They both nod. Marsha is wearing a gorilla mask.
“And you’re playing animals?” he asks.
Justine, still on her knees, shakes her head. “No.”
“Bert and Ernie,” Marsha answers.
A stagehand approaches with a box of props. Justine grabs a massive flesh-colored dildo. The girls continue rehearsing their scene, Marsha grabbing Justine’s breasts and bending her into a number of X-rated positions. “It’s interesting what activates a number,” Hammerstein says. “This one isn’t really a story, so you create that kind of story around it through the framing and the characterization. In this scene we’re making fun of a pizza-delivery porno, but they’re Bert and Ernie.
“The thing about variety,” he continues, “is that you need color to appreciate it. Sometimes we’ll have a show where all the acts are so crisp and clean that you don’t appreciate them because there’s no hokey or high-school-musical quality to them.” Hammerstein admits to pushing his performers in directions that make them uncomfortable. “Let’s say somebody comes out and they sing a lovely song that’s in their range, that’s in the style they want to sing it. And it’s a good song. But you take that same concept, the same set, the same costume that fits what they’re doing, and you force another song onto it that’s out of context with everything else onstage. All of a sudden, you have conflict. The performer might be annoyed at me and think that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but people love that.”
After a few minutes, Marsha and Justine take a short break. Hammerstein keeps “boxes and boxes” of dildos on the premises, and Justine stands on the lip of the stage shaking one of them.
“Hey Simon, you want one of these?” Justine yells up.
“I’ve got enough, thank you. I like mine to bend to the left,” Hammerstein responds.
It was a playful, easy exchange, but it wasn’t hard to see how it could go awry.
“I was sexually harassed every day,” says a former performer who referred to Hammerstein’s behavior as “a sick power thing.”
In early September, the Porcelain TwinZ posted a 5,000-word screed on MySpace that painted, in graphic detail, The Box as an illicit, abusive, and debased working environment. They had performed their act (called “Twincest”) for about a year and, during the course of their residency, had accumulated a number of allegations of sexual harassment, and inhumane treatment. They wrote that Hammerstein routinely smacked the Beauties on the buttocks so hard that he left welts and bruises; that he walked up behind Amber one night and stuck his hand down the back of her pants; that he would leave bags of cocaine around his loft; and that he coerced the Beauties to sleep with him. The TwinZ recounted a ménage à trois that Hammerstein allegedly pressured them into having last November.
Hammerstein denies all of it—the sexual harassment, the “inhumane treatment,” the drug use. He says he feels betrayed by the twins, whom he allowed to live in his apartment for several months. “I have a set of ethics,” he says. “I would never threaten anyone’s job or force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. It’s just not me. So it’s really unfair that they would characterize me like that. And it’s disrespectful to the people that work with me. That they’re not proud women and they would tolerate that. That’s actually what’s really insulting.”
Other employees have defended Hammerstein against the TwinZ’s accusations, too. One performer believes Heather and Amber aren’t naïve. “They joked with me about it,” the performer says. “The threesome was part of an exchange.” A former female employee agrees. “I’ve never heard anybody say that Simon forced them to have sex,” she says. “He’d push drugs and alcohol on you like crazy. I’ve seen him get girls really fucked up, to the point where they weren’t making good choices. There’s a fine line there.”
Later in our conversation, Hammerstein, who plans to get married in December, describes the atmosphere he tries to promote at The Box. “I think it’s loose verbally, in the context of a rehearsal, where we’re talking about racy ideas,” he says. “It’s pretty uncensored. But offstage I’m very proud of the way everyone behaves. People have to let their guards down. When you’re a performer and you do something that potentially makes you feel vulnerable, you need everybody there respecting what you’re doing so that you can go out and do it in front of an audience. And I don’t think we’d have the same kind of commitment from our performers if they felt in any way that I—or anybody in the company—was disrespecting them.”
But these intentions seem at odds with how some employees and former employees describe the environment at The Box. “Simon created a culture,” says a former employee. “People smoked pot at staff meetings. Drank wine at rehearsal. The whole thing was fueled by drugs and alcohol. It changes the way you behave. I constantly had to make sure that Simon didn’t fire the entire band and not remember the next day or belittle the stage crew in front of large groups. But there was always something—the bathrooms were flooded, there was raw sewage on the floor in the kitchen.” (Hammerstein says the flooding was an isolated incident.)