“America is obsessed with potential and dismissive of accomplishment”- Penny Arcade

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MargOH Channing

By MargOH! Channing

When I stumbled back to the city after my exile in Bangkok I decided to do a cable access show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Of course I had no idea what I was doing but that has never stopped me before so in a flash “The MargOH! Channing Show” was born. Lucky for me my first guest on the show was to be Penny Arcade.  There was no way I could fail!

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Now, I knew Penny from back in the 70’s but somehow she didn’t remember me. Once, in the 80’s I believe, I ripped her pant leg off in excitement during a Chelsea Hotel performance of A Quiet Night for Sid and Nancy (I was going through a late in life punk phase and was obsessed with the Sex Pistols – Penny’s performance was so convincing and my flask so full I got a little too into the play).  In the 90’s, inspired by her legendary work BITCH!DYKE!FAGHAG!WHORE!, I often gyrated erotically outside her apartment window (neighboring rooftops and fire escapes make for challenging stages when trying to squat and bounce, by the way) in the hopes she would see me and give me a chance to be in her show.  I’m sure she didn’t see me otherwise I just know I would have made the cut.

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So yes, she didn’t “remember” me but I didn’t hold it against her and was thrilled to have her as my first guest. We decided to shoot the show at her studio but when I arrived the door was locked and no one answered. I knew I had to get this show in the can so I got creative and “assisted” the door open with a tampon applicator (something I learned in reform school). Once I got in I couldn’t believe my eyes!  Here was a treasure trove of art and performance memorabilia from the likes of Jack Smith and Jeff Buckley and Ms. Arcade herself.  She even had her dear friend Quentin Crisp’s trademark fedora daintily hanging from a bookshelf (Mr. Crisp identified her as the woman he most identified with and his soul mate).  As I was having a good look over (ok and maybe contemplating “borrowing” one or two things) Penny entered the room and quietly asked what we were doing there.  Apparently her intern hadn’t told her about our interview. I shakily explained everything and capped it off by offering that “I brought wine”.  Penny responded “Jesus drank wine”. I was so nervous to be in her company that I blurted out “OH! I thought only god did”  Good grief, I’m lucky she didn’t throw me out that second.  Penny thought it strange that I brought my own wine glasses but decided to grant me the interview anyway.  I was relieved!!

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I’m not sure if Penny could figure old MargOH! out and I surely was tongue tied in the presence of one of my favorite artists.  She complimented me on my attire saying it was so “ghetto”.  I forgot to take my sunglasses off and lost track of what I wanted to talk to her about.  I think she may have asked me more questions than I asked her – but this in itself is part of her brilliance and reach as an artist.  She has said that when she was younger people collected her and as she has gotten older she collects people…she is interested in their stories.  And you can feel that when you sit down with her.  It can be intimidating to interview a person who has so much wit, wisdom, insight and natural talent as Penny does but somehow she always makes you feel comfortable and loved. Ms. Arcade is one of the few people that can do that.  A writer once said that Penny has the pathos of Judy Garland and truly this is at the heart of what I love about her.  I’ve seen Penny perform in front of an audience of 10 and up to 500 and every single time the audience is with her each step of the way, in the story and a part of the performance.  Our voice delivered in the form of a sexy Italian pixie who never ceases in her dedication to exposing the truth.

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Let me share a bit of background on Penny from her biography.  She was “born Susana Carmen Ventura to an immigrant Italian family in the small factory town of New Britain, Connecticut, she became Penny Arcade at age 17 while on LSD in an effort to amuse her mentor and patron, openly gay photographer/artist Jaimie Andrews. It was Andrews, a member of The Playhouse of the Ridiculous, who introduced the young Arcade to legendary director John Vaccaro. Vaccaro, then directing Kenneth Bernard’s potent play The Moke Eater, subsequently gave Penny her theatrical debut in the groundbreaking production. Soon after, Arcade became a teenage superstar for Andy Warhol’s Factory with a featured role in the Morrissey/Warhol film Women In Revolt but quickly found the life of an upcoming pop tart too one dimensional and fled to Amsterdam.”

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Penny’s most popular work is the piece I mentioned earlier BITCH!DYKE!FAGHAG!WHORE!. “Penny first did this show in 1990 in response to the Senator Helms/National Endowment for the Arts censorship crisis. Originally conceived as a 4 day audit for a NEA solo fellowship grant, it was a run away success, fueled by what became known as ‘The Drag Factor’, as people returned over and over, dragging their friends, co-workers, neighbors and family to share the show and the show’s cathartic audience dance break.”  (Taken from show promo).

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She performed the show to raves the world over.  In a 2007 revival I had the pleasure of seeing the performance at Spiegeltent (I still hadn’t perfected my dance moves enough to make the cut but nonetheless managed to shake it down during the dance break with some of the sexy kids in the show). The show was just as good as its original production and just as relevant to the times.

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Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Penny’s show are improvised and do not adhere to a script but in an interview she said “Every new work I create is developed from its first moment of life in front of a live audience. The relationship between myself and the public is critical to my work because my work is grounded in parrhesia, truth telling. I feel an obligation in front of a live audience that would not exist sitting in my room writing. My work also derives from a storytelling tradition of my peasant immigrant southern Italian family as well as the kind of storytelling that is part of street life and the criminal world, the demi monde”.

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What a gift she has! Whenever I see Penny perform I am in awe of how she wraps herself around the human condition and using simple but intelligent language evokes such strong, occasionally unsettling but always enlightening awareness to her audience, as she entertains us.

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Did MargOH! just say that??   I must need a dirty martini and a bottle of champagne because that sounded kind of smart! I guess that’s my point. When I see Penny perform I always leave feeling that I’ve learned something about the world around me. She makes me think of how I can contribute to make the community and the world a better place. And it is important to note that I also leave with a sense of peace because she truly is a giving and nurturing performer unlike any with whom I have met or worked.  That’s special and rare to have in one person.

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I’ll be forever grateful to Penny for engaging me and for continually being there to give advice or share a quip.  No more pant leg tearing or lewd fire escape dancing for MargOH! to get her attention these days.  I know better.  Now, whenever I run into Penny on the street, there is always a big, motherly hug wrapped around me.  I love that, especially because I’m older than her.

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It’s hard to believe that she turns 60 today because the girl has still got it! She is one gorgeous dame! Penny hasn’t slowed down a bit and recently added the title of author next to her name with the publication of her book “Bad Reputation”, a collection of her performances, essays and interviews (you MUST get this book!!). It’s an essential read for those who follow Penny and especially for those who haven’t discovered her yet (can there be such people?).   If you haven’t had the fortune to see her in person or read her work then please step out of the dark and step into that wonderful, illuminating and intoxicating light that is Penny Arcade.  You will never be the same again!

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Happy Birthday Penny!

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By MargOH! Channing

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