By James Maher
Name: Phillip Giambri
Occupation: Storyteller, Submariner, Actor, Theatre Sound Tech, OTB Announcer, Computer Systems / Network Administrator.
Location: St. Marks between 1st and 2nd Avenues.
Time: 1:00pm on Monday June 17th
I’ve been here a long time. I’m from Philadelphia originally. I was in the military when I was 18 and I got out at 22. I was down in a submarine. It’s a strange life. Then I went back to Philly and I went to a drama school for 3 years. Then I moved to New York for Summer Stock [Theatre]. I was passing through New York on my way to California and was taking some acting classes with Stella Adler and I kind of got sidetracked.
The first job I got was on 4th Street between 2nd and the Bowery. It was a good theater block. Cafe La MaMa was there and the Playwrights Horizons and the Fortune Theatre. There was a lot going on in that little neighborhood. So the first job I got was as an assistant stage manager, a sound man, and an understudy for Michael Douglas for the very first play he was ever in in New York, called 'City Scenes.' Dominic Chianese, the Uncle from 'The Sopranos' was in it as well as Raúl Juliá.
I got to move down here by way of the West Village. I moved in with a lady on Washington Place for awhile and when that ended I had nowhere to live. I was going to the School of Visual Arts for awhile and I slept in my instructors loft until he got tired of me, so I moved in with acting friends from Summer Stock on East 9th Street for a couple months. It was really awkward because there were four of us living in a tiny apartment. We had to smoke a lot of dope to stay sane.
So they helped me get the apartment on St. Mark's Place across from the Electric Circus — building number 26. In the ‘60s and early 70s, the Electric Circus was like the Studio 54. It was like a happening place. You would take acid or mescaline or mushrooms or something and go in there and the whole place was designed to make you go bizarro.
I only wanted to be an actor and at the time I erroneously thought that if I worked in the theater rather than doing some regular menial task that at least I would get to know people. Just the opposite happened. Over 3 or 4 years, I gained such a reputation as a competent technical person, who were hard to find outside the union, that it was all the jobs I was getting. I would audition for a part for a Broadway producer, who would know me cause I did his sound work and he would say, ‘C’mon Phil, actors are a dime-a-dozen. We need a stage manager.’
I wound up managing a recording studio that worked with the theater for several years, while I was still looking for acting work. I was the manager, but every summer I laid myself off because we did only theater recordings mostly, and rented sound equipment to theaters and there was no work in the summer. So we’d sit out front on the stoop and smoke dope and drink wine all summer. I did that for like 4 or 5 years in the early ‘70s. It was kind of like a four-year party. People were in and out all the time, crashing, the building was very liberal in terms of sexuality and drugs and stuff. That was around ‘70 to ‘75 or ‘76.
I started to grow up a little when I met my wife. We went on our first date to the midnight movie show at the St. Marks Theatre to see 'Reefer Madness.' It cost $1 and you could bring your own food in and your own weed in and you could sit there all night and nobody would ever hassle you.
In ’74, we formed a St. Marks block association. There was a very influential guy in the neighborhood, Jim Rose, who ran the The Eastside Book Store. He became the head of the block association and we were just overwhelmed with crime in the neighborhood. Once the hippie thing wore off, all that were left were drug addicts and opportunists. It turned from the Summer of Love in ‘67 and ’68 and started really getting dark around ‘73. We realized there were 17 Methadone clinics in the neighborhood and there were all these junkies going there regularly and supporting their habits by beating us up and taking our money. We had the men’s shelter on 3rd street where every crazy person in New York State that got out of a mental hospital or prison was sent to, who were going around killing people and beating people up. We had several cops shot in the neighborhood. It was getting ugly.
I was the police department representative of the block association, so I would get all the crime statistics every month and what a wake up call that was, when you’re actually getting the numbers. We also had fundraising street fairs to try and improve the neighborhood. We got gates and window boxes put in front of the ground floor apartments.
We succeeded in getting the police commander changed in the Precinct. I used to go to all the police meetings and this new guy came in named Gunderson, back in ’75, and he changed everything down there. The 9th Precinct had the reputation, if you got out of the Police Academy you had to learn to be a bag man, and they sent you to 5th Street to learn that. It was a very crooked place. That was part of our problem — the cops had their own thing going on and they couldn’t give a shit about what we did. So with a little muscle and a little politicking, we got rid of the commander down there and they brought this guy Gunderson from Staten Island. He was a hard case who didn’t smile. Nobody liked him over there. We loved the guy. He cleaned the whole Precinct up.
At the time, all the cops kept their windows rolled up and just drove by everywhere and didn’t get out of the car. So we fought to get a permanent foot-beat cop, which they never did in those days. Gunderson said he couldn’t justify one permanent person there since they were so shorthanded in cops, so a friend of mine and I went around at night and took pictures of all the cops, what they used to call cooping, when they’re sleeping on duty in their car and they’re supposed to be patrolling. We had a picture of about 25 cops cooping and we brought them in and said we either get a beat cop or somebody uptown is gonna see this.
So we got a beat cop named George and he lasted here almost 10 years. He was a really sweet guy who used to go to everybody’s birthday parties, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, and that was at a time when everybody hated the cops. He was like a part of the neighborhood and I don’t think he ever drew a gun in his life.
To be continued... next week...
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.