Al Carmines, 69, creative genius of Judson Church

By Jerry Tallmer

There are several things particularly to be remembered about “Home Movies,” a wacky, naughty play by Rosalyn Drexler that, hopscotching out of the Judson Poets’ Theater at Judson Church to the nearby Provincetown Playhouse, cracked open the constipated New York theater scene in the early summer of 1964.

One was that Rosalyn Drexler, a sex queen built along the lines of Lillian Russell, had been a lady wrestler — a brainy lady wrestler — before she entered the ring as playwright.

Another was an actress named Gretel Cummings who, opposite George Bartenieff in a Margaret Dumont sort of role, could send you into hysterics with a word, a gesture of the hand, a sneeze; in short, could do no wrong.

Another was Sudie Bond as their child plaintively looking for her bunny slippers.

And another was the Reverend Al Carmines, assistant minister of Judson Memorial Church, Washington Square South, in the highly irreverent role of Father Shenanigan. He also composed all the music of the show.

Al Carmines, who died on Tues., Aug. 9, age 69, at St. Vincent’s Hospital, 25 years after the aneurysm that knocked him for a loop and changed the course of the rest of his life, was to my mind, in the Judson years and long thereafter, as close as any one human being could get toward a fountain of creativity.

He wrote music. He played the music, at the piano. He wrote words — lyrics for some shows, the book of others or in some cases (“Joan,” about one of his heroines, Joan of Arc) both. He sang, wonderfully, enthusiastically, in a wry yet gladsome tenor.

He directed, but he could also follow direction (mostly Lawrence Kornfeld’s). He danced, when necessary. I would guess he also choreographed. And he acted — oh, how he loved acting, be it as Walt Whitman (in Peter Parnell’s “Romance Languages”) or Oscar Wilde (in “The Faggot,” a jarring, bravura 1973 hit with songs and direction by him) or anyone else. Also as just himself.

He all by himself brought Gertrude Stein back into general awareness in his and Larry Kornfeld’s production of her 1920 “In Circles,” so sweet, so poetic, so abstract, so clear that it changed one’s very way of thinking. When it jumped from Judson to the Cherry Lane to the Gramercy Arts in the summer of 1968 — the summer of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, of Russia’s tanks in Prague, of the Democratic Convention chaos in Mayor Daley’s Chicago — it was like a saving dose of sanity in an insane world.

The next year, Al as director and Maria Irene Fornes as playwright brought forth “Promenade,” at Judson, this one starring another great dame, Florence Tarlow, as doyenne par excellence. And Irene Fornes was discovered.

Al Carmines got to Judson thanks to Howard Moody, the Texas-born-and-bred Baptist minister with balls who for 40 years battled for everything good in Greenwich Village, racially, sexually, politically, geographically, economically, artistically and against everything bad, and who in 1961 brought Al in as his assistant, in the cloth and otherwise, one of the otherwises being to set up a Judson Poets theater company with poet-playwright-architect Robert Nichols.

It was more than just a theater company. It was a seedbed of the arts, not least the nose-thumbing arts, where, for instance, you might find Robert Rauschenberg at one moment at dance on the stage in the great sanctuary, at another moment hanging his large-scale multifarious collages on the walls or dreaming up a happening with Alan Kaprow.

And yes, Al Carmines was a minister in the formal sense of the word as well. A man of God, though he might have had trouble defining that God. God is in the deed, I think he’d say. His deeds were there for all to see and hear and taste and deeply enjoy.

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