Reminiscing About Jackie Curtis and the Old East Village with Filmmaker Craig Highberger [INTERVIEW]

Posted on: February 11th, 2014 at 10:09 am by

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Filmmaker Craig Highberger & Jackie Curtis at the Fortune Theater (1974).

The Lower East Side is famous for sprouting some pretty amazing people. Jackie Curtis, well known as a Warhol superstar, is one of them, and I recently had the opportunity to interview a very close friend of his, filmmaker Craig Highberger. He was a confidant who documented Curtis’ life for more than 30 years. What follows is a brief, but illuminating conversation with Highberger.

BOWERY BOOGIE: When did you first meet Jackie?

CRAIG HIGHBERGER: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol’s hometown. In fact, my Uncle Sam Highberger had gone to Carnegie Tech and had attended some classes with Warhol. So in high school in the late 1960s, early 70s I realized I was gay and noted that the Warhol pop-art and underground film scene was too, so I wanted to go to NYU film school and meet Warhol and the Superstars and that is just what happened!

I was a freshman in the fall of 1971 and there was a protest, a sit-in and sleep-in at my dorm, the Joseph Weinstein Residence Hall, because the university was not going to allow the first gay student group to meet in a University building. Jackie Curtis arrived in full drag to join us because of all the cameras and attention; I was thrilled and introduced myself and we became good friends.

BB: What was your relationship with him?

CH: We were very close. In fact, Jackie in 1972-74 did a lot of couch-surfing (staying at friend’s apartments) and spent a lot of time at my first apartment on the corner of West 10th and Hudson. I took hundreds of photographs of Jackie and filmed and videotaped his plays and performances, never imagining that decades later I would make a feature-length documentary on Curtis’ life and work!

BB: What was Jackie’s favorite thing to do in the neighborhood?

CH: Jackie loved to go out at night in drag, especially in the summertime. There were some seedy bars on the lower east side, and one summer night in 1973, when the fleet was in, Curtis woke me at about 3am and had a big burly drunken sailor with him. His lipstick was smeared all over the sailor’s mouth and neck! We deposited him on the sofa and Curtis came to the kitchen with me to get some beers and whispered, “Craig he thinks I’m a real girl, what am I going to do when he finds out I’m not?!” Disaster was averted because he completely passed out and we picked him up by the arms and legs and left him in the elevator!

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Highberger’s film “Superstar in a Housedress,” Photo: Highberger Media

BB: When did Jackie first meet Warhol?

CH: Jackie and Candy Darling were on Christopher Street in the summer of 1967 and Jackie recognized Andy Warhol who was picking up some leather pants at The Leather Man shop. Jackie asked Andy to sign his shopping bag. Warhol asked what was in the bag, to which Jackie responded, “Satin shorts for my new play ‘Glamour, Glory and Gold’ that’s opening in September, I’ll send you an invitation!”

Jackie loved Andy, and within a few years had his name tattooed on his left arm and appeared in Flesh with Candy Darling and Joe Dallesandro, and in ‘Women in Revolt’ with Candy and Holly Woodlawn.

BB: Where did Jackie live, and when?

CH: Slugger Ann (Jackie’s grandmother) raised Curtis at 324 East 14th Street (a white brick building). Jackie grew up there in the 1950s through 1960s, and off-and on-until his death in 1985.

Jackie also spent a lot of time hanging around his grandmother’s business, Slugger Ann’s Bar at 192 Second Avenue (became gay bar Dick’s for years, and now is called the 12th Street Ale House)

BB: What is your favorite memory of Jackie?

Performing “Cabaret in the Sky” in 1974 with Holly Woodlawn, which I videotaped at the New York Cultural Center. Jackie was an incredible singer and a natural comic. There were a couple of tables in the front occupied by a group of older gay men (today we call them ‘bears’) in full motorcycle leather regalia decorated with chains. Jackie acknowledged them during the performance by saying “I see we have a lot of old masters with us tonight,” the audience just roared, and Curtis segued into singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” (from the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song) which was just totally over-the-top!

Don’t forget to stop by Jackie’s two-year-old memorial in Tompkins Square Park to pay tribute to this fabulous New Yorker.

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-Written by Amy Welch

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