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Pushing the Envelope on Avenue A

101 Avenue A -- home to the Pyramid Club, photo courtesy of Barry Munger
101 Avenue A, photo by Barry Munger

While Greenwich Village will always be equated with the Gay Rights Movement, particularly for its role in the series of protests at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, the East Village is also known for pushing the envelope for gay culture. And no establishment played a bigger role in that process than the Pyramid Club, located at 101 Avenue A between East 6th and 7th Streets.

The Pyramid Club was a defining club of the East Village scene in the 1980s, particularly known for politically conscious drag performance art. A hangout for both the fashionable showing off their latest looks, as well as for the counter cultures emerging in the neighborhood, the Pyramid Club was established by Bobby Bradley, Alan Mace and Victor Sapienza and featured drag dancers, radical theater, and music, and dance parties. An insider’s history of the club’s early days, written by performance artist Iris Rose as part of a panel discussion on the history of 101 Avenue A, can be found on GVSHP’s website.

Photographer Clayton Patterson captures performer Lypsinka in the dressing room at the Pyramid Club

The club became a hangout for “a new breed of politicized drag performers” like Lypsinka, Lady Bunny, and RuPaul, whose first New York City show was at the Pyramid Club in 1982. On Labor Day 1985, Pyramid performer Lady Bunny hosted the Wigstock Festival in Tompkins Square Park. This day-long drag festival was dreamed up by Pyramid Club patrons and performers one evening while hanging out in the Tompkins Park bandshell after club hours. The festival later moved to the Christopher Street pier in Greenwich Village. But it was in the East Village that it got its start.

In addition to performance art, cabaret, theater, and dancing, the Pyramid Club hosted live bands. Several up-and-coming artists who would dominate mainstream music in the 1990s played their first New York City shows at the Pyramid Club, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who played in 1984, and Nirvana, who played in 1989.

GVSHP has been researching the history of the Pyramid Club since 2007, as part of a proposal to landmark 101 Avenue A, a wonderfully preserved pre-law tenement building with an amazing social history. This building is now being considered by the New York City Landmarks Preservation as part of a larger East Village/Lower East Side historic district, thanks to GVSHP’s successfully efforts to expand the LPC’s originally-proposed boundaries. Who knows, the building just might become the first “drag landmark!”

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