The Electric Circus Is Back in Town - 27 East

Arts & Living

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The Electric Circus Is Back in Town

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John Jinks on the electric sitar. COURTESY THE ARTIST

John Jinks on the electric sitar. COURTESY THE ARTIST

The front of the Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place in 1967. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

The front of the Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place in 1967. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

This Friday, John Jinks, left, and his band Out East will perform prior to the screening of the documentary

This Friday, John Jinks, left, and his band Out East will perform prior to the screening of the documentary "Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story" at The Church. COURTESY THE ARTIST

A vintage poster from the Electric Circus in the East Village. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A vintage poster from the Electric Circus in the East Village. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A 1967 poster from the Electric Circus, a club on St. Mark's Place in New York City. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A 1967 poster from the Electric Circus, a club on St. Mark's Place in New York City. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A sequined-clad dancer at the Electric Circus in the East Village. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A sequined-clad dancer at the Electric Circus in the East Village. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A vintage poster for Velvet Underground at the Electric Circus in the East Village. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

A vintage poster for Velvet Underground at the Electric Circus in the East Village. COURTESY LARRY CONFINO

authorAnnette Hinkle on Mar 19, 2024

In New York City of the 1960s, there was a lively and legendary club on St. Marks Place in the East Village that was known for offering a unique form of entertainment. Called the Electric Circus, the club was created by Jerry Brandt and Stanton J. Freeman, along with some other partners and, as the name implies, it really did have circus acts.

Flame-throwing jugglers and trapeze artists weren’t unusual and par for the course. But the club also hosted some pretty impressive musical acts as well. The Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground, the Allman Brothers Band, Ike and Tina Turner and Sly and the Family Stone all performed there at some point.

The Electric Circus was popular, but in the end, short lived. By 1971, it was all over due to a number of factors — among them changing trends and a bombing. Now, the Electric Circus lives again, this time as a documentary, thanks to the efforts of director and producer Larry Confino.

His new film, “Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story,” will be screened this Friday at The Church in Sag Harbor. The evening begins with a guitar circle at 5 p.m. followed by a 6 p.m. screening. Afterward, East Hampton resident John Jinks, who composed the music for the film, will perform on electric sitar with his band Out East.

“The Electric Circus was a pretty groundbreaking place. There was nothing else like it,” said Jinks, who isn’t old enough to have frequented the club himself. “It was multimedia — a psychedelic kind of place. There were circus acts and bands that played there too.

“I have friends that are old enough to have gone, though,” he added. “Anyone who has would want to see this.”

It turns out, the club was before director Larry Confino’s time too.

“But I knew about it,” said Confino, whose friend’s father was a minority backer in the club. “It was pretty groundbreaking at the time. That’s why I wanted to make the film. There were smaller music venues and nightclubs, but they put it all together in one place and had performance artists doing crazy acts.”

Perhaps one of the most unusual aspects of the Electric Circus was the fact that the club didn’t have a liquor license. That meant it attracted a much younger demographic, including teenagers.

“People of all ages went there, including people in their late teens because it was such a unique place with all social strata and ages,” said Confino, noting that although alcohol was not served, other mind altering substances certainly were.

“Oh my God, everyone was timing the acid for the acts,” he said.

In “Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story,” club founder Jerry Brandt is a main storyteller. Confino notes that Brandt had previously worked at the William Morris Agency and it was there he learned that if you invite famous people to your club, others will come.

And come they did. In addition to the musical acts, the Electric Circus attracted a pretty eclectic crowd — Leonard Bernstein, Liza Minelli, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, The Black Panthers and The Hells Angels are just some of the names on the short list of those who came through the door at one time or another.

“In the film, we cover the period of 1967 to 1969,” said Confino. “Then the last two years we don’t tell much of the story of the decline of the club.”

The decline came fast for the Electric Circus, and Confino chalks it up to the fact that the psychedelic era itself was short lived. In addition, cultural attitudes and politics had changed quite a bit by August 1971, the year the club closed.

“I think it was a number of factors,” Confino said of the club’s demise. “Nothing lasts in the nightclub world, people move on after two years. It was partially that it was not new and partially because the psychedelic movement was on its way out. Also, people may have wanted to drink.”

He notes that one person interviewed for the film explained that the club had a spirit to it that required a certain amount of youthful optimism. By the early 1970s, there was nothing particularly optimistic in the anti-war movement that had taken hold across the country. It also didn’t help matters that, on March 22, 1970, a small bomb exploded on the dance floor of the Electric Circus, injuring several people. The bomb exploded at about 11:45 p.m., while Sly and the Family Stone was taking a break. There were some who believed that the bomber had ties to the Black Panthers, but no conclusive proof of that was ever found.

“I found cops on the beat — one of them told me some of the press said it was either a Black Panther act or a sympathizer,” said Confino. “It was never clear why the guy did it. The bomber blew himself up a week later and they found Black Panther literature in his apartment. The Panthers and the Yippies had this recognition — there were sympathizers and he might have been part of that, but it was not really linked.”

In making a film about a long defunct nightclub, finding footage is vitally important and Confino was fortunate in that he not only found subjects to interview, but visuals of the club as well.

“That’s the big part of telling this story. Can you visualize it? It’s one thing to interview primary sources, and except for a historian at Stanford, everyone is a primary source,” said Confino. “But I didn’t want narration — there’s no narration anywhere in the film — so then it became a challenge. Tracking down those people was hard. Finding two people who were there the night it was bombed was a real challenge.”

Confino was fortunate in that when he interviewed original coworkers from the club, he learned that a Canadian crew had visited in 1967 and created a half hour documentary from their footage.

“I was able to track that down, so we had an existing documentary shot in 1967. We got four or five minutes of that footage,” said Confino. “What really was a gold mind was when one of the owners told me that his second ex-wife has a Rubbermaid tub of film that was used in the light show.

“She had it in a storage unit and didn’t know what was in it,” he added. “It was rusty film cans and I bought the whole thing from her.”

With 150 pounds of film on his hands and no way to afford to have the footage digitally transferred professionally, Confino bought a unit and transferred it all himself.

“It was thousands of feet of film and that gave it a whole different sense of authenticity — this was the film they projected into the tent,” he explained. “Then I brought on archival researchers, got all the domestic news footage. I licensed footage from the three networks, plus Channel 11, WPIX and AP.

“I’d like to think we left no stone unturned,” he said.

The soundtrack for the documentary was another matter, and that’s where John Jinks and his electric sitar comes in. Securing the rights to famous songs by well-known bands of the era is an expensive proposition. So Confino asked Jinks if he would compose and perform songs that evoke the feel of the club.

“The music I composed for the film is in the style of ’60s music from live rock bands to psychedelic sitar music and more,” explained Jinks, who will be joined at The Church by his Out East bandmates Gerry Giliberti on drums and Carlos Barrios on bass. “It’s made to sound like everybody from Big Brother and the Holding Company to a lot of bands you never heard of. It’s a lot of rock stuff and it was a lot of fun.

“I did 32 cues in five weeks,” he added. “I had to write a song, and go over to the drummer’s in Springs, record the basic track of bass and guitar and bring it back and do the other instruments myself in the studio and mix it in one day.

“The one song we’re playing at The Church, it’s one of the psychedelic ones I did,” he said.

As a filmmaker, Confino describes himself as “genre-less” and there isn’t a lot on his resume that would have indicated that the Electric Circus would be his next project. His previous feature-length documentary was a Holocaust film which he shot on location in Greece, Israel, Florida and New York.

“I wanted to tell that story, because it’s partially my own family history,” said Confino. “I have a documentary series, ‘Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria,’ on PBS. After spending years on a Holocaust film and looking at horrible footage of what the Nazis did, I thought I needed to do something fun.”

While visiting a high school friend in Great Neck, Confino and his friend stopped by the assisted living facility where the friend’s father was living just to say, ‘hello.’

“I walk in, the guy’s in his 90s, but he looks like the ’60s,” said Confino. “He was so impressed by being an investor in the club that it became his persona. He had an Electric Circus poster in his living room. As a trained observer and contrarian, when I see something that matters to someone to that degree, I’m like, ‘Wow, why is that so important?’

“We interviewed his dad a week later. We didn’t use the footage, but he was the catalyst,” said Confino. “This is a good topic. There have been films on CBGBs, Studio 54, and Max’s Kansas City — all these iconic New York nightclubs are covered — but not this.”

Part of what drives Confino in making his films is the urgency of time and the drive to preserve a piece of history that will soon be lost. At some point, Confino wants the footage of the Electric Circus to find its way to an archive.

“You feel a sense of responsibility to be accurate. In making this kind of film, I want to facilitate time travel,” he said. “It’s a historical documentary. How close can I take people back in time as the facilitator?

“My film on PBS, it took us seven years to make it on and off. Not one of those people is alive now, and we interviewed a lot of people,” he added. “Since filming ‘Psychedelicized,’ five or six people have died.

“When I talk to groups, one of the things I say is, even if you just do it with your phone, do interviews and be the keepers of your own history. I feel that responsibility. These things grab hold and you have to decide, ‘If I don’t do that, it will be lost.’”

“Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus Story,” screens Friday, March 22, at The Church. The event begins at 5 p.m. with an acoustic guitar circle. The film begins at 6 p.m., followed by a song by John Jinks and Out East and a Q&A. Tickets are $20 (members $15) at The Church is at 48 Madison Street in Sag Harbor.

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