The middle son of Joseph William Ludlam (a master plasterer) and Marjorie Braun, Charles Ludlam showed his first interest in theater at age six after he was separated from his mother at the Mineola Fair. He wandered into a Punch and Judy show and later into a freak show. At home, he watched puppet shows on television and performed in his basement. He used to go trick or treating dressed as a girl on Halloween, but when he went to a school party in women’s clothing, he caused a scandal. This led to his cross-dressing in secret, using his mother’s clothes.
As a young boy, Ludlam liked the plays of William Shakespeare and the classics. He performed in school productions and had an apprenticeship at the Red Barn Theater (1958), a Long Island summer stock company. Inspired by Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater in Greenwich Village, he founded the Students’ Repertory Theater a thirty-two-seat space in an abandoned meeting hall above a liquor store. He was only seventeen at the time, but he directed and acted in obscure works by Japanese and Russian writers and in works by Eugene O’Neill. In 1961 he entered Hofstra University on an acting scholarship, graduating four years later, after writing (and destroying) his first full-length play, Edna Brown. By the time he graduated in 1965 with an education degree in dramatic literature, he had fully realized that he was gay and took to this lifestyle while feeding off the great cultural fermentation of rock-and-roll, happenings, experimental films, and burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway theater. He dressed in drag to play Mario Montez’s lesbian lover in a brief scene in the 1965 underground film, The Life, Death, and Assumption of Lupe Velez.
Ludlam’s New York stage debut came in 1966, when he played Peeping Tom in Ronald Tavel’s The Life of Lady Godiva, a mixture of camp, drag, pageantry, and grotesquerie, directed by John Vaccaro at the Play-House of the Ridiculous in a loft on Seventeenth Street. He next transformed the role of Norma Desmond in Tavel’s Screen Test into an extravagant star turn and went on to write Big Hotel, staged by Vaccaro. Their collaboration, however, came to an end in 1967 when Vaccaro was fired during rehearsals for Ludlam’s When Queens...
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