they can take it for ten minutes, then we play it for fifteen,' I'd explain. 'That's our policy. Always leave them wanting less.' (See "Andy Warhol and Boredom" here.)

The comment in Popism is not unlike one made by John Cage in regard to his music:

John Cage:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. (Kenneth Goldsmith, "Jackson MacLow, The King of Boredom," Brooklyn Rail, March 2006 and Electronic Poetry Center here.)

When reviewers criticised the film as boring, Warhol took it as a compliment. Entertainment was entertaining. Art was boring. Ergo, The Chelsea Girls was art.

With the passage of time, film writers would come to appreciate The Chelsea Girls to a greater degree. In 1991, Annette Michelson referred to it as "the crowning work of Warhol's significant film production..." ("'Where Is Your Rupture?' Mass Culture and the Gesamtkunstwerk," October No. 56 (Spring 1991)


Gary Comenas

to "Summer 1966: Andy Warhol shoots The Chelsea Girls," here

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