Nelson Sullivan Archive: 5 Ninth Avenue Project

One of the seemingly endless resources of inspiration from New York’s lost history in the 80s and early 90s, is the video archive of Nelson Sullivan. His POV (point of view) videos showing the behind-the-scenes action of the most exclusive and creative enclaves in NYC history are now taking on a life of their own. They’re like original video selfies which in the filming inserted Nelson into many of the  moments that we all wished we had witnessed first hand. Now it might be called vlogging. These documents have inspired everything from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Moschino couture collections to Marilyn Manson’s portrayal of Christina in the movie Party Monster. They are prescious snapshots of a time long lost that would’ve faded completely out of sight if it haven’t been for a documentarian like Nelson. More than 30 years after his untimely death, these revealing videos are finding an unexpectedly huge, diverse audience. 

For context, let me divulge that I used to live with Nelson in his large three story townhouse in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District with RuPaul, Lahoma van Zandt, Trade, his boyfriend at the time and Lady Bunny to name but a few of the building’s outrageous inhabitants. It had once been home to Herman Melville who wrote his  follow up to Moby Dick there. 5 Ninth Avenue on the corner of West Chelsea and Gansevoort Street, is where Nelson and his faithful German shepherd mix, Blackout, lived in a dilapidated turn of the century building. It was made from pieces of old ships and thus you could see through holes in the floor to the floor below in certain places. This was his home base while documenting the New York scene and the neighborhood’s inhabitants.

Because of his close friendship to Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, Nelson was able to bring his VHS camera into places where they would normally have ever  been permitted. He fearlessly videotaped Kieth Haring’s private warehouse party in Soho, went backstage with rich socialites at the Stephen Sprouse show at Limelite, and snuck into the VIP basement of the influential  pyramid Club on Avenue A while Deee-Lite, RuPaul and the Now Explosion were all hanging out post-performance. 

Nelson Sullivan grew up in South Carolina and his best friend was Dick Richards who had an early cable TV show in Atlanta Georgia, called The American Music Show.  That video archive is pretty incredible in itself but that’s another whole story. When Nelson passed away from a heart attack in 1989, the archive and camera went to Dick Richards. Dick then passed the archive on for protection and exploitation to NYU’s Fales collection who created the  amazing ‘5 Ninth Avenue Project’. Regularly,  the project parcels up little bite size edits from his archive and posts them on YouTube to the delight of people waiting around the world for more. The video footage is like an undiscovered Tiger King; a treasure trove of fabulousness just waiting to be unleashed. I will gladly narrate. Whole groups of Facebook and Instagram fansites have popped up to celebrate the life and art of Nelson in places as far and wide as Brazil and Japan. Since he narrates the videos with such exuberance, people feel they know him personally. It’s not uncommon for people to binge watch these irresistibly addictive videos like you would a Netflix series. 

When Nelson died in 1989, he was as part of a generation of gay New Yorkers that had disappeared with hardly a trace. No one asked at the time how he died because in New York at the time, gay men dying without explanation had become commonplace. His art and its cavalcade of characters, many of which seem to have just vanished, raises more questions than could be sensitively answered. Thankfully his videos document a generation of forgotten drag queens, art stars, performance artists, cultural revolutionaries, and the local color of New York of that time. John Sexx, Manic Panic’s Tish and Snooky, Ethel Eikelberger, Wendy Wild, Diana Brill, Tabboo, Chicklet, The Boy Bär Beauties, Patrica Field and Rebecca Fields, Sister Dimension, Julie Jewels, Rudolf, Dean Johnson, Details magazines Stephen Sagan, the Worlds’ Arthur Weinstein, DJ Anita Sarko, Suzanne Bartsch: the cameos go on and on. 

Nelson’s camera was non judgemental. It was very Warholian in its unemotional gaze. Whether his camera’s subject is club kid murderer Michael Alig or the New York Times’ photographer saint Bill Cunningham, Nelson’s camera treated all his subjects the same, never wagging its finger at their excesses. It was very ‘oh look who it is; it’s Connie girl. Or Sylvia Miles. Or it’s the Pop Tarts’ (who became TV content powerhouse World of Wonder). He lets the viewer decide what’s interesting, though his strong eye for art and culture curated every second. It’s hard to not be thrilled to see the last performance of transgender legends’ International Chrysis’ the Last Temptation of Chrysis at Mars. Or having a first hand account of the very first Wigstock drag festival hosted by the Lady Bunny in pre-pasteurized Tompkins Square Park. Or getting to watch like a fly on the wall during his absolute Gaga-esque conversations  with ‘Christina’ that inspired Marilyn Manson’s star turn impersonation in the movie Party Monster. Nelson even filmed RuPaul, the sometimes forgotten NYC drag queen sensation Lahoma van Zandt and me arriving in New York to move in with him, after driving up from Atlanta. He records our van turning the corner and captured us as we dragged our bleary faces out of the van (we had flipped the van on the interstate on the way up). Too many stories. 

What was he like personally? He was very generous to anyone that begged to be onscreen, but would cut them off if they got too greedy. He was very ‘Dad’ sometimes with us, his radical children but then other times he would be giddy like Bette Davis as Baby Jane in his depraved school girl drag. At times he was like a happy hyperactive life coach and other times could hardly drag his broken body up the steps because of his bouts of depression. Sometimes he was angry because we were so noisy and just plain ‘bad’. But he would always forgive us. Looking back he seemed more than a little haunted as if he knew he was living on borrowed time. Which it turns out he was. As the smoke cleared from the destruction of the AIDS pandemic that ravaged his community, it seemed people were finally ready to make peace with the high price we paid from the AIDS crisis that took the life of 35 million people. I know I couldn’t have written anything about Nelson soon after his death because I felt like I was running for my life sometimes, too. There was a desire to glance back at the past but never stare. Too scary and painful. Thankfully he documented behind the scenes and left us so many clues about what the 80s was really all about. If I know Nelson at all, I know he’s be thrilled that he has become a star posthumously. Inside secretly he was an attention starved kid that had dreams of being adored. That has now officially happened.

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