Born on April 12, 1943, in Floral Park, Long Island, Charles Ludlam was the middle son of Joseph and Marjorie Ludlam. His family lived across Jericho Turnpike from a movie theater in a house built by his father. At age six, Ludlam got lost at the Minneola State Fair, where he wandered into a Punch and Judy show and a freak show, which greatly affected him. He began staging his own puppet shows and plays in his basement until a year later when he was cast in his first play, Santa in Blunderland. Ludlam’s mother, a movie-lover, took her children to the local movie theater every time the marquee changed. This, combined with the family’s devout Catholicism, would also influence Ludlam’s aesthetic.
In 1953, Ludlam’s family moved to Greenlawn, Long Island, where Ludlam immersed himself in reading classics. In 1958, at age fifteen, he took an apprenticeship at the Red Barn Theatre, a Long Island summerstock. Later, he traveled to New York City to see productions of Living Theatre’s Tonight We Improvise and The Connection. This encouraged him, at age seventeen, to found The Students’ Repertory Theatre in an abandoned Odd Fellows’ meeting hall. With his new company Ludlam directed and acted in obscure plays like Madman on the Room, a modern Noh play, and Theatre of the Soul, a Russian romantic work set inside the human body.
In 1961, he entered Hofstra University with an acting scholarship where his over-the-top acting style brought encouragement from the faculty to consider directing and writing. Here he wrote his first play, Edna Brown, an expressionistic and semiautobiographical work never performed and subsequently destroyed. During his college years, he came to terms with his homosexuality and, upon graduating with a degree in dramatic literature, moved to New York City.