from the archives

Freaking Out in Los Angeles

The latest in drive-in and delicatessen fashions, a man called the Human Moon, and other send-ups.

Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the August 26, 1968, issue of New York. We’re republishing it here, along with most of Tom Wolfe’s writing for the magazine, to accompany the September 2023 release of Richard Dewey’s documentary Radical Wolfe. Read our essay about the film and Wolfe’s time at New York here, and Wolfe’s own memoir of the magazine’s early years here.

The big gasper in Yves Saint Laurent’s fall fashion show, I see somewhere, is an evening dress that is totally transparent except for a ruff of ostrich feathers around the pelvis. I don’t know why anybody pays attention to Paris fashions anymore. All the major madness is already on the streets and walking around in Los Angeles by the time the curtain goes up in Paris. In men’s fashions all the new things — turtle­necks, Nehru coats, English booties, cod­piece pants and the rest of it — always show up first in a salon called Harvey’s Drive-In. In women’s fashions it is a place called Canter’s Delicatessen, on Fairfax Avenue, just south of Sunset Boulevard.

It is in Canter’s that I first see women approaching the final gong in the youth and the nudity movements. They are wearing diaper bags. They are in here for the 1 a.m. promenade that goes on in Canter’s every night. It is one of the great fashion shows of all time. Canter’s is a regular-looking Jewish delicatessen, you understand, the usual, lit up like an inter­section with four gas stations on it, full of the stuffed leatherette booths, Formica, stainless steel tubes, and big momma waitresses with mustaches who hassle with you over the chicken soup with kasha, the stuffed derma, the Nova Scotia and cream cheese, the potato pirogen, the boiled frankfurters with sauerkraut and the sliced onion rolls. Then around 1 a.m. they start rolling in, all the dandies and freaky dolls, flipping into the place in miniskirts, mesh stockings, half-bras, Frederick’s of Holly­wood pop-through bras, no bras — Jiggle City! — tailored mons veneris, scarves, beads, chains, shark’s teeth, Victoria shoes, inverted pleats, bell bottoms, bell bottoms with pleats, bell bottoms with ruffles, bell bottoms with layers of ruffles, bell bottoms with Paisley insert panels sewn in the sides, bush hats, fezzes, burnooses, ponchos, pea jackets, and major hair, every variety of electric hair known to man and woman, curled and back-combed until it frizzes out all over the head and the whole head seems like a huge dandelion —

— and then two girls in diaper bags. Just diaper bags over bikini step-ins. A diaper bag, if you never saw one, is like a pillow case made of rubberized net. The man from the diaper service hauls dirty diapers out in it. These girls had slit open the bottom seams of diaper bags and slipped them over their torsos and put straps over their shoulders to hold them up. They came down just about as far as their hip sockets. You can see right through the netting, of course. They come prancing into Canter’s at the height of the promenade.

But something about these girls makes you realize they are more than freaks. They have … certitude. They know they are years ahead and that the world will follow. Look at the way they dealt with The Human Moon. At my table were two friends of mine and one of Los Angeles’ hottest disk jockeys, who might as well be known here simply as The Human Moon. The Human Moon had been watching all the young fashionable freaks bouncing in, and he was in a state of rapture. He was into a whole “man-like-I mean-you-know” soliloquy, in fact.

“Like, I mean, you know,” says The Human Moon, “these kids are where it’s at today, man, and they know it, and I know it, and like, I’m with them, and if they love me, it’s only because I love them, and like, they know it, and I know it, and we know this thing together, and I’m with them all the way. I mean, I see a field, this whole field, in slow motion, wheat, you know that whole wheat scene — whole wheat — hah! — but you know what I mean, that slow motion scene in the wheat, and all these beautiful kids, these beautiful people right here, from all over the country, pouring into this field in slow motion, and man, cops at every compass — the old Thou Shalt Not scene — you know? — and, like, it’s a sugar-in, I mean they’re handing these cops flowers and bundles of wheat and they’re sinking, freaked out and buried in vegetables, be­cause, like, I mean, you know, these kids do this thing and tell it like it is, and I’m with them and they’re with me” — and so on.

Meanwhile, somebody is calling the two girls over. They say their names are Lori and Suzanne, and I’m introducing them to everybody. “… and this is The Human Moon,” I’m saying.

“Don’t try to put me on,” says Lori. She’s a tough little quint.

“You don’t believe this is The Human Moon?”

“I don’t think; I know,” says Lori. “I know what he looks like.”

“And this isn’t him?”


“Do you listen to The Moon’s show?”


“Do you like him?” — and this is my main mistake, this question.

“Yeeungggggh,” says Lori, shrugging her shoulders in a go-to-hell way and twitching the diaper bag around a little. The Human Moon is beginning to sink a little down onto the table.

“But he plays your kind of music!”

“He’d better!” says Lori. “If he didn’t, he’d lose his job.”

“But still …”

“You know what bugs me about The Human Moon?”

Don’t wanna know …

“You know those personal appearance shows he M.C.’s? You know the way he comes out on the stage and does that little thing with his hands and says, ‘Hi, kids! Where’s it at!’ and you’re supposed to answer back, ‘The Moon!’ You know that thing? Well, you know what every kid in that audience really wants to do?”

No —

“They want to puke! They all want to puke! That’s what they really want to do,


And she keeps saying it. She’s got hold of this word and she won’t let go. Syn­onyms — “feel upset,” “get uneasy” — they won’t do. She’s got hold of this word puke like a bear. The Human Moon is now totally sagged on the table. He is swabbing his eye sockets with a Canter’s paper napkin or something. I can’t tell. I don’t want to look. Certitude! That’s what this girl’s got, belting out this word in her see through, X-ray, diaper bag fantasy —

There is a wild play called Big Time Buck White now on at the Coronet Thea­ter on La Cienaga Boulevard. The local press has paid little attention, but it is building up the kind of cultish following that a few Off-Broadway plays in New York have managed to do. Hair, for ex­ample. This is unusual in itself, because almost no home-grown Los Angeles thea­ter has ever caused any excitement.

Big Time Buck White came out of the Frederick Douglass Playhouse in Watts and has an all-Negro cast, except for one or two ringers in the audience who rise to ask questions and so forth. Every other white man in the audience is braced for a night of Up Charlie. Instead, what you get is a carnival of Negro street humor. The play is about a group of Watts street hustlers who decide to get in on the poverty program. They form an organization called Beautiful Alleluiah Days — BAD. The play is staged as if it were a BAD meeting and the audience were the audience in the BAD meeting hall. In the first act, everybody is waiting for BAD’s maximum orator, Big Time Buck White, to arrive. In the second act he arrives and delivers a Black Power sermon. Only it is a weird sermon. It is fierce, lugubrious and totally out to lunch, all at the same time. BAD’s goal is hard to define. It may be status. It may be money, for wine, marijuana, groceries and other good things. It may even be Black Power. Whatever it is, you are mainly swept up into the horseplay and jiving on the stage among a collection of con men, studs, dealers, fags, and zealots with names like Honey Man, Jive, Weasel, Hunter, and Rubber Band, all trying to stake out their own claims in the BAD setup.

It is not the kind of play you would ex­pect to see at the outset of a movement like Black Power. It is something you might look for much later in the game. It is as if Gogol, in the mood of The Inspector Gen­eral, or Ilf and Petrov, in the mood of The Golden Calf, had come along and decided to send up everybody, on all sides, black and white, radical, liberal and conserva­tive. Which brings me to the writer of Big Time Buck White, listed as Joseph Dolan Tuotti. I say “listed,” because Tuotti is merely listed in the playbill, while the actors have the usual playbill sketches about their backgrounds. I mentioned this to Ron Rich — who produced the play and plays in it — and he told me, “That was an oversight.” But I know that others who have tried to find the playwright have not been able to find out where he is or who he is. Rich describes him as about 34, from New York, white, of Italian descent, and says he used to work with some actor’s workshop in New York but that he can’t think of anyone in New York now who would know him. A Coronet Theater employee, however, told me Tuotti was black; also that he already feels he has “gone far beyond this play in his new work, really far out.” Rich says that Tuotti came around the Frederick Douglass Writer’s Workshop in Watts with the play and that they showed it to Budd Schulberg, who encouraged them to stage it. “Joe and I co-wrote a lot of it,” says Rich, “and we are co-owners of the property.” All this may be building up a mystery where there really isn’t one — but in any case, anyone who can write dialogue that grabs an audi­ence the way this man can should step forward and have an ice cream cone.

Every actor on the stage, by the way, is a star comedian by the time the play is over. There are no minor roles. Four of the actors, Rich, Kirk Kirksey, Van Kirk­sey, Arnold Williams and Dick Williams, have a long track record on the stage, in the movies and TV. A sixth, David Moody, playing Honey Man, has no previous stage credits but is published in the Watts writers’ anthology, From the Ashes.

Rich says he has been approached from several quarters about bringing the play to New York in the fall. If it gets here, there may be a lot of gurgling, clucking, fuming, grinding of teeth … a lot of political emotions getting riled in unsuspected ways … a regular Cheyne-Stokes reaction, in short.

An incredible percentage of Los Angeles movie houses now feature porno sex movies, both of the old Times Square Dirty Girls “sexploitation” genre and a new genre, only one shade away from French blue, known as “beaver films.”

Often, sexploiters are producers who buy up footage of some film project that has gone broke. They simply splice in sex scenes. Some of their work comes out weird, almost surrealistic. A lot of stan­dard sexploitation films began as serious, even lofty-minded works by amateurs with a message. They will have something like a scene with a group of earnest young peo­ple sitting around a card table in a coun­try house playing cards and discussing God, Freedom and Immortality at about the cadence with which Kant wrote. Un­fortunately, they are always playing some game in which the whole deck has to be dealt out, like bridge or hearts. The camera follows each motion of the dealer’s hands, through 52 cards, while a conversation of unbelievable transcendence goes on. Then the camera fixes on one card — the eight of clubs — which, unfortunately, has no sig­nificance whatsoever. Then — bango! Ev­erybody is down on the floor in their un­derwear, giggling, kicking, screaming, pulling and tugging, in a terrific slaver­ — bango! — they’re all back at the table again, fully dressed somehow, still staring at the eight of clubs and talking about God … Freedom … Immortality … The sex­ploiters pioneered in fast cuts, you under­stand; no fooling around.

Beaver films, on the other hand, have the obsessive stare of the early Warhol films, endless fixed-angle shots of nude girls lying back on a hotel bed and wiggling their fannies with shanks akimbo to an aimless musical background. After the initial surprise, it begins to take on a tedium that absolutely defies venery. One begins to wish they would get dressed, crawl under the covers, throw an ashtray, do something. The only variation is pro­vided by the theater manager, who walks down the aisle flashing a flashlight up the rows of seats, no doubt looking for cul­prits trying to bowl M&M drops down to the front row.

The entrepreneurs in this field are re­puted to have made fortunes overnight. The overhead reaches some kind of mini­mum. The only requirement is a 35-milli­meter camera with a good lens and good lighting. Size and clarity are all the fans demand. The producer rents a hotel room, takes the girls in and starts shooting. Editing is unnecessary. The sound track is never synched in.

It is all perfectly legal, apparently. In any case, the theaters are on main drags and wide open.

I went by to see Ed Roth. Roth and George Barris are the giants of Los Angeles’ great art form, the customized car. Roth told me that car customizing is now dead, although motorcycle customiz­ing is very popular. Car customizing began during World War II when nobody could buy new cars. Kids starting raiding junk yards to put together fantastic creations, culminating in great baroque rolling sculp­tures that were custom-made from the axles up. The trouble, said Roth, is that now the kids have the money to buy brand-­new cars on credit. They may modify them, but only slightly, along such lines as taking off the chrome, putting on wide racing tires that stick out on the sides, or adding metal-flake paint jobs.

For years, as a sideline, Roth has pro­duced and sold novelties like plastic Ger­man helmets. “But the violence thing is out now,” he said. Roth has responded to the new era with an amazing piece of auto­mobile sculpture called the Peace Rat. He has taken a Volkswagen chassis and con­densed it until it is about four feet long. Over it, as the car’s body, he has put a huge sculptured rat made of Fiberglas. It is a playful, sympathetic-looking rat, however, and its humanoid right paw sticks up in the front of the automobile with the fore­finger and middle finger giving the Peace V sign. You sit on the rat’s back and guide the car with a steering wheel sticking back out of its neck and put your feet on an accelerator and clutch behind its ears. Thinking back on the countless ways in which Detroit has copied Roth’s and Bar­ris’ inspirations in the past, I am truly look­ing forward to the coming age of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler … Mustangs, Barracudas, Stingrays, Cougars, Impalas, Wildcats … but 18-feet long, 427-horse­power … cows, apes, whales, singing stars, politicians.…

Freaking Out in Los Angeles