FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER: The Electric Circus

To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we’ll be celebrating ‘FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER’, featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here

No Chipotle burrito and taco restaurant has ever made me as sad as the one that sits on St Marks Place. I can’t be overdramatic and say that every instance of gentrification is a bad one, but this particular case, standing next door to a gourmet grocery store, is a bit more notable than most.

For it stands in the place a former clubhouse and dance hall built all the way back in the 1830s but reached its culture preeminence just over 40 years ago.

The building’s backstory sets a juicy notoriety for its later events, as it was a rowdy 19th century meeting place for political and ethnic dissents, throwing yearly carnivals in the street (often mocking the political giant of the day, such as Boss Tweed) and sparking at least one bloody gunfight in 1914 between rival Italian and Jewish gangs!

It sat through some of the 20th century as the Polish National Home (Polski Dom Narodowy), a community hall and restaurant for Polish New Yorkers (whose influences can still be seen all around this area of the East Village). At a certain point in the 1960s, part of the space was opened as a small bar by Stanley Tolkin, whose watering hole Stanley’s Bar at 13th and Ave B was already a huge magnet for the bohemian set.

The bar at St. Marks Place attracted the same crowd and, now being 1966, eventually drew the interest of Andy Warhol who, with his film-making collaborator Paul Morrissey, rented the upper rooms from Tolkin, fancied the original Polish name (Andy was of Polish descent) and its new moniker “the Dom,” moved in on April 1966 for a series of legendary events he would collectively called “the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”

It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol’s talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico. The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet’s strange atmospheric music and Warhol’s performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street — according to the New York Times, “everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton” — way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.

Warhol moved on, and the name would change for a short time to the Balloon Farm. The next year it was sold to Jerry Brandt, who decided to take the avant garde (but rather elitist) Warholian approach and mainstream it into the Electric Circus. The new incarnation helped  define the wild visual and colorful aesthetic of the hippie 60s, a virtual overload of light machines and live music. Sometimes it took its name seriously:

“A young man with the moon and stars painted on his back soars overhead on a
silver trapeze, and a ring juggler manipulates colored hoops and shaggy hippies
who unconcernedly perform a pagan tribal dance…Stoboscopic lights flicker over
the dancers, breaking up their movements into a jerky parody of an old-time
Chaplin movie.”

— Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties (New York:
Abbeville Press, 1990)

And while audiences pulsated to the swirling lights, in the throes of LSD, bands would materialize onstage, often in long jam sessions. It should be no surprise to find out that early incarnations of the Grateful Dead and the Blue Oyster Cult got their start here.

Much as the psychedelic revolution itself died out once the next decade started, so too did the Electric Circus. In March 1970, a bomb exploded on the dance floor (!) injuring 17 people, which couldn’t have done much for its waning popularity.

It was eventually turned into a church-run craft center and a community center for substance abusers and the homeless through the 80s and into the 90s. As gentrification swept through the East Village, most of St. Marks remained intact; you can still find rows of punk tee-shirt shops, tattoo and piercing parlors, St. Marks Comics and Kim’s Video.

What you can’t find is the remnants of the Electric Circus. The building is now the aforementioned Chipotle and a grocery store. And in one corner — in a move that is either a throwback to its old days or the biggest slap in the face in the world — is a gift store that sells branded products from CBGB’s, another legendary East Village rock club that has since been closed.

Here’s what it looked like when I first moved to the city:

(I apologize, I have a few links to post where I got some of my information, but I can’t do it from this computer. However some information was obtained at the excellent New York blog: I’ll post the links when I get back on Monday. Have a great weekend!!)