Penny Arcade: Performance Artist, Comedian Who Caught Warhol's Eye

Entertainment | April 16, 2020

Penny Arcade: not afraid to say what she wants or show what she wants (iitaly.org)

Penny Arcade remains the most forthright, outspoken and infamous artist you probably don’t know. Despite being dealt a terrible hand, Arcade, who was born Susana Carmen Ventura, never gave in or compromised her outrageous persona. After trudging the road not taken for years, she found creative nirvana at the hands of John Vaccaro, founder of the avant-garde Play-House of the Ridiculous theater group. She also caught the attention of pioneering Pop Artist and New York art-scene kingpin Andy Warhol.

Born in 1950 she inherited an insanely difficult beginning that led to her running away at the precocious age of 13. From there, she hustled and fought her way to a life of performance, travel, and little fanfare.

Young Susana Carmen Ventura Had It Tough

A self-made woman (broadwayworld)

Born to an abusive mother and mentally ill father, Arcade never enjoyed a normal childhood. After unfairly labeled a slut, "I was perceived to be this girl that everyone had slept with when I was 12 -- no one anyone knew, but they had heard," she ran away and lived homeless for a year. Then she was sent to Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls until she was released at the age of 16. Upon her discharge, she stole money and moved to New York City

Piss And Vinegar

Arcade owns an brutal honesty that many people enjoy (stevepafford)

After dropping acid in the city and rubbing elbows with drag queens, she renamed herself Penny Arcade. Although she received zero theater training, she found a patron in Jamie Andrews of MainMan Management Company. Andrews liked Arcade’s unabashed style and one-liners. Andrews introduced Arcade to John Vaccaro, who in turn introduced her to Andy Warhol. 

'Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!'

A radical woman (northernsoul.me.uk)

No, these weren’t the names heaped on her by drunken crowds but the title of her most famous work. Dubbed the "Queen of Performance Art," Arcade created her own version of improvisational performance art. She often spoke her mind on gay and feminist issues as well as the AIDS epidemic. Above all else, Arcade wasn’t afraid to give audiences a piece of her mind and body. In the 80’s she became a revered figure in the New York theatrical underground. As she gained appreciation from other artists in the city, she became disenchanted with gentrification. 

No Shrinking Violet

A New Yorker through and through (stevepafford)

That’s when Arcade went global, taking her uniquely performative art around the world. However, she always kept a place on the Lower East Side and held on to her disillusionment with the changes in New York City.

As Arcade said, “America is obsessed with potential and dismissive of accomplishment. I fought that fight for a really long time in New York, and it’s quite sad, but the truth is, there’s no work here, even though the audience really clamors to see me and other people like me. There’s no longer an artistic community. It’s been decimated by real estate interests and the suburbanization of the city. I don’t think you can say that too many times.”

Success Despite The Odds

Today she shares her views with young people (amherst.edu)

Fellow performer Holly Hughes thinks, “It’s impressive that she’s been able to have such a long career in a scene that requires you to keep strange hours and where most people stop getting paid attention to after a few years. That requires a level of commitment from her. As the world of downtown New York bohemia gets erased by gentrification, she carries a lot of historical memory and keeps it alive.”

Describing a person like Penny Arcade always works best if you let them do it themselves. “I am considered a provocateur, but my intention is not to provoke people. My intention is to contribute,” said Penny Arcade.

"Now, how do you create something that’s powerful? By telling your personal truth. Your personal truth is the most powerful thing that you own.”

Tags: Andy Warhol | Penny Arcade | What Did She Do?...

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!