Bill Wolf






            I gave myself a time limit, I think it was four months, to work as hard as I could doing these stupid doctors’ office sets and making MONEY, and then I would take it to New York and do ART.

            Russell was all for it.  He had been back and forth a few times to New York and both sk dunn and Jim Neu were now there and doing theater, and he encouraged me.  We had long had an agreement that either of us could pick up and go where ever we wanted and we would still be together.  I guess, a kinda “open” relationship.  The big house and studio and dog and whole crew, sort of ran itself, in a way, and so I felt a freedom to go and do what I liked.


            Maria found me a little sublet, what with winter coming on, some people were leaving town and it wasn’t too hard.  I would move around several times those first few months, and Russell, came and stayed with me from time to time.

            I let it be known I would do sets for anybody, no cost!  (In a couple cases I ended up even paying for materials!)  I looked up my old contacts, sk, Jim, and saw a lot of Maria.  Both Ed Weingold and Alma Becker had ended up in New York, too, even though recently separated, and both directing.  Then, too, miraculously, a branch of Les Nickelettes from San Francisco, had migrated there, Betsy Newman, Ellen Stein, Kitty and a couple of others, and they were gearing up to do something, you know them!

            So, before I knew it I was doing a set at P.S. 101 in the East Village for Jim Neu’s new play, “Mutual Narcissism.”  Well, sk was in it, of course, and Russell too got a good part.  There was also an actress. Roberta Levine, whom I would love for years.  And a great actress.





            It was a good success and moved for a longer run to The Kitchen, on the Lower East Side.





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            Then Ed Weingold had somehow talked the directors of a little theater on lower Broadway to let him direct the last play they would be doing in their theater before they moved on to a new location.  It was called “Lenz” (it’s a last name) by some heavy German expressionist, you know.  I painted a roll-down front drop with the title to greet the audience as they came in and to keep the view of the set in suspense.




            It was a magnificent set, all browns and tilted and forced-perspective and, it being the last play in the place, I even managed to tear down the back wall of the stage to an impressive effect of far distance into the German countryside.  As the front drop slowly rolled up, the set got an applause from the audience, the first I'd ever received.




            Ed and I always worked together well, and we would do lots more.




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            Nancy Reagan was the first lady, of course, in those days, and she always lent herself well to satire, if you know what I mean.  And Liza Minelli had just done a big show called “Liza With a Z” and so a bunch of Les Nickelettes who had their own little New York branch in those days, those dolls, came up with a great little ditty called “Nancy With an N” a sort of Nancy Reagan has her own show and does these high-kicks and such.  Well, Kitty Parks had always done a whithering imitation of Nancy Reagan and so they rehearsed it up and asked me to help with the sets.  It was to be a video.  I said, Sure!


            Well, Bill Bathhurst and Ron Blanchet were the only video people I had known, really, except the big, professional guys from the commercials, of course, who not creative at all.  So, I didn’t know much what I was doing, but we were all learning and had a great time.  Liza Minelli had a big “Z” out of lights on the set of her show, so I built a big “N” out of cardboard and taffeta with chaser lights all over it.  Kitty, in her tight little Nancy Reagan wig danced around it and it looked great, of course.




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            Then I would do a video for Judy Whitfield, Maria’s friend from San Francisco, who was living in New York at that time and singing and doing her music and wanted to do a video of a silly piece she had written called “Astronette.”

            MTV was going then and more videos were being made but nobody had done much with them except sort of reproduce a stage performance on video.  Well, Judy decided to set her video on an actual space ship flying through space.  And, then Judy had seen Michael Jackson do his “moonwalk” shtick and wanted to do the same with Astronette, but on the ACTUAL MOON!  So, we built sets and models and it was a hoot and it all looked like “Rocket To Mars” out-takes and I don’t think much ever came of it but we haul it out every now and then for a laugh.


(NOTE:  See lots more about "Astronette" in TIME-LINE, 1984.)


            In all I did about a dozen sets in New York that year, including an original something directed by Alma Becker, with whom I always enjoyed working, of course.


            But mostly it was the city of New York I was living.  I had looked around at some of my old clubs and other haunts and had a great time.  I went to a lot of galleries and museums, street fairs, Polish restaurants, and visited Trinity Church down in the financial district.  I would occasionally turn a corner and look up, at the steel canyons, the light of morning, and gasp in awe at their power and beauty.

            I remember passing across the street from a construction site and its protected sidewalk and looking up, the impossibly tall building being constructed, and noting that a hammer dropped from that height would just as likely fly across the street at me as drop straight down onto the building’s meager protection.  And I thought, “Well, if I went now, I would have lived enough.”  They were heady days for me.



            I found a little store front for rent on the Lower East Side on Ridge Street, practically under the Harrisburg Bridge, owned, it turned out later, by a drug dealer (of course), and I moved in to set up my studio.  It had a stamped tin ceiling and a little room in back.  I painted it all white.

            Russell was in and out of town, those days, and we had a series of sub-lets around the East Village and then had a nice little (read: real little!) walk-up flat on Ludlow Street, long before it was made fancy like today.  For a while Russell was doing some research at the public library in the photo archives and bringing home copies of old Joseph Riis photos from, like, the turn of the century (the previous) of the poor immigrants and their terrible living conditions on the Lower East Side in these horrible hovels.  They all looked just like our apartment!



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            And, of course, I saw a lot of Maria, now apparently permanently living in Laurence Sanders’ apartment on the Upper West Side.  I would subway up, or she down, and we did a lot together.  Shortly after I had arrived she said, “Bill, you should see this thing I’m doing.”

            “What’s that, Maria?”

            “Well, it’s sort of called ‘computer graphics’ and it’s drawing and all but with pure light, you know?”

            I didn’t of course, but went along to see it.  Seems she had been invited by the Whitney Museum, from her previous notoriety from the Box Lunch, when the museum had been contacted by Bell Telephone (!) to ask artists to compete in a drawing contest by drawing on this new drawing machine (!) that they had developed at Bell Labs (!) in New Jersey (!), or something like that.  She said about a half-dozen artists had signed up but that most had left the program because they thought it was so stupid, but that she kind of liked it and they (Bell Labs) had liked her stuff and asked her to do more.  In fact, they asked her to find some more artists, like her, who would like to draw on the drawing machine.

            So, that’s how one day Maria and I ended up riding a bus out to Bell Labs in New Jersey where she was greeted warmly by a bunch of guys (they would later be known as “nerds”) who were all sitting around at computers and they made a big deal of us.  Of course, we had to sign in and out and it was about the most alien territory we could ever have visited, but it was mostly benign and we weren’t too scared.

            The guys (later called nerds) showed us this machine, a TV on top, a big, noisy box below, and a slanted plastic tablet with a little box with a yellow button on top and two copper wires sticking out the front which were sensitive, they told us, to the plastic tablet.  One of the computer guys said it looked like a mouse, what with the tail and all, I guess, and they all thought that was just the funniest thing anybody could ever say.  The whole thing was called a Frame Creation System, later shortened to FCS.  Apparently they called the drawings “frames,” and the act of drawing “creation,” and the whole thing a “system.”  And anyway, they wanted to show us what it could do; there were several versions of a “boat” which was made up of a little rectangle at the bottom and a white triangle on top (totally stupid).  And they had some bar graphs they had “created” showing really stupid stuff (later called “nerd humor”) like how many people thought Ronald Reagan should go to the moon, and such.

            Well, we rode on the long, LONG bus ride back to the city and I said, “First thing you have to explain, Maria, NO artist is going to go out to New Jersey to do this thing.”

            “You’re right,” she agreed.

            So, Maria spoke with them (Bell Labs) some more and she said, well, maybe, but it can ONLY happen in Manhattan and they said, Yahoo, when can you start.


            Of course, Bell Telephone had lots of office space around town (everywhere, really!) and they came up with a whole (!) unused floor in a high-rise building on Park Avenue and 36th in midtown Manhattan.  We were on the nineteenth floor.

            It was a huge empty space with windows on four side looking out on all of Manhattan and in the center a few baffles and the elevator shafts and bathrooms.  Well, the amount of strong light coming in the windows made it impossible to see the little TV screen anywhere except in the center, darkened area, where we set up our “lab.”  Maria had interested a couple other artists, a woman named Charlette, and our mutual friend from San Francisco, Judy Whitfield, who had been doing some work on other types of computers and was brought in, supposedly, to do text (!).  And, of course, the first thing they (Bell Labs) did was bring in a secretary.

            “A secretary?  What for?” I asked.

            Maria said, “Don’t ask, Bill.  Bell Labs’ offices always have a secretary and we will have one too.”  So, they sent us Bonny, a nice woman who sharpened pencils and kept the place real neat.  Then, too, they (Bell Labs) were trying to sell these Frame Creation Systems, and soon, they brought in these salesmen, well, and a saleswoman, and they were nice people and we liked them.  They didn’t have much to do except sit around and gab it seemed to me, but soon they had set up their own big spacious offices with spectacular views an all sides and they were in and out from time to time, I guess, trying to sell these things, and giving Bonny things to do, which took a little pressure off of us.

            The other condition Maria had mentioned was that the artists could not possibly  be creative on any kind of set time schedule and that we must be able to come in anytime of day or night and stay as long as we liked.  The salesmen, who had to be there every day at nine, of course, and leave at five, kind of rolled their eyes and said boy, how’d you swing that, Maria?

            So, for a few months during the winter and on into the spring, we set up our “Drawing Lab” and Maria would bring in flowers to try to cut the smell of the computers, you know.  Now could we smoke dope in the offices, of course, everything sealed and all, but we took lots of “safety meetings” out on the street.

            Maria immediately drew a picture of a sexy girl in a swimsuit and I drew a picture of a sexy man in a swinsuit.  Among other things.





            So, here was the deal: computers at that time were starting to be hooked up to send signals to each other by way of the telephone lines, from one place to another.  Already a small “network” of computer owners were typing messages (?) to each other in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and calling themselves “the web,” like a spider or something, I guess, and Bell Telephone was quite interested in this because they were using the phone lines and, of course, Bell Telephone was charging them MONEY to make these calls on the telephone lines.  And Bell Telephone wanted to make LOTS of MONEY and thought, I guess, gee if everybody did this and sat a long time hooked up on their telephone lines with their computers, Bell Telephone could make LOTS and LOTS of MONEY.  But, at the time, the computers were so glitchy and difficult to use and such stupid and really boring stuff was being sent from one computer to another, that they thought, I guess, well, we have to make this thing a lot better than this if we want LOTS of people to use it and pay us LOTS of MONEY.

            So, they decided to sent a picture, a photograph, from one computer to another.  Well, it took hours!  The little copper, telephone wires which ran everywhere, of course, hooking up the telephones, could only send tiny bit by tiny bit of the necessary information to transfer a photograph from one computer to another, and it was obvious nobody wanted to send a photograph that badly.

            So, they said, OK, let’s develop a sort of “code” that would sent “graphic objects” over the telephone lines from one computer to another and the other computer would have the same “code” and the “graphic object” would be “decoded” at the other end and come up on the TV screen as a “graphic object.”

            You can see where this is leading.

            The code was called “videotex” which was a serious misnomer as it had nothing to do with video nor with “text,” but nobody knew that and I guess the “-tex” was just meant to be a high-tech sounding something on the end of a word.  And this code could designate like points and lines and circles and rectangles and that’s about it.  And all in eight bright colors.  I saw what Maria meant by painting with light, the colors so bright and the TV screen, later called a monitor, would shoot this dazzling bright light right into your eyes.  I started to like it.

            At first they (Bell Labs) didn’t know what they wanted and we were pretty much free to draw anything we liked, people, landscapes, animals, greeting cards, cartoons, silly pictures, and theater sets.

            But soon, the question became “what kind of thing would people want (and PAY) to send over their telephone lines to come up on their computer in their home?”  So, the first (and ONLY) ideas that they came up with were news, weather and sports (really banal).  So we did little drawings of the news, like faces of people and sports scores and maps and little drawings of like rain and snow and happy shining suns, and they all like it a lot.  Then they thought, well, people might PAY to see how much MONEY they had in their BANKS (!), so we drew little pictures of money and banks and money in banks.  Even banal-er.

            Then the question became:  how would people “interact” with a computer and how should the “frames” look to the people so they understood how to “interact” with the “frames”?  So, then we drew little pictures (later called icons) and little buttons that the people could touch with their little box (later called mouse) and made them three-dimensional with little shadows under them and little gleams of light above them.  Well, Bell Labs thought we were geniuses!

            About that time, Bell Telephone, who had come up with a new way to make more MONEY, had broken up into AT&T and all the little Bells, like Northern Bell and Pacific Bell, and now AT&T, and with, now, Bell South, was planning a one-month test of this stuff down in Florida with real, live people and these real computers in their real homes and it was called the “Florida Trial,” Florida being, I guess, a place where there were lots of telephone company workers who lived in houses and could be forced, I guess, to put this thing in their homes for one month.  So, we did lots of news, weather and sports and, now,  banking, now called “home banking,” but everyone could tell the thing was, really, looking pretty skimpy and so they were, like, desperately looking for more stuff to put on it and trying to imagine which things people would most like to see in their real houses.


            Meanwhile, of course, besides the sports and banking and such, our little Drawing Lab in Manhattan was drawing all sorts of other things, just for ourselves, and Maria was too.  And as I mentioned earlier, Nancy Reagan was the First Lady in those days and Maria had, natch, been drawing a silly little spoof of Nancy Reagan on the computer.  Maria was always good with cartoons and caricatures of people, especially evil bitches, like, well, Nancy Reagan.

            So she came up with this little “picture story” about Nancy Reagan and how she decides to take the subway in New York (!), and gets on board all excited and happy to be riding the subway.  Now at that time, there were a lot of “chain-snatchers” who would snatch a woman’s gold chain from around her neck and go running off into the subway tunnels.  Well, in Maria’s story a big, black guy comes up behind Nancy Reagan and starts to snatch her gold chain from around her neck.  Nancy first reacts with horror, then the quick-thinking First Lady reaches into her purse and pulls out ... her Bloomingdale’s Charge Card!  It’s gleaming surface temporarily blinds the attacker and Nancy is able to jump off the train at “My stop!” ... the Bloomingdale’s basement, calling after her “I never leave home without it!”

            Well, of course, we all thought it was great.




            So when Bell Labs was putting the final touches on their “Florida Trial,” and could not come up ANYTHING except news, weather, sports and home banking to put on this silly thing, Maria decided to mention that she thought people might like some sort of entertainment, you know, and, like, “a computer gallery would be nice.”

            “A Computer Gallery!” they all echoed in New Jersey, “That is a brilliant idea!  Maria, you are brilliant!”

            So that’s how Maria Manhattan’s “Nancy Reagan Takes the Subway” got on the Florida Trial of Bell Labs in 1983.  There was some discussion about how, since there was only one thing to see in the “Computer Gallery,” namely Maria Manhattan’s “Nancy Reagan Takes the Subway,” that the Main Menu Choice which offers this “service” really should say Maria Manhattan’s “Nancy Reagan Takes the Subway.”  But then, after some really stupid conversations (Bell Labs), a compromise was reached and the Main Menu offered “Computer Gallery: Maria Manhattan’s ‘Nancy Reagan Takes the Subway’.”


            Then, too, they had it all set up in their computers in New Jersey so that, for one month, they could record every time anybody looked at this thing and what they looked at and for how long they looked at it, the idea being that they would be able to see what things more people looked at longer and then they could put more effort on those things so that they (Bell Labs) could make more MONEY.

            So, the computers were put in the homes of the telephone company workers in Florida (well, they weren’t even computers, really, just some kind of a box which turned your TV into a “monitor,” oh brother!), and the telephone company workers, and their families and their friends, I guess, began “networking” with these guys (later called nerds) and this big computer sitting out in New Jersey.

            And Maria’s show ran for a month.


            Then it was time to analyze the results.

            All the big wigs at the telephone company, and all the later called nerds and all the salespersons on the nineteenth floor of Park Avenue and everybody else everywhere, were, of course, anxiously awaiting the print-outs of how many people looked at what for how long in Florida for a month.

            Guess what!

            Maria Manhattan blew them out of the water.  TEN TIMES more people went to see Computer Gallery: Maria Manhattan’s ‘Nancy Reagan Takes the Subway’ than all the rest of their garbage put together!

            There descended upon New Jersey a profound silence in the vast, echoing corridors of Bell Labs.  People were shaking their heads in disbelief; no one knew what to do or what to think of these disastrous results.

            We, of course, were ecstatic.

            “We could have told ‘em,” said Maria, “People want a little entertainment in their lives.  They want a little pizzazz, a little show biz.  People want ART!”


            But, the big wigs over in New Jersey and a few others (we were NOT included in this phase) got together and did the only logical thing they could possibly have done.  They lopped off all the results of the Computer Gallery and of Maria Manhattan and of Nancy Reagan Taking the Subway and declared them ... an anomaly!  Those figures would permanently disappear from the results and the Big Boys in New Jersey could now turn happily back to analyzing “news weather sports and home banking.”

            “Well, gee, John, it does look like more people want to see Sports than Weather, doesn’t it?”

            “Yes, Clark, and Florida is a Microcosm of the Nation after all.”


            And that’s how Maria Manhattan’s “Nancy Reagan Takes the Subway” had absolutely NO effect on the AT&T Bell Labs Florida Trial (later called “Internet”) in 1983.



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