ANN MAGNUSON:The High Priestess of Low Life

It started with Anoushka, the Soviet chanteuse. Ann Magnuson first impersonated her in a variety show at the now-defunct Club 57. "I was really into living my life like an ad from Playboy magazine," she recalls. "I used to listen to Kostelanetz and Sergio Mendes. It was just the mood I liked to have in my house. I had this record of bizarre Muzak that sounded like Russian pop -- I always found Muzak very surrealistic -- so I took this wig and put it on backwards and sang fake Russian to 'The Windmills of Your Mind.'" She repeated the performance in a theme party at Danceteria called "Depravnik Island," where guests traded the local currency ("coatczheks") for imported Americana, and a chameleon was born.

Progressing from clubland to international art tours over the last few years, Magnuson has taken her place alongside Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Tseng Kwong Chi, and John Sex in "the global East Village" with an astonishing gallery of comic characters. The part-factual part-fictional personas she has adopted for her performances at the Pyramid, the Limelight, and other new-wave-type cabarets include Miss Vicky, the former wife of Tiny Tim and the creator of the hit song "Headless Body in a Topless Bar"; Rhea, a hippie child who believes that Jim Morrison is still living inside her; Gala, Salvador Dali's soulmate and most frequent opponent in "The Partridge Family Game"; and Alice Tully Hall, white gospel singer and leader of the Hall Family, whose other members included Jerry Hall, Annie Hall, Daryl Hall, and the twins Albert and Monte Hall. This year alone Magnuson has introduced Fallopia, a vicious parody of Prince's proteges ("I should have gotten suspicious when he took those Polaroids, but how was I supposed to know they'd end up in Beaver Hunt?"; Squeaky Fromme, who in the tribal love-rock musical Family sings "I Don't Know How to Love Him" about Charlie Manson; and Mrs. Rambo, who leads an armed mission into Bloomingdale's to save Nancy Reagan from getting a bad makeup job at the Yves St. Laurent counter.

What these characters have in common, other than the henna-haired guerrilla comedienne who inhabits them, is that they are drawn exclusively -- and lovingly -- from the American junk culture that has scrambled the brains of TV-babies for the last two decades. For this high priestess of low life, everything is sacred, and nothing is exempt from her effort to perform what she calls "an exorcism of all this imagery from our collective memories."

Most of Magnuson's creations first came to life in brief shows at late-night East Village performance boites -- an entrance in costume, a monologue, a song, and off. I caught a couple of these, fairly amusing but not worth staying up till 2:30 in the morning for. The first time I really started paying attention was when Magnuson corralled a bunch of her characters into a show called After Dante at Danceteria. She started out as Tammy Jan, TV evangelist, who opened her live broadcast by leading the three-man Moral Majority Singers in a medley of pop songs with rewritten Christian lyrics: "Man Eater" became "Faith Healer," the chorus of "Copacabana" went "At the cruci, the crucifixion," and "Theme from The Great American Hero" ended "Believe it or not, it's J.C.!" Then after pitching such mail-order items as Shroud of Turin beach towels, Tammy Jan launched into the Believe-ercise portion of her program. During a bad handstand she took a dive and ended up in limbo, apparently stranded between TV channels -- a bizarre and slippery thing to dramatize, but Magnuson did it brilliantly.

She spent the rest of the show wandering from one genre of program to another trying to find her "format." With each scene she went deeper into the dregs of mass media (the awards shows, the game shows, MTV) until she finally ended up in a soap opera, standing at an ironing board playing a Linda Lovelace-like ex-porn star who has traded one kind of sexual slavery for a more domestic variety. When she made her way back to normal by escaping through a Pac-man video game, it was impossible not to see Tammy Jan (and her real-life counterparts) as a product of all the layers of tawdry show-biz -- the fake tears and artificial sweetness, the deep surfaces and shallow hopes -- that television promotes.

Some of the same material reappeared in Made for TV, the brilliantly conceived 10-minute video Magnuson made with director Tom Rubnitz that premiered nationally on PBS's Alive from Off Center series in July. While an unseen viewer compulsively punched the remote-control channel-changer, we saw the stunning array of female role models television makes available in a day, or a life. Some were familiar Magnuson characters, such as Anoushka (who moaned "California Dreaming" on Ukrainian Public Access), Tammy Jan (whose lachrymose fund-raising appeal finally got down to the nitty-gritty: "People, how'm I gonna pay my dry-cleaning bills?"), and Raven, lead singer of the heavy-metal group Vulcan Death Grip. Newcomers included battered wife Mrs. Dan Walsh, supercilious "News at Noon" anchorwoman Kimberley Crump ("The Soviets launch a nuclear missile attack on the U.S. More at six"), Dodi Ditz (star of hit sitcom We've Got a Maid), and the title character in "Midday Mystery"'s Gidget Bites the Dust.

Magnuson embodied these creatures with remarkable changeability ("Once you get a wig on," she confides, "anything is possible"), and Rubnitz gave the video a sturdy musical shape with various ongoing themes and visual cross-rhythms. While hilariously tacky commercials for the Dress Barn, breakfast cereal ("Fiber!"), pet food, and the Stress Center kept up a steady beat, carefully spaced sequences featuring a screaming game-show winner, Lina Hagendazovich's "Scream Queen" video on MTV, and the terrified victim in a cheesy horror flick provided an over-the-top obbligato. The menacing click of the channel-switcher accelerated until the viewer was literally being mowed down by a machine-gun barrage of grotesquely banal video images.

Made for TV was like a ghastly, even demonic flip side to "We Are the World"; in the place of self-congratulatory pop stars using video to promote the ideal of global unity, it inhabited a world where people's (especially women's) fantasies and self-images have shrunk to fit the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of television, which throws the deformed images back at us like a nightmarish hall of mirrors.

For all her talent and satirical energy, Ann Magnuson is little-known outside the East Village art scene that skips from Lower Manhattan to Europe and Japan without ever penetrating mainstream American culture. Her first burst of notoriety for Upwardly Mobile, a performance in which she turned an elevator (first at Danceteria, then at the Whitney Museum) into a nightclub where she sang along with Muzak records, led to a couple of small movie parts. She appeared in Beth and Scott B's Vortex and in The Hunger -- in the first scene, David Bowie nuzzles her bare breasts and then vampirizes her -- and more recently, she played the hat-check girl in Desperately Seeking Susan.

But those bits showed barely a fraction of the creativity Magnuson displayed in Made for TV, produced for $2000 and easily one of the two or three best pieces in the Alive from Off Center series. She could parlay her talents into a big-time career, but she lacks a certain business sense (she doesn't have a manager, for instance), which leads one admirer to worry that she'll become "the Judy Garland of the East Village," more interested in being adored by the gay boys at the Pyramid than looking out for her professional interests.

Magnuson admits she's not big on practical management, though she doesn't lack ambition: she'd like to write-produce-direct and star in films like her hero, Woody Allen. At the very least, she hopes Made for TV will lead to a pilot for a series that she imagines as a cross between Monty Python and Loretta Young's Theater. "I just want my own TV show, dammit. I wanna be a whole entertainment corporation. I guess I'm being lazy. I just wanna create it, I don't wanna hustle it."

We're sitting on the sofa in her tidy Avenue A apartment, where the walls are full of Scharf and Haring originals and a fake Basquiat she made herself. For someone who sometimes works with coarse material, she's a surprisingly delicate, even fragile person. Her voice can take on boundless attitude, but she's usually soft-spoken, never vulgar -- a demure mutter is her usual tone. Her facial features are small and her skin is eerily translucent, which makes her eminently changeable and genuinely beautiful. On her refrigerator door is an old Life magazine cover of the young Shirley MacLaine, who looks just like Magnuson.
Next to the sofa are some copies of Soldier of Fortune, the sheet music for Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets," and a book called The New Right: We're Ready to Lead -- research for her performance at Art on the Beach in July, where she delivered a monologue as Mrs. Rambo in front of a two-story podium covered with a giant photo of Ronald Reagan. "It's a little obvious," she admits, "but heck, he's still president."

Ann Magnuson's knack for concise comic characterizations puts me in mind of Lily Tomlin, her obsession with tackling the absurdities of television on its own terms links her to SCTV's video-fried comedy, and like Cindy Sherman she finds unabashed narcissism a useful tool in exploring how women's roles in society are formed by the media. In other words, there are lots of other people working in the same territory. But Magnuson has enough wit and imagination, combined with Southern charm and lurid sex appeal, to establish her originality as a writer/performer/conceptual comic. Even superior character- comics like Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg tend to drawn clear-cut lines between good guys and bad guys, humanizing cripples and junkies while ridiculing sexists and prudes. Magnuson's satirical strategy is to embrace junk culture wholeheartedly.

In a recent video, Magnuson as L.A.-based casting director Gloria Fowler toured the Broadway district, stopping to marvel at the marquee for The Odd Couple. "What an innovative idea, putting women in The Odd Couple," she gushed. "And with such consummate actresses -- Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno!" All the Gordon Rogoffs and Brendan Gills in the world couldn't come up with a more devastating critique. Magnuson's I-love-this-shit approach is not only more effective than simply saying how bad it is -- because it reveals in fetishistic detail just how ridiculous and awful it really is -- but also more honest. It reflects the ambivalence of a generation raised on media debris for whom rejecting it means facing a scary cultural wasteland.

Charleston, West Virginia, Magnuson's hometown, is its own kind of cultural wasteland. She spent her junior year abroad in London soaking up Cymbeline and The Marquise of Keith, Herzog and Fassbinder, because back home she was used to a steady diet of Gidra the Tree-Headed Monster and Chamber of Horrors. The daughter of a lawyer, she started performing early because her mother did volunteer work for a community theater, where in third grade Ann played one of the no-neck monsters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "That was so much fun, especially the scene where we had to shoot Brick -- eh-eh-eh- eh. I remember laughing so hard and just having the time of my life."

Drugs and glitter rock (Bowie, Roxy Music, New York Dolls) made high school go down easier, but college at Denison in Ohio wasn't much fun because she wanted to direct Genet and Witkiewicz rather than be in Oklahoma! When London didn't cure her boredom with school (or her trauma over her parents' divorce), she convinced the dean to let her finish with an internship in New York. "I wanted to work in avant-garde theater, like Richard Foreman, but they just thought, 'Oh, Off-Off- Broadway,' so I ended up a directing intern at Ensemble Studio Theater doing shit work like stamp envelopes and get Curt Dempster tuna fish sandwiches. What amazed me about the theater world was how straight it was. There was something there I wasn't getting that I wanted -- I guess that's why I was running down to CBGB's practically every night."

From CBGB's in 1978, it was only a matter of time before Magnuson found her way from vaudeville shows at Irving Plaza to joining the Monster Movie Club to her first artistic home, Club 57. Located in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Mark's Place, Club 57 was the seedbed for the aggressive infantilism that links the many varieties of the now world-famous East Village art scene. Working first as bartender, then as manager of the club, Magnuson began scheduling the ludicrous double-bills ("Terror of Tiny Town all singing! all midgets! plus The Wizard of Oz in Spanish") and dreaming up the theme parties ("Name That Noise," a punk rock game show, or the "Stay-Free Mini Prom") that drew Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, and other arty suburban refugees to Club 57.

"I wanted to direct, and I couldn't think of a play I wanted to do," she explains. "Whenever I went to something, I wanted to be in it. I assumed everyone felt the same way. So at Club 57 you'd tell everybody what costumes to wear and give them the set and the soundtrack, and everybody would just improvise as characters in their own movie. If you always wanted to jump in that James Bond movie and be one of those Bond girls, you can do it on Sunday, Casino Royale night." 

Some Club 57 parties became more successful as mythical events than as real ones, like "Putt-Putt Reggae." The idea of post-teen bohemians playing miniature golf among refrigerator boxes arranged like Jamaican shanties while ska music blasted is pretty mind-boggling, but less than a dozen people showed, undoubtedly the Club 57 core group who preferred slumber parties and monster movies to the adult responsibilities of school or work. It was, Magnuson admits, Never-Never-Land. "Maybe it stems from the fact that none of us ever wanted to grow up. I've said this before, but when we were kids watching the hippies on TV -- I mean, the '60s were so amazing. You thought, 'Wow, I can't wait 'til I'm grown up so I can go out in the world and just freak.' Then when you got old enough, there was, like, the Bee Gees and disco and poppers. I still read books about the '60s, and it still sounds great."

Magnuson was primarily an impresario rather than a performer at Club 57, although she played with the joke band Pulsallama, a vicious parody of punk feminists like the Bush Tetras. "For me it was always a performance piece, not a band. No one could play any instruments -- it was just banging on pots and pans and being wild women." When other members of Pulsallama started taking it too seriously, Magnuson went solo with Anoushka and one or two other tasteful characters. "I quickly learned that the cheapest shot gets the biggest laugh. Try to be ironic, try to get intellectual -- ehh. Throw a pie in the face, they're rolling on the floor. And once those laughs start...well, let's just say I'm addicted to natural endorphins."

I once read somewhere that Magnuson referred to herself as a "media heathen," by which I thought she meant an anti-clerical satirist working in several disciplines. But I think I hurt her feelings when I complimented her on having a mind full of trash, which made me begin to realize that what she means by "media heathen" is someone who has a healthy distrust for the media -- the motto of Bleaker Street Incident, her folk-pop parody group, is "I doubt it" -- not Christianity. In fact, like postpunk rockers Bono Vox of U2 and Exene Doe of X, she's quite devout in her way, which is why TV evangelists are a special target of her killer satire.

"See, there's a part of me that wants to expose these people," she says. "It's not just reveling in trash. I'm really repelled at the way they use the Bible." She rummages through albums by ABBA and the Doors to find a record called The Lord's On My Side by Tammy Fay Bakker, one of two real evangelists Magnuson's Tammy Jan is based on (the other is Jan Crouch). Both women, with their husbands, run PTL (Praise the Lord) clubs, one on either coast. "Jan has touched God -- her head is way up in the stratosphere, she's so euphoric constantly -- whereas Tammy is more neurotic, so it's a good mixture. Then I'm really into Jimmy Swaggart. First of all, he's my favorite actor. He's incredible. He can work a crowd like nobody. Then his political points of view are just frightening, completely loathsome, dangerous. He's against anything that goes against a literal translation of the Bible. He thinks Mother Teresa's gonna go to hell if she doesn't have a born-again experience. I can't stop watching him. He's made me cry, he's so effective."

"He's made you cry?"

"Well..." she hesitates. "I cry very easily. I don't want people to think I'm completely out of my mind. I believe in a lot of that stuff -- on a completely different level than they do. The Sermon on the Mount is wonderful. He's saying good things about basically being good to people, showing care, and fighting evil. In that way, I am a fundamentalist."

"So," I joke, "you take it as your mission to look into the worst aspects of American culture?"

"Yes," she says with a straight face. "We must fight evil. Martin Luther said, 'The best way to fight the devil is to mock him.'"

Even she feels, though, that some of her satire-by-celebration goes overboard. The Charles Manson show, Family, at Danceteria, "got real sick. At one point, everyone felt we'd gone too far." The murders of Sharon Tate and the other Manson victims took place under a strobe light to the incidental music from West Side Story. In the trial scene, when the D.A. mentioned "Helter Skelter," the Beatles' record came on, and Magnuson and the other performers danced around doing a Las Vegas-type nightclub routine. 

"We had this big bucket of paint, and we were all dipping our knives into it. I slopped it all over my face. We were all getting into it," she says. "At that point, it was went beyond itself. I actually felt the way they must have felt when they did it. It was real sick. Paganistic. I felt like I was a million miles away. At the same time I thought, 'Ugh, I can't wait 'til this number's over, it's too gross.' Bugliosi's going, 'Stop it, stop it, this is my courtroom,' and we were just laughing at him. Suddenly, I realized what the whole thing was about -- it was just like going, 'Fuck you, fuck you!' I felt like that kid shooting Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ha ha ha! Completely taken over by this sickness.

"We did get captured and taken off to jail," she adds hastily, "so it was a morality play. But that show scared me." She sighs. "It's kind of weird to do all these loathsome characters. But they're real people. You can't depersonalize Reagan either. I don't like him, but I'll bet he's a great grandfather. And Hitler loved animals. What is it, what is it in people?" she says in a little voice, almost a whisper, like a little girl asking mommy, half-afraid and half-dying to hear the worst. "Is there a devil?"

Village Voice, August 20, 198