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The Comeback of a Cabaret : The pioneering owners of a defunct performance art Mecca rekindle the flame at Cafe Largo in the Fairfax District

December 03, 1989|DOUGLAS SADOWNICK

In a doughnut skirt that disfigured the trim singer, Garretson bounced her "spreading butt" and shook her cleavage throughout a blushing audience packed with the likes of writer Terry Wolverton, Santa Monica Museum director Thomas Rhoads, performance artist May Sun, not to mention Columbia exec Barry Sabath.

Many artists saw Garretson's show as a mix of what was best in both Lhasa and what is possible in Largo: social commentary on the abjection of women in a vaudevillian framework that fed on the same titillation it challenged.

But on Tuesday nights, any of Boccara or Mariani's Continental trappings hibernate for the sake of an unlikely marriage between poetry and Hollywood, called "Poetry in Motion." It's a weekly series of poetry readings, in which luminaries such as Wanda Coleman have roared angry urban verse. Mostly, though, the recitations come from Tinsel Town honchos with an itch to write lyric poetry after a tough day on the set.

Run by Michael Lally, an actor/poet who has appeared on "L.A. Law" and "Cagney and Lacey," the series has attracted the likes of such aspiring poets as actors Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Hutton and rock singer Billy Idol. When Largo is handed over to Lally, the club is so transformed by Industry buzz ("Look who Richard Dreyfuss showed up with!") that Boccara and Mariani dart empathetic glances at artists who by chance wander in.

It's true that the celeb poetry has put Largo on the media map. There have been write-ups in People and Newsweek. But has Largo sold out?

Absolutely not, say most artists, even as they complain of French waiters affecting rudeness. "Sure, Largo isn't as raw as Lhasa," comments critic/writer Jacki Apple. "Yet, it's miraculous that in this day and age, Anna and Jean-Pierre have been able to continue their vision at all. . . providing a show case for artists who are bridging the gap between art and entertainment and should even be having some level of commercial success, such as Philip Littell."

Few are more emblematic of the Lhasa/Largo experience than singer/actor Philip Littell. He has worked at the Los Angeles Theater Center and Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, but has, at the same time, established himself as an innovative and popular performance artist crossing over into mainstream acceptance without jeopardizing his poetic imagination or charisma.

He writes his own song lyrics--canny metaphorical musings on sex, love, narcissism and the Lost Generation. His partner, Eric Cunningham, writes the music, a fusion of John Coltrane and the Talking Heads. Littell is lanky and mischievous and as energetic as a lit firecracker.

One night when Littell ran through the Largo audience, and as his band, What Is Said, accompanied him, he conjured up the traditions of Lhasa. He boldly sat on laps and danced on tables. He shook his limbs. He tantalized some with his own lyrics, but then steered his audience into a sublime detour with his song about someone dying from complications of AIDS, "Up in Smoke":

At the end he asked for cigarettes and whiskey / He couldn't see / He couldn't hear / But he could kiss / And his friend would light one up / And place it in his hand like this / Down to the end of the cigarette / He'd take it in and hold it in his chest / Smoke spirals up to the ceiling / Put out the cigarette / And let him rest.

Littell began his long tenure at Lhasa with the 1982 hit, "The Weba Show." Directed by David Schweizer, it starred Weba Garretson, Littell, and Jerry Frankel who died two years ago. It both examined and parodied pop culture with Garretson, in pink leather, belting out "There's Got to Be a Morning After" and then "Moon River" to Frankel's arrangements.

In the background, Littell would run in place or climb on the piano in dancerly feats of narrative mime. He could be seen staging a show where two Barbie dolls engage in unspeakable sexual acts as Garretson would hike up her dress and shimmy her hips before sending the crowd into a mass roar with her infamous "Goldfinger."

According to Schweizer, "We had no idea what kind of energy was possible here. I was a relative newcomer from New York when we put this show together." Schweizer made mock videos of crowds roaring and reporters flashing cameras to show before Garretson's entrance on stage. Eventually, the Weba Show became so popular that real crowds roared and real TV reporters came. This was when the Lhasa Club earned its stripes. Schweizer says he was so inspired by the "bridges being built to different worlds by Lhasa" that he stayed in Los Angeles and formed his Modern Artists, the producing entity responsible for some of avant-garde L.A.'s award-winning stage productions such as "Plato's Symposium."

Littell says that his own work might be compared to the way Boccara and Mariani approach theirs, "because it's based on the insane faith that the L.A. audience has a clear sense of itself, which is why Lhasa-Largo thrives. . . . No one at Largo wishes they were at a Lakers Game."

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