by Debra Keipp, October 23, 2014
The AIDS epidemic of the 80s had a profound effect on the content of sex-ed videos. The teen clinic at a Bay Area hospital where I worked was showing a new sex-ed video produced in 1979 called, “How to Put On a Condom.” It was an hilarious piece produced and shared with the hospital's teen clinic staff by comic entertainer, Jane Dornacker (pronounced “Door-knocker”), in which she suited up from head to toe as a penis, then proceeded to “slip on” a condom over her “head.”
We were all wondering, “Who is that nut?” when a doctor informed the room that she was a SF comedienne, dancer, song writer and singer with the San Francisco band, The Tubes. The point of her video was to demystify condom use for teens. The showing for counselors, staff and doctors was to see if it was age-appropriate enough to share with clinic teenagers.
I'd never seen anything like it. That was my introduction to Jane Dornacker. Disarmingly edgy didn't begin to describe her instinct for genius parody.
The Tubes were one of the first bands to create their own music video for MTV. Their 1983 single, “She's a Beauty” was a Top 10 U.S. hit and was the most frequently played music video in the early days of MTV. Their cabaret-style performance art said it all, right down to lead singer Fee Waybill's love of irony, sarcasm and costume. Fee sported platform heels high enough to cause a nose bleed. The Tubes' optimistic attitude had me riveted. The mere mention of The Tubes still puts me in a good mood.
I asked a friend the other day if he ever listened to The Tubes. A huge smile crept over his lined face as he softly sang, “Step right up and don't be shy, because you will not believe your eyes.”
The Tubes galloped through their genre one step ahead of, or behind, their audiences — seemingly unconcerned with order, always in good humor, especially with political satire. Wiki aptly described The Tubes live performance of “White Punks on Dope” as “combined quasi-pornography with wild satires of media, consumerism, and politics.” They starred with Olivia Newton John in the movie, “Xanadu” (1980) where they sang rock portions of the cross-genre song, 'Dancin' opposite... a big band. One reviewer described them: “The light-hearted dark humor, non-pushy rebellion and celebration of free-thinking difference created by The Tubes was refreshing during a politically oppressive era in American history.”
The Tubes hired hometown dancer, Jane Dornacker, in 1973. She had formed her own not quite all-girl band, “Leila and the Snakes.” Just about the time there was enough of Jane's music with “Leila and the Snakes” to have been released to the public as an album, Pearl E. Gates, one of the Snakes, re-formed the group into “Pearl Harbor and the Explosions” , taking the Snakes' band members with her in 1978, leaving poor Leila (Jane) behind.
An album of Jane's songs was never fully released in her lifetime. It wasn't until October 24, 2006 that former band mate and producer, Miles Corbin, released on his website, a full album of previously unreleased Jane Dornacker tunes from her early days with the Snakes. Dornacker wrote songs such as “Don't Touch Me There” , and provided lead vocals on “Christopher Columbus,” a song by cartoonist R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders
In the Bay Area of the early '80's many performers were surprisingly accessible. I enjoyed many of the same satiric entertainers with whom Jane liked to work, like Robert Crumb who I ran into often while eating at Brennan's in Berkeley. Crumb was stuck in time and dressed almost always like a 1960's press corp reporter right down to the ink stains and pork-pie hat. He had one clothing style: a white, long-sleeved shirt with classic 1960's-style thin tie to match the thin lapels on his cheap (thrift store) black suit which hung from his armature-of-a-thin-ass-frame. He will always be one bony man. His hat was the only accoutrement he changed, and then only with the seasons.
Rain or shine, the lenses of Crumb's black horn-rim eyeglasses were perpetually smeared up and filthy. My first impression of this was the child-like shyness of the possibility that if Crumb couldn't see out maybe he thought no one would be able to see “in.” But then, I'd always find myself shaking my head, “Why doesn't his wife clean his eyeglasses?” Oddly, for some reason, I never wondered why Crumb never cleaned his own eyeglasses. All I know is that each time I said “Hi” to Crumb, I wanted to take his glasses off his face, clean them and slip them back on, as if he was a child.
SF comedy clubs served as proving grounds for fresh work. The neighborhood intimacy of The Boarding House, The Comedy Club, and Keystone Berkeley seemed to be unique in the country. An evening stroll between comedy clubs in San Francisco during the '80's would yield you at least a curbside view of Robin Williams sneaking into Snortin' Norton Buffalo's music bus in front of the Last Day Saloon mocking his friend with the greeting, “Excuse me, Mr. Buffalo?”
There was a whole 'nother form of crazy happening in San Francisco's music, comedy and performance art scenes: The Other Cafe, Mabuhay Gardens, the Palms Cafe and among the comedians, Jane Dornacker, made the rounds. The Old Waldorf, and Warfield, the Paramount, Bimbo's and Winterland. The best comedy show in town was the women's restroom in the Kabuki Theatre during the Gay Men's Chorus Christmas Show… Or was it Halloween? Regardless, the Bay Area enjoyed good humor with its music.
Leila Jane Dornacker was always dynamic, and often first: she was credited in 1968 as the nation's first female mail carrier; she was elected homecoming queen her freshman year at San Francisco State, campaigning on campus from inside a birdcage. Jane was a slim costume chameleon inside the six-foot frame of a dancer. When Jane performed, you got full-body. Dornacker won San Francisco's Golden Cabaret Award three consecutive years for best female comedian.
It was during her time in rock and roll that Dornacker appeared in playwright Sam Shepard's jazz opera “Inacoma” at San Francisco's Magic Theatre (1977) and was featured in other works by the Overtone Theatre. There is “Anita Sperm,” a three-minute spoof on Anita Bryant's homophobia; only one copy in one library remains.
Dornacker received some mainstream notoriety for her 1983 role as the stemmy, solemn, mysterious, and prune-faced space agency nurse in the tongue-in-cheek account of the NASA Space Agency's astronaut training program in, “The Right Stuff.” Clad in pussy-cat eyeglass frames while remaining exactly humorless in her role as the merciless Nurse Murch, Dornacker frequently brought to life oddball eye wear and simple props in her comedy.
“The Right Stuff” wasn't her only movie. Before her death, Dornacker also starred in, “The Stand-In” (1985) with Danny Glover.
The websites on Jane Dornacker are, sadly, like ghost towns: The building and store fronts remain with a smattering of desperate copies of some of her songs and performances in the windows, but behind the shell there exists a big echo padded with hardly any history. After her death it seems there were no reflective interviews with friends from her comedy days in San Francisco, or The Tubes. The silence makes one wonder in what shape she left her Bay Area connections when she moved to New York, and why did she move to New York? ...To go to a new life, or get away from the old one? Her music over the many years since her death exists only in a few clips linked to YouTube. For instance, I found no mention of the sex-ed video or many of her other even more memorable known works performed locally in the San Francisco clubs and for fundraisers. Apparently, there was no one to develop her vast body of work into a decent website after her death. Where are scrapbook clippers when ya need 'em? There outa be enough playbills, photos and news clippings to stuff a vaudeville trunk. What was Jane's story? If Jane kept an archive of her more obscure works, it was never made public.
In 1981 Dornacker gained true West Coast acclaim when she became “trafficologist” from 1981-84 on KFRC's morning traffic report. As eye-in-the-sky, she worked with Dr. Don Rose, the station's morning disc jockey. Old SF Bay Area KFRC drive-time listeners from the days of Dr. Don will no doubt have their own Dr & Dornacker fast-paced drive-time memories. Jane's performances, on and off-air, were as random as a hand of poker. She drew instinctively from a plethora of characters she'd created over the years. She fit right in, on radio.
As well as Jane Dornacker, Prairie Prince seemed to be the other “Tube” whom I happened upon now and then around Northern California.
Most recently, I saw that Prairie Prince drummed for Quicksilver in Humboldt. I heard the almost hip disc jockeys at KHUM in Ferndale exclaim what a good (unknown to them) drummer Quicksilver had enlisted. Maybe KHUM really didn't know who drummed that night. But the fact that Prairie Prince was underplayed on the bill, was so... drop-in wonderful and a lush surprise for anyone who can appreciate all the great musicians who've flowed through The Tubes, a band that once played with TWO drummers when Mingo Lewis (formerly of Santana) set his drums up next to Prairie Prince, who is considered the standard for perfect drummer, if there is such a thing.
October is both the month of Jane's birth and her death. This great comedian had barely been on the East Coast for one year in 1985 to work as helicopter traffic reporter for WNBC 66 AM radio, the station's eye-in-the-sky.
On April 18, 1986, she survived her first copter crash in the Hackinsack River. After having saved herself by successfully swimming to shore with the pilot, she reflected on that first copter malfunction in an interview by Mr. Three Dot himself... San Francisco's Herb Caen. “Jane-In-The-Plane,” as she had named herself, responded to Herb's concern for her safety with a blithe, “I'm a strong swimmer. I swam from Aquatic Park to Alcatraz twice, but it's different with a two-ton helicopter strapped to your waist.” She was a strong ocean swimmer from her years in San Francisco, and was always truthful.
WNBC leased their copters from Spectrum Helicopters; the company who was responsible for the maintenance and safety of Jane's ride. Trouble was, their deferred maintenance. After a few weeks, and against her better judgment, Jane got back in another helicopter and took to the sky again.
Death came during drive-time and game 4 of the World Series at 4:44pm on October 22, 1986, only six months after Jane had survived the plunge into the Hudson River. Dornacker, and her pilot crash-landed at 46th Street on the Manhattan Shoreline. The helicopter nose-dived 75 feet into the top of a hurricane fence on the dock; spun over the fence, and sunk into 15-20 feet of Hudson River. It would be 10-15 minutes before Jane was pulled from the wreckage, not breathing. Several spectators had jumped in to try and save her, but she died on life support several hours later. Miraculously, the pilot survived.
It's heart wrenching to hear the station's recording of Jane's last minutes. Jane had just reported to Joey Pinto of the Joey Reynolds Show, when on-air, the sound of the propeller blades sped up as the clutch malfunctioned. Jane stopped talking as she listened to the propeller speed up and the helicopter lunged forward into a nose dive. Leila Jane Dornacker gasped and exclaimed, “Hit the water! Hit the water!! Hit the water!!!.”
Static. Then silence.
Spectrum Helicopter Company had extinguished the life of the bravest woman in comedy. Leila Jane Dornacker had just celebrated her last and 39th birthday on October 1st, 1986.
The cause of the crash was due to a replacement of a clutch with faulty military surplus parts by the helicopter company, Spectrum Helicopters, which was eventually held accountable in a settlement hastily reached three years later, for both crashes. It was determined that the mechanic for Spectrum picked up the wrong clutch (military) from his bench and installed it in the (civilian) Enstrom 5-28 helicopter, finally killing Jane.
Just a few weeks after her death, I remember driving by Carol Doda's in San Francisco and hearing that Jane Dornacker's former husband had also died a few months prior to her death. While having dinner with Jane and their daughter, Bob Knickerbocker collapsed and died in front of his family. KFRC's Don Rose had organized one of several college fund-raisers in San Francisco for the orphaned daughter of (Leila) Jane Dornacker and Bob Knickerbocker. Their daughter was only 16 in 1986, the year both her parents died. The fund-raiser was announced as for “Naomi Knickerbocker-Dornacker.”
Naomi Knickerbocker-Dornacker settled the wrongful death suit for $325,000, from not one, but two, helicopter companies held responsible for the death of her mother. Naomi's lawyer lamented that Spectrum, et al, got away with paying Jane's only surviving child a mere third of a million, probably because the teen was anxious to settle, and $325,000 sounded like a lot of money to her at the time.
Joey Reynolds, who was on-air with Jane when she was died, says his style changed forever that day. While doing his afternoon shift on WNBC, where he replaced Howard Stern, Reynolds remarked, “When that happened, I went and changed my whole thinking. NBC knew it very well and I became a little more compassionate, a little less of a wise-ass and a little bit more grown up.”
I remember Jane Dornacker vividly as the best all-around woman comedian in San Francisco. When she died, I regretted settling for Paula Poundstone, and just after Ellen DeGeneres made it big in SF comedy, I quit going to comedy clubs. It wasn't the same without the freshness of the fearless Jane Dornacker. I felt the same way when I heard the fatal news of Robin Williams.
Countless numbers of people have listened to the on-air recording of the crash that ended Jane's life. She'd appreciate the timeless irony of having at least stayed “current” on YouTube twenty-eight years after her death where Jane Dornacker is listed right behind Humphrey Bogart in the “Top 25 of the Most Famous Last Words Ever Uttered.”
Those of us who saw her perform, remember her still. And I remember her as I first saw her, creating a stir by trying to pull a condom down over her penis costume.