The red curtain parts to reveal Yozmit, “the last Korean geisha.” She is a mythical figure, a sexually ambiguous secret of the Orient—slender, with long black hair fixed in a topknot. She’s dressed in a miles-long white crinoline dress and perched on a platform that rises high above the stage so she appears to be twelve feet tall. A hush falls over the crowd of The Box, the petite theater on Chrystie Street.
“I would like to begin by thanking Mr. Simon Hammerstein for freeing me from sexual slavery,” Yozmit says with the round syllables of a heavily accented voice.
It is 2:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in November, and Hammerstein, the co-owner, co-founder, and president of The Box, sits in a private booth, his arms spread along the top of the banquette and a half-empty bottle of Belvedere on the table before him. Moments before Yozmit was introduced, Hammerstein had been dissecting the mood of the audience. “Before the show, there was a kind of a casual air in the crowd,” he said. “But after Act One, there was a marked difference. People were dancing in the aisles a little bit. They had their arms around each other.” Yozmit’s performance would launch the second act, and introduce the more salacious performances The Box is known for. “We’re about to get in your face, break that fourth wall, and remind you that you’re alive.”
When Hammerstein hears Yozmit’s faux expression of gratitude, he grins, pulls on his beard with the knuckle of his index finger and thumb, and shouts for our waitress to bring over another round of shots. He’s wearing a short-sleeved button-up blue shirt, smart gray slacks, and a wide grin. Hammerstein can be seen at The Box most nights, all night long, in his favorite booth a few feet above the rest of the crowd. Most of tonight’s show is new—with the exception of a musical rendition of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” performed by Raven O, The Box’s sinewy emcee, and featuring the Hammerstein Beauties in Sarah Palin costumes wrestling over a large brown dildo (“We’ve got a big black dick in the White House!”)—and he wants to be on hand so that he can give his performers notes at tomorrow’s rehearsal.
“Vodka?” Hammerstein asks, after refreshing his own glass.
“No, thanks,” I reply.
“Come on. Don’t be a girl.”
“The show’s better when you’re drunk, anyway,” he says.
This has not been an easy couple of months for Hammerstein. In October, the club narrowly avoided losing its liquor license after objections from members of Community Board 3. The collapse of Wall Street has certainly had an effect on his business; as much as Hammerstein likes to say that The Box is not made for bankers, there is only a certain number of New Yorkers willing to put down $1,000 just to sit at a table. The Box is losing another kind of customer, too; just last week, Moby, an investor in The Box and the kind of client Hammerstein very much likes to say the place is for, said in an interview that he no longer goes often, because the acts have gotten too much even for him. And most worrisome to Hammerstein, perhaps, are the recent allegations against him by two former employees of drug use and sexual misconduct.
These are the types of headaches familiar to nightclub owners, and although that is certainly what Hammerstein is, it is not how he prefers to consider himself. While doing the things that nightclubs do, The Box also programs a schedule of performances that, from his point of view, are as ambitious as any Off Broadway theater’s. This was Hammerstein’s biggest gamble: that he could produce profane sets in an all-hours, anything-goes venue and yet keep the vibe classy enough that no one would think they’d entered a sex club instead of a nightclub.
There is a tension in the crowd, a sense of titillation at the prospect of a line being crossed. Shows begin at around 1 a.m. and usually include two acts and an after-show. The lineup is never announced ahead of time, but these days it’s likely to include Narcissister, a woman who performs a reverse striptease, pulling her clothing—a skirt and stockings and tube top and scarf—from her orifices. Or it might feature an acrobat who balances on one finger resting on a dildo worn by his female assistant, or an act of vaginal bloodletting, or a performer dressed as R. Kelly appearing to urinate on an performer with pigtails.
Yozmit is plucking notes on the zither she holds on her lap. She begins throat-singing beautiful, deeply haunting notes, as though she’s summoning the spirits of long-dead ancestors. She pauses, strums and plucks a few notes, and all of the sudden her song sounds vaguely familiar. “My friends feel it’s their appointed duty,” she sings slowly, and it begins to dawn on the crowd that she is covering the Bill Withers classic. “They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me.”
Hammerstein looks pleased; the song was his touch. Now the crowd is up on its feet, ducking and weaving in the aisles. “Use me, use me, use me,” Yozmit belts out with her hands in the air, dancing in her chair. She contorts her body into something desperate and grotesque. “Use me … until you use me up.”
When Hammerstein opened The Box in February 2007, it was a conscious attempt to introduce something different to New York nightlife—and for him, a departure from the world of theater. The grandson of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, he had spent a handful of years in New York trying to make it as a theater director, with unsatisfying results. “All my friends who I would go out at night with and drink with, they had no interest in seeing plays,” he says. “It wasn’t in their vocabulary. It was very frustrating to think that you could dedicate your life to an art form that no one gave a shit about.”
As a kind of antidote, he had the idea of doing a late-night show at the former Maverick Theater in Chelsea. He envisaged entertaining a young and diverse audience, but the location was too bleak, and the format too straight-up traditional, to attract a crowd.
The solution, he realized, was to bring theater into the world of nightlife. “No one wants to commit to a two-hour play,” he remembers thinking, “but they’re happy to commit to a late-night hangout for four or five hours.” He teamed up with Serge Becker of 205 Club and La Esquina fame, The Donkey Show’s Randy Weiner, and Richard Kimmel, an associate with the Wooster Group, to create a theater reminiscent of New York’s old vaudeville palaces. They would support the business through bar sales, but Hammerstein would rely on an advisory board of boldfaced names—people like Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Josh Lucas—to bring a highbrow attitude to the place.
And incredibly, it worked. The format they settled on was vaudevillian variety show, with a troupe of sometimes-topless dancing girls called the Hammerstein Beauties and a nightly variety show featuring sexual acts and magicians and musicians and acrobats. “It was dinner theater,” remembers one longtime employee, who, like others I spoke with, requested anonymity when talking about the club. “We had cancan dancers. It was all class. The patrons came in dressed to the nines. And we gave them a free bottle of Champagne.”
Nevertheless, Hammerstein was a bit unprepared for the role he had created for himself; as The Box’s public face and creative mastermind, he was no longer just a backstage director. “At first Simon was shy,” says this employee. “We’d try to get him to go from table to table to introduce him to guests, and he didn’t want to do it.” He entered uneasily into the sexual material; once introduced, though, it seemed to accelerate on its own, becoming more aggressive night after night. “When we first started,” Hammerstein remembers, “I was easily shocked. There were a lot of numbers where, on the first night we did them, I said, ‘There’s no way we can do this. People are going to throw things at us, and they’re going to be horrified.’ ”
But Hammerstein rented an apartment next door, and over time, as The Box attracted long lines of exactly the sorts of patrons he had hoped to bring in, his confidence grew. There were no expressions of outrage in the audience; table reservations were going for a grand a night, with patrons readily spending another two or three or ten on Champagne, and there was no interference from the police.
After about four months, the balance between theater and nightclub started to change. There were still over a dozen performances a night, but one employee noticed Hammerstein dialing up the sexuality in each, and the raucousness of the stage show was infecting the crowd. Rumors started to emerge about performances of public fellatio and roving drug dealers and scantily clad women who might be willing to do anything if one paid them enough. There was a topless girl on a hoop swing, people blowing coke off their tables, and regular sightings of Lindsay Lohan, sometimes twirling on a stripper pole.
Everyone at The Box should feel like it’s a constant bath of Dionysian debauchery,” Hammerstein says. “That’s what I’m selling: mystique and mystery and sexual openness.” To keep the program fully scheduled, he conducts auditions for new acts at The Box about twice a week. It’s an intimidating process. Hammerstein sits with Kimmel, The Box’s executive director, on a couch in front of the stage, shouting into a microphone for the band or the tech crew or the lighting guys. Go find the costume girl! Get me some food! Why don’t we have fifteen silver dildos?
Over the past 22 months, as he’s refined his idea of what plays at The Box, Hammerstein’s taste seems to have narrowed and grown more extreme. If he likes a performer, sometimes he’ll try right there and then to fine-tune the act so it feels more appropriate for The Box. KENiMATTix are a pair of male gymnasts who performed their hand-balancing act at The Box on a nightly basis for about six months. “First Simon asked if he could oil us up, make us look shinier,” Ken Berkeley says. “We explained to him that we’re hand-balancers. We need to be able to have continuous contact with each other; oil just wouldn’t work. So he asked if we could do the act naked. Because of what the act is, that wouldn’t work either. So he suggested costumage, starting with a jockstrap.” (Hammerstein insists that if made, the suggestions were in jest.)
Before she came to The Box, an artist named Narcissister had been performing at burlesque clubs around the city, doing an act in which she emerged from a giant Russian nesting doll and then birthed several small dolls from her own body. One afternoon at rehearsal she showed this to Hammerstein, and they started discussing how to alter the act for The Box. “Simon told me that the smaller dolls don’t read because The Box is such a big venue—the people in the back aren’t going to be able to see what they are,” says Narcissister. “He asked me if I can do it with a larger doll. I said, ‘Absolutely not. There’s no way.’ ” But she agreed to experiment and was pleasantly surprised. “I realized that’s a gift that all women have.”
The “panvestite” performer Miss Rose Wood had an awkward first audition. “I had a number that I did that was a tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, and it involved, at the end, inserting the whip in my rectum. The difficulty was that I’d forgotten my lube. And so it was an unpleasant conclusion. Everyone in the house covered their eyes. Then Simon said to me, ‘So, can you pull a string of Christmas lights out of your ass?’ I said to him, ‘Well, you know, I’m Jewish. And so before the Christmas lights come out, I’ve got to dislodge the menorah.’ ”
“They have a very good eye,” says Rose of Hammerstein and Kimmel. “They’ve certainly helped me with a number of my acts. A lot of people going in don’t want to take direction. To which I usually say, ‘Look, if you go to audition for a Broadway show, you don’t get the part and then tell them what you’re going to do. You work with the director. You know, you’re offering to be part of a show, not to do whatever you want.’”
“When we first started,” Hammerstein remembers, “I said, ‘There’s no way we can do this. People are going to be horrified.’ ”
Hammerstein’s instincts range from the genius-tasteless (like when he said at rehearsal, “What we need is a woman who can sing with her vagina,” and an aerialist named Marsha nominated her services—they named her Queen Laqueefa) to the truly offensive. There was the time, according to witnesses, when he asked the trio the Harlem James Gang to perform in blackface. And when he asked a member of a music group to perform a skit with a dildo stuffed in her mouth. (Hammerstein denies both these accounts.)
The Porcelain TwinZ, who describe themselves as “world-famous performers and the pioneers of fetish-burlesque,” have said their audition was “one the most insulting experiences we have ever had to endure.” The twins, Heather and Amber, had whirled and twirled on cold alloy in strip clubs on the West Coast and elsewhere for the better part of a decade, and they were insulted that Hammerstein asked them to alter their act. “They wanted us to cut pretty much the whole art of our show and just leave the cum shot—you know, the finale,” Heather says.
The TwinZ clashed with Hammerstein from the beginning. It wasn’t just that he wanted them to cut their twelve-minute act down to four—it was, they claim (and he denies), that Hammerstein interrupted their first audition halfway through and asked them if they could play with each other. The TwinZ, who say that they were feeling vulnerable and feared they would be dismissed otherwise, requested that a stagehand find them a glass dildo. “We had a smoking-fetish show,” continues Amber. “It involved toys, but it was always just simulated contact. Simon was like, ‘Can you do it for real?’ ”
One afternoon a few weeks ago, I sit with Hammerstein in the mezzanine of The Box. Onstage down below, two female performers—former Penthouse Pet Justine Joli and Marsha, the aerialist—are rehearsing a new skit, a spoof Bert-and-Ernie pizza-delivery porno act. Justine pantomimes knocking on an imaginary door. Marsha answers, and before you know it, Justine is on her knees simulating oral sex. Hammerstein yells down to them. “Excuse me, ladies. Are you combining ideas like we discussed?”
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.)
According to this source, Hammerstein often would invite employees to his apartment next door. “When an act comes in, we may give them a trial run. We’d encourage them to stick around after their performance and mingle. A lot of the times, they’d end up at the bar, getting into conversations with Richard and Simon, discussing their act and maybe how they can improve it. That can turn into them staying out late and then maybe going to Simon’s loft.”
Rose Wood says she’d never seen any kind of sexual harassment at The Box. “I’ve worked in some clubs where I’ve been given three prostate exams before even taking off my coat. Simon is just a vanilla boy.” But other employees told me that sexual harassment is a frequent occurrence at The Box. “I was sexually harassed every day,” says a former performer. According to an employee (but denied by Hammerstein), he would often tease: “Do you want to fuck me? Do you want to suck my dick?” The former performer referred to Hammerstein’s behavior as “a sick power thing. It was like he was just joking—or that he wanted you to think he was just joking.”
That seems to explain, at least in part, the difference between The Box Hammerstein believes he has created and the one where some employees claim to have found themselves working. “In the beginning, it was a tight little group,” says the former employee. “But when people started quitting and we had to bring in new people, that’s when things got complicated. We had all evolved as a group. But when you bring in somebody new, you had to start dealing with figuring out what the person was willing to do, how far they were willing to go, what they would do versus what they wouldn’t do, what their tolerance was. Those new people hadn’t evolved with the rest of us.”
There isn’t much distance between raunchy in a good way (the kind that would entice a guy like Moby to invest in a project like The Box) and raunchy in a bad way (the kind that would prompt him to say, by way of explanation for why he doesn’t attend much anymore, “I’ve been to a lot of degenerate places, and rarely have I seen the level of degeneracy like I’ve seen at The Box”). But there is a difference; you know it when you see it. “The vision seems to have been lost,” says one employee. For this person it was simply when the staff stopped saying thank-you. At last month’s community-board meeting, one neighbor said he saw an ambulance carry a woman out of the club at 4:30 a.m. “Things have just gotten out of hand,” the employee says, and while that was always the point, it somehow has started to feel a little less fun.
“It’s gonna get mighty real in here,” bellows Raven O. We’re deep into the second act on a night when the Dow has dropped over 400 points. His red leather pants are skintight and his hair, bleached blond, is sculpted into devil’s horns. The sultry rhythms of Muddy Waters’s classic “Mannish Boy” fall over the crowd like a Mississippi heat wave: “When I was a young boy at the age of 5 / My mother said I was going to be the greatest thing alive!” The curtain parts and Miss Rose Wood enters the stage with a menacing gait—all shoulders and biceps—and a green bottle of Jameson’s in her hand. “I’m a full-grown man … I’m a man … I’m a natural-born lover’s man … ”
Rose is wearing a shredded black Hooters tank top, a short denim skirt with raccoon tails hanging from the waist, a massive brown wig, and shiny pink lace-up boots with four-and-a-half-inch heels. She looks like a truck-stop hooker, a lot lizard. She walks up to the edge of the stage, hips cocked like a fist, takes a big haul off that Jameson’s, and spits it all over the wispy boys and miniskirted models sitting below the stage. “I’m a maaaaan … ”
No artist at The Box embodies its spirit better than Rose, who has plied her trade in some of the grimiest gay and tranny bars this city has ever known. Case in point: This past spring, she came down with a cold, was congested, and decided before curtain time that this truck-stop-whore character is the kind of girl that would blow a snot rocket onstage. So that’s what she did—pinched finger to nostril and blew a ribbon of snot, which wharp-wharped its way into the cocktail of a patron seated in the front row. The young woman took up that glass and swallowed down a long, slow gulp and then handed it over to her boyfriend for a swig.
Tonight, she pulls off her tank top, revealing two massive breasts. Then she turns around, bends over, shoves a red thong to the side, and shows you her dark star. (At this point, it’s hard not to notice that she is completely shaved.) The skirt comes off next. She places the Jameson’s bottle center stage and lowers herself down over it, knees spread wide—legs like an Olympic power lifter, male parts dangling (“I’m a maaaaan”)—and lowers herself onto the neck of the bottle until it is inside her. She stands and shakes her ass. Then she pulls the bottle out, puts it to her lips, takes a long drink, and sprays it over the crowd.