When Joan brings her friend Kate out for a night on the town in this week's Mad Men she couldn’t have known they would end up in one of the most influential nightclubs of the 20th century. But after a dinner at a telephone restaurant* the two women got swept away to the Electric Circus, a downtown spot whose history involves Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and a Black Panther bombing.
The space - on St. Mark's between 2nd and 3rd Avenues - had a long history. It had been a union hall, a Polish society and a musician’s clubhouse. It was the site of a shootout that heralded the beginning of the end for the Jewish mob in New York City. By the 1950s the neighborhood was changing, becoming a mecca for the emerging Beat Generation. St. Mark's was now ‘hip.’
Stanley Tolkin, whose Stanley’s Bar on 12th and B had become one of the de facto hang outs for the Beats, opened a bar called Dom there in the 60s (the name Dom came from the fact that the space was the Polish National Home, or Polski Dom Naroway in Polish). Dom served booze and Polish food (the Polish influence in the area continued for decades - I used to love a local Polish bar called Blue & Gold, and old standby restaurant Veselka still stands), but by 1965 it had become unfashionable.
Enter Andy Warhol. He seized on the space for a series of multimedia ‘happenings,’ called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The Velvet Underground played, Warhol’s experimental movies screened and Factory regulars performed their own specific artistic what have yous. The Velvet Underground played there regularly with extraordinary, psychedelic light shows that presaged what has become boring in modern club culture.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was, in a lot of ways, a turning point for the Velvet Underground. The band had formed as The Primitives before becoming The Velvet Underground in 1965 (the name came from a 1963 non-fiction book that examined the kinky sexual underground that was, at the time, still beyond shocking). Andy Warhol saw them playing and became their manager, bringing the European chanteuse Nico in to sing on some of their tracks. After a few months in New York, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable became a roadshow, bringing the VU across America for the first time. Their classic first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was recorded during the initial The Exploding Plastic Inevitable residency at Dom.
After The Exploding Plastic Inevitable the space briefly became a club called Balloon Farm, but in 1967 Jerry Brandt - who discovered Carly Simon and brought the Rolling Stones to America - took the lease. The Electric Circus was born.
Circus was a good moniker. The opening night party was a zoo, with thousands of people lining up on St. Mark's in an attempt to get into a club with a capacity of 700. Tom Wolfe, Tuli Kupferberg, Mary McCarthy and George Plimpton were all there, an event which the then-still-hip Village Voice lamented as “Desolation Row.”
Brandt’s vision was to turn Warhol’s psychedelic art experience into something a little more mainstream. Dancers tripped on acid while bands - including a very early line-up of Blue Oyster Cult - went off on long, long jams. Psychedelic light shows mingled with found footage, home movies projected on walls and screens. Circus performers would dangle overhead. Fire eaters and mimes mingled with the crowds. People were encouraged to come in costume. A motorcycle 'club' called The Aliens provided security. Braless women were admitted for free on Sundays.
As the hippie culture began to burn out, The Electric Circus lost its sheen. Then on March 22nd 1970 a bomb exploded on the dance floor. 17 people were injured, but no one was killed. The bomber was Ishmael Brown, a Black Panther, but the Black Panther Party denied any responsibility or connection. Brown acted alone, they said. Neighborhood whispers said the explosion came from The Electric Circus’ refusal to pay off the Black Panthers. Stanley Freeman, who ran the club, denied it.
'We have benefits to raise money for the Panthers all the time,' he said. 'We have good relations with them.'
The Electric Circus' mixture of celebrity and depravity, its light shows and laissez faire attitudes, its exclusivity and populist cache, would all influence the disco revolution to come. Every big discotechque that opened in the next decade owed some small debt to Brandt and Freeman and what they had done on St. Mark's. Whether that's a good thing is up to you; as Jack Newfield wrote in the Voice when The Electric Circus opened, "Rome must have been like this in that middle period when decline was becoming decay."
Nothing bums out the party like a bombing, though, and by September 1971 The Electric Circus had closed. Over the years bars and cafes occupied the space, but St. Mark's Place in 2013 isn’t what it was in 1968. Today a Chipotle and a Supercuts occupy the space where Andy Warhol once sat watching The Velvet Underground invent a whole new kind of rock music.
And for those wondering: the song playing at The Electric Circus is Bonnie & Clyde, by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. The song, which is actually based on a poem Bonnie Parker wrote a few weeks before being shot to death. Bonnie & Clyde had been released in 1967, being a flop at the time but still having a major cultural impact. His negative review got The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther fired, and her championing of the movie catapulted Pauline Kael to the position of chief critic at The New Yorker.
* Anybody have any information on this place? I try to research these pretty well, and I’m coming up largely blank. The concept makes perfect sense - a singles bar with a gimmick; I’ve seen similar places in New York in the 21st century - but I can’t quite figure out what was the real place they were supposedly visiting.