The Pyramid Club: New York City’s First Drag Landmark

The Pyramid Club: New York City’s First Drag Landmark
The Pyramid Club at 101 Avenue A. Image courtesy of Sally Davies.

101 Avenue A is home to the Pyramid Club which became a launching point for pioneering drag superstars like Lady Bunny and RuPaul, setting in motion the contemporary drag movement. The club gave birth to the iconic drag festival, Wigstock, which liberated drag from gritty nightclubs, bringing it into the broad daylight. The Pyramid Club reigned supreme as the mecca of drag in the late 70s and 80s, also hosting up-and-coming musical artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers & Nirvana. The Pyramid Club was brought back into the spotlight this year as a result of the release of the HBO documentary “Wig,” which debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Lady Bunny and RuPaul at the Pyramid Club, circa 1987. Image courtesy of Out.

“Wig’s” Wigstock and Village Stories

Directed and produced by Chris Moukarbel and produced by a number of others including Neil Patrick Harris, “Wig” showcases the crucial role the Pyramid Club played in the development of drag culture.  In 1984, a group of drag queens stumbled, drunk and delighted, out of the Pyramid Club to walk across the street for an after-hours celebration in Tompkins Square Park. Their adventure became a spontaneous drag performance, witnessed by just a few homeless people. This performance inspired Lady Bunny, the now-famous drag queen, to create a pubic drag festival in Tompkins Square Park during daytime hours.

Lady Bunny & Neil Patrick Harris: both worked to produce the 2018 Wigstock festival and were featured in the HBO documentary “Wig.” Image courtesy of Jonathan Bayme.

Throughout the 1980s until the early 2000s, Wigstock grew in attendance and audience diversity. Drag was moving into mainstream culture and becoming recognized as an art form. Not just art, but also activism – the documentary also focuses on how the Wigstock performers tackled issues like the AIDS crisis and hate crimes. Wigstock used its growing platform to expose the mainstream to these and other important LGBTQ issues. Wigstock organizers stopped hosting the event in 2001, but returned after a 17 year hiatus in 2018, which prompted the creation of the documentary.

A major theme of “Wig” is the exodus of culture and community from the East Village during the 2000s. A few potential causes are posited: first, Rudy Giuliani is blamed for ending Wigstock in 2001 when he cracked down on nightclubs, causing major declines in LGBTQ nightlife in the city. Lady Bunny, who has lived in her rent-stabilized basement apartment in West Village for the past 20 years, talks about her experiences of the changing Village. To her, the artists that made the East Village such a popular place for drag have been pushed out by gentrification. Now, the LGBTQ community finds refuge via social media, versus finding safe space in brick and mortar establishments, which she contends is a definite factor in their decline. The Pyramid club itself has moved away from drag and now caters to 80’s music and culture.

Wig: We Could Use A Dose of Community (Clip) | HBO

Lady Bunny talks about what drew her to the club scene in New York. #HBO #HBODocs #WigDoc Subscribe to HBO on YouTube: https://goo.gl/wtFYd7 Don’t have HBO?

The Pyramid Club

The Pyramid Club, which opened its doors in 1979, “represents the avant-garde and counter-cultural movement which emerged in the East Village including performance art and socially conscious drag performances,” according to its Determination of Eligibility for the State and National Register of Historic Places, issued in response to an application submitted by Village Preservation. The club hosted experimental drag performances that captured the attention of idols and icons such as Madonna, Andy Warhol, Marlo Thomas, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, and many more. Drag was not as polished and refined as it is showcased in modern media. Lady Bunny’s first performance in New York was at the Pyramid Club lip-syncing to “I Will Survive.” In “Wig,” she states, “I was so inexperienced that the spotlights were blinding me, and I fell off the stage. I somehow managed to get back up, wig askew and one shoe missing and finished the number, which was a crowd-pleaser, and I was a fixture at the Pyramid for the next six or seven years.”

What set the Pyramid Club apart from other drag establishments of the time was that the queens themselves did not rely on impersonating pop culture icons, like Cher or Tina Turner. They created their own personas and acts that were outrageous and risqué. The club would have extreme theme competitions like constructing their best Outer Space, Trailer Park, or Civil War outfits.

The Pyramid Club did not have a shortage of legendary personas. However, Lady Bunny made a name for herself by being one of the most renowned drag queens of New York. According to the legendary Miss Guy, “Lady Bunny was the queen of Pyramid, in my eyes anyway… I thought she was the perfect drag queen.” Between her time at Pyramid, her life in the Village, and her innovation of Wigstock, it’s clear that she is a queen to be reckoned with – a true Villager. And, without Wigstock, it’s clear that the phenomenon that drag is today would not be possible.

Wig: The Early Years of Wigstock (Clip) | HBO

Get a glipmse at what the early years of Wigstock looked like. #HBO #HBODocs #WigDoc Subscribe to HBO on YouTube: https://goo.gl/wtFYd7 Don’t have HBO?

Wigstock 1993. Image courtesy of Grégoire Alessandrini.

Preserving the Pyramid Club

The Pyramid Club at 101 Avenue A. Image courtesy of Sally Davies.

On October 30, 2007, Village Preservation submitted a request to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission that they consider 101 Avenue A (6th/7th Streets) in the East Village as an individual New York City landmark. The request attracted quite a bit of attention, and was soon referred to as a push to make the building New York City’s first “drag landmark.”  Separately, Village Preservation also submitted a request that the building be determined eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places, based in part upon the Pyramid Club’s history.  The NY State Historic Preservation Office agreed — a groundbreaking determination at the time.

Later, in 2011, Village Preservation successfully pushed to have the city’s proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District boundaries expanded to include 101 Avenue A (among other sites), and in 2012 that district was approved, including 101 Avenue A. This protects the building and recognizes it and the club’s important history.

101 Avenue A appears on Village Preservation’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, along with more than a hundred other local sites, due to its significance to the LGBTQ and drag communities.

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9 comments on “The Pyramid Club: New York City’s First Drag Landmark
  1. Dawson Knick Freida K. Williams says:

    Very informative. I love ready about the history of landmarks such as this.

  2. Dawson Knick susan martin says:

    It was NEVER “The Pyramid Club.” It’s called The Pyramid Cocktail Lounge. Very different from a “club” back in the day.

  3. I took the photo of RuPaul and Lady Bunny in the dressing room of the Pyramid Club in 1987. More of my photos of NYC’s drag scene in the 1980s and ’90s are available at TheDragExplosion.com

  4. Dawson Knick Frederick says:

    This is great news. So exciting to read and I feel the ghosts of Pyramid dancing in the heavens above. One little detail. The Pyramid club didn’t begin until December 1981. Of course it was there from the 1800’s but the magic didn’t happen until Bobby Bradley took over running the entertainment.

  5. Dawson Knick Terry Norton says:

    Thrilled by this news

  6. Dawson Knick Bill says:

    Nico lived on the 2nd floor at 101 Avenue A in the late
    1960s when she sang with the Velvet Underground.

  7. Dawson Knick Mark says:

    #RocketsRedglare

  8. Dawson Knick James Griffith says:

    Very well written article. Our history is so valuable yet so many choose to forget

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