“Monster”: Fred Schneider’s MTV-banned video featured a rare cameo by celebrated NYC drag queen legend Ethyl Eichelberger

By on February 29, 2016

Back in 1984, Night Flight regularly played this fun video for Fred Schneider & The Shake Society’s “Monster,” which had been virtually ignored and even banned by MTV, no doubt because they must must have thought their impressionable young viewers might be scarred for life by hearing about the monster in Schneider’s pants.

While it’s pretty clear to us that everyone probably knew the women in the video aren’t shrieking about actual monsters, but about something else entirely — the monster that’s doing a “nasty dance” in Schneider’s shorts — we’re sharing this one today because it also featured a quick cameo appearance by the legendary NYC drag queen Ethyl Eichelberger.

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First, let’s set the scene by telling you a little about the tune itself. “Monster” was lead-off track on Side One of his side group’s eponymous first solo album, Fred Schneider & the Shake Society, released by Warner Bros. Records while his main band, the B-52’s, were taking an extended hiatus after the release of their 1983 album Whammy.

In addition to Schneider on lead vocals, the track featured his B-52’s bandmate Kate Pierson (doing backing vocals), guitarist and multi-instrumentalist John Coté and guitarist Tom Beckerman (billed together as “Tag Team”), and legendary Parliament-Funkadelic legend Bernie Worrell on keyboards and synths (he co-produced the album with Schneider).

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Coté and Schneider share the songwriting credits (Coté for music, Schneider for words), which was published by Schneider’s Fun Bunnies International publishing company, whose fun little company slogan — “The F.B.I. is after you!” — was printed on the album cover.

The song’s bouncy, repetitive groove and Schneider’s funny lyrics — and clearly we’re talkin’ about an intentionally humorous double entendre that wouldn’t have harmed anyone — is certainly the kind of fun dance ditty that lends itself to an excellent video treatment.

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Schneider went all out for the video. We see him dancing around in various new wavy outfits — including a shiny suit jacket and polka-dotted boxers and sock garters — and we also see an assortment of Claymation creatures, including a dinosaur also walking around in his polka dot pajamas. He even salaciously adds: “Gosh would you look at that thing, and I thought dinosaurs were extinct.”

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Schneider invited a few of his friends to appear in the video, including Tina Weymouth (from the Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads), and visual artist Keith Haring (who has a look of horror on his face as he turns from a painting and lays sight upon a monster), but what you might not have known at the time was that the video also features a woman seen sweeping up behind Schneider — and that woman turns out to have actually been the legendary NYC-based drag performer, playwright, and actor named Ethyl Eichelberger.

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Eichelberger was born James Roy Eichelberger on July 17, 1945, to Amish parents. Growing up in Pekin, Illinois — where he was known as “Roy” — Eichelberger pursued his singing and acting dreams by studying theater at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, then he moved on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

After graduation, and for the next seven years, he acted with the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., under the direction of Adrian Hall.

Eichelberger then returned to New York, where he changed his first name to Ethyl in 1975, and became a member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company — founded by Charles Ludlam in New York City in 1967 — where he not only acted in performances, but also designed wigs and even worked as a wig stylist for the Metropolitan Opera.

Very soon he became well-known in the New York underground and experimental theatrical world, primarily in the East Village, focusing on forging his way as a playwright and actor/actress in his own unique theatre works.

Eichelberger wrote and performed in nearly forty plays — many of them solo works where he portrayed many characters over the course of an evening — playing both male and female lead roles, in drag, breathing new life into his often absurd portrayals of a wide assortment of historical figures, typically re-imagining some of the great women of history in his own unique and often peculiar way.

Eichelberger as Klytemenestra at “s.n.a.f.u.”

Eichelberger would later say that he wanted to play the great roles — he could be seen breathing new life into Lucrezia Borgia, Jocasta, Medea, Lola Montez, Nefertiti, Clytemnestra, Casanova, Medusa, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and Carlotta, Empress of Mexico, to name just a few of the more memorable roles, often they were intentionally misspelled or renamed — but decided to recreate them himself when he realized, “Who would cast me as Medea?” — a question he posed late in life during an interview collected in Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo Performance Texts from the Twentieth Century.

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Eichelberger rarely revived any of his singular one-person plays, and so his theatrical pieces became the proverbial “talk of the town” in and around New York City, and theatre goers knew that it was important to see these performances as soon as they’d heard about them, as they weren’t likely to be repeated again any time soon.

In early 1988, Ethyl Eichelberger is seen chatting backstage while preparing for an appearance at the Pyramid Club. This video was shot by Nelson Sullivan (and all rights to it are owned by his estate).

Eichelberger’s plays and performances were produced at venues like the Pyramid Club, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, and 8 B.C., and later at more established venues such as P.S. 122, Dixon Place, La Mama, the Performing Garage and Dance Theatre Workshop.

Eichelberger also took productions of his plays on tour to such far away places as Australia and various countries in Europe.

Eichelberger as “Minnie the Maid” at P.S. 122

In 1984, at the time he appeared in Schneider’s video for “Monster,” he could be seen performing onstage in Leer, a wacky re-titled re-imagining of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear, during which he played the King, the Fool and Cordelia, all while accompanying himself on the accordion, concertina and piano, bringing them to life onstage while also doing cartwheels, the splits and other acrobatic feats, or rumbling a thundersheet for dramatic effect or, even more dramatically, eating fire.

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photo by John Dugdale

It was at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company that Eichelberger staged his re-tooling of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, now called Hamlette with longtime friend, actress Black-Eyed Susan, starring as Hamlette the Dame, while Eichelberger himself appeared as Gertrude, Claudius and the Ghost. He would write his play Saint Joan for her soon after Ludlam’s death, in April 1987, from AIDS-related pneumocystis pneumonia.

As Eichelberger’s own reputation grew, he began to venture into more mainstream theatrical productions, and he ended up be casted in larger theatrical performances, including a celebrated NYC Flying Karamazov Brothers production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Lincoln Center, doubling as the courtesan and the abbess.

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Eichelberger also appeared with rock star Sting in The Threepenny Opera, appeared as a cast member of the ’80s-era HBO variety series “Encyclopedia,” and he would later play himself in Oliver Stone’s film The Doors.

He was diagnosed with AIDS and was unable to tolerate the available medications, but apparently kept his illness hidden until committing suicide on August 12, 1990, by slashing his wrists in his Staten Island home. He was just 45 years old.

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“A night at Danceteria”: pictured are Ethyl Eichelberger, Keith Haring, Cookie Mueller and John Sex, at Danceteria, New York City, in 1984 (Photograph by Joseph Modica)

“Monster,” incidentally, was later remixed and given wider re-release in 1991, and this time the track ended up on the Billboard Hot 100 charts on July 20, 1991, peaking at #85 after a month on the charts. That eponymous-named album from 1984 was also re-released by Warner Bros., this time as simply Fred Schneider.

Schneider has said that the first time it had been released the band’s longtime label had failed to promote it, even though “Monster” was receiving a lot of airplay on dance-format FM radio — Schneider says the album initially sold just 35,000 copies — so he likely welcomed another shot at selling more copies with the reissue LP.

At the time, Warner Bros. were likely trying to cash in the popularity of the B-52’s then new song “Love Shack,” a hugely popular track that had come along after the release of their album Cosmic Thing, a triumphant return for the band after the relative lack of success they’d had with their album Bouncing Off The Satellites, released in 1986 but without any tour or promotion behind it.

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Certainly some of the reason it failed to connect with fans has to be the fact that the group was devastated by the death of B-52’s guitarist Ricky Wilson, at the age of 32 on October 12, 1985, of what was originally reported as cancer but was later revealed to be AIDS.

Following the two year hiatus that followed Wilson’s death, the B-52’s later emerged in 1988 with a backing rhythm section which included a former member of post-punk band, Gang of Four. Their first single, “Cosmic Thing,” ended up being the title track after it had first been the centerpiece of the soundtrack to the movie Earth Girls are Easy. Another track from the album, “Channel Z,” provided them with an alternative and college radio hit after receiving significant airplay on MTV’s modern rock show “120 Minutes.”

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When “Love Shack” was released — with a video featuring a cameo by a then-unknown drag queen/actress/singer RuPaul — only became their first song to hit the US Top 40, but it went on to peak at #3. That peak was matched
in early 1990 when “Roam” also charted at #3.

The video for “Monster,” meanwhile, can be found on their The B-52’s 1979-1989 VHS tape compilation.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.