Welcome to Cerebrum. Do you have a reservation?

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we’ll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION Cerebrum
Broome and Crosby streets, Manhattan

The 1960s were a decade of experimentation, and not just for people. As rock and roll tripped out, so did the places you went to hear it. No longer were clubs merely about alcohol and frivolity, music and fashion. A nightclub could create ‘happenings’, self-conscious environments of pleasure; recreational drugs helped.

The most glamorous example of this sort of public venue in downtown Manhattan was probably the Electric Circus, psychedelic haunt of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, mixing light shows and performance art onto a dance floor of fashionable mods. But even the swirling, mohair environments of the Factory’s favorite club paled in comparison the experiments going on at Cerebrum.

I have to say, part of my fascination with Cerebrum was the hard time I had in researching this article. The place was open less than a year (winter 1968 to summer 1969), and its participants were on the true art fringe. Its most famous patron was most likely Jimi Hendrix — who stole the club’s designer John Storyk to create his fabulous Electric Lady Studios — but I found virtually no mentions of this in biographies. In fact, it took me a few articles to even clarify that the place even existed, that it wasn’t a mass acid hallucination conjured up by a frothing artist in a Nehru jacket.

Cerebrum, which opened in November 1968, was not a mere club but, as New York Magazine calls it in March 1969, a “place implicitly geared to voyeuristic impulses.”

Located at 429 Broome Street at Crosby Street in SoHo, Cerebrum was the brainchild (ahem) of a group of underground theater artists who decided to turn their highly groovy loft parties into regular events, combining theatrical flair with the frippery of psychedelic drug culture.

Chief among the creators was Ruffin Cooper Jr., son of a Texan banker would later achieve some renown as a abstract photographer in San Francsico. To the surprise of no one, his other collaborators, all fabulously creative, would soon be connected to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, still in its early days of absurdist productions: Richard Currie the lighting designer, Bobjack Callejo its set designer.

Imagine the city at night with the radio on. You’re listening to WNEW-FW and the sweet sounds of Allison “Nightbird” Steele, when suddenly you hear an unusual commercial describing a strange experimental nightclub, an “electric studio of participation.” A “super, electric, turned on, far-out fantasy land. Two 3 hour sessions nightly. 8 to 11 and 11:30 to 2:30 am. Reservations are necessary. Call 966-4031. But above all get to CEREBRUM.”

Behind the unmarked door on Broome Street, the collective pushed the boundaries for the bizarre.

Arriving at the darkened street — SoHo’s warehouses have yet to meet haute couture in 1968 — you press a small lighted doorbell and enter an entirely dark room. A voice asks, “Welcome to Cerebrum. Do you have a reservation?” You are, after all, in a 60s speakeasy. After passing muster, you’re lead into an orientation room, take off your shoes and pay your admission (anywhere from $1 to a pricey $7, depending on the night.)

Ghostly figures inhabit Cerebrum, lost in trances*

At Cerebrum, you let everything go. Your clothes even. Once inside, you were asked by a kind young fellow dressed in silver to get completely naked. He then handed you your ensemble for the evening — a flowing, diaphranous robe, hooded and silky, faux futuristic.

Once garbed, you are led inside via a ramp to a gigantic white room, trippy projections on the wall, distortions of a wide variety of music buzz around you, a thin, scented fog sitting in the air. There’s no liquor, only water and marshmallows, served by the so-called ‘Cerebrum guides’, who led visitors through this strange psychedelic spa. No gabby conversations at a crowded bar, only people sitting and staring.

The club was divided into elevated platforms which you could visit to experience the unique stimulants taking place there — headphones with groovy music, musical instruments, balloons, kaleidoscopes, children’s toys — reclining on white pillows on lush white carpeting. Sometimes the ‘guides’ came along and smeared menthol on yoru lips or tingly lotions upon your skin.

Clearly, it wasn’t those marshmallows enhancing your experience here. Cerebrum clientele were a stoned, listless lot, lost in the vague, spectral imagery and sounds. In Currie’s own words, from a biography on the Ridiculous Theatre Company, “Several people said that it always looked like it was going to become an orgy at any moment.”

Time Magazine called it “a theater without a stage show, a cabaret without food or liquor, a party without an occasion”; the fact that Time was there at all meant it was on the cultural radar, at least with drug-friendly, downtown fashionistas. But its novelty drew only the bravest of trendy crowds.

Cooper explains it this way to Time: “We are trying to overturn every entertainment convention—the ‘sit here,’ the ‘look that way,’ the ‘dance over here’.”

Enter the parachute. You like the parachute.*

Eventually they break out the parachute, with patrons grabbing each side and watching as the white billowy fabrics flaps back and forth in the air. Like what you did in elementary school, except with lots of stoned adults.

Cerebrum stretched the boundaries of interactive theater within the environment of an incredibly chill-out party. And like any good off-off-Broadway production, it closed a lot sooner than it should.

It shuttered early summer of the very next year. The reason was rumored to be mob related. Keep in mind this was the summer of riots outside the mob-run Stonewall bar. But most likely a concept of this type is probably not meant to last. With the 70s on the horizon — with CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, and Studio 54 at the door — a club like Cerebrum seems positively quaint.

FUN FACT: Less than 40 years later, Heath Ledger would die a couple doors down, at 421 Broome Street. Ledger was 28 years old when he died, Cerebrum habitue Hendrix was 27.

You can read here a short recollection by Bart Friedman here, and there’s a nice academic description of the experience here.

*Photos above are by Ferdinand Boesch and are from here. I’m sorry they’re so blurry, but I copied them from a paper and I just had to have pictures of this place to accompany the article.

But the greatest treat is that there’s actual video evidence that this place actually existed, narrated by Ruffin Cooper himself. This video takes awhile to load, but it’s worth it: