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The truth is, I was kind of pretty, you know: Ellen Stewart

by on Jan.20, 2011, under NYC, The Press, Theatre

Surely you’ve heard by now that international theatre legend Ellen Stewart died last week on 1/13/11 at the age of 91.  By the time I got to New York in the late 1980s LaMama Experimental Theatre Club, which she founded, was already legendary.

I was thrilled to be a footnote in LaMama’s history years later in 2002 when a short play I wrote, a weak pastiche of a Broadway musical called “The Monkey of Oz,” was performed there as a part of a larger evening.

LaMama; March, 1965. Donald L. Brooks’ play “Fly.” From left to right top: John Brooks, Joel Thurm (stage manager), playwright Donald L. Brooks, JOEY LONDON (standing in the overcoat). Seated: Anthony Bastiano, Frances Mintz. Brooks generously altered the schedule of his play to allow for the ‘Cino at La Mama’ season after the Cino fire, canceling “Fly’s” final performance to make room for Tom Eyen’s Cino production of “Frustrata.” La Mama’s site lists “The Fly” as opening Mar. 10th, 1965.

Then there’s my Uncle Joey, a wise and aged actor from back in the day who has often spoken to me about being there “at the beginning” as one of Ellen’s regular ensemble of actors who were fixtures there and at its immediate predecessor Caffe Cino, which was frequented by Andy Warhol and his superstars.  Uncle Joey would later act in an early, forgotten Warhol film.

Uncle Joey also happened by Caffe Cino on the morning of March 30, 1967, the day that Joe Cino had gruesomely hacked himself up with a kitchen knife, and he saw the blood-spattered floor shortly after Joe had been rushed to the hospital.  Joe’s suicide attempt was successful — he died a few days later.  Uncle Joey recounted how two years later in 1969 a play by Donald L. Brooks was produced about Joe Cino called Superfreak: The Death of Joe Cino, which depicted his suicide in all its gore.  This upset some of Cino’s associates and led them to organize a boycott of the show.  Ellen Stewart also joined the boycott and banned Brooks and the entire cast and crew from ever having their work produced at LaMama again. In Uncle Joey’s eyes this was the only bad mark in Ellen’s record, because, he says, she never actually went to see Superfreak herself.  He considered it a powerful and meaningful show.  He tried explaining that to Ellen,  but she just smiled and walked away.

Still, he remained a loyal and unshakable Ellen fan.  A few years ago when an article about Ellen winning (yet another) prize appeared in The New York Times, Uncle Joey pulled from his obsessive, personal LaMama archive a similar article written many years earlier.  The articles make terrific companion pieces and nicely sum up LaMama.  I photocopied the two articles onto a single sheet and still use it today as a handout when I include theatre history as a component of my playwriting classes at New York University.

The first article is from the Village Voice, 1969, written by theatre critic Jerry Tallmer, the man who coined the term Off-Off Broadway in a 1960 Voice article.  The Voice also gave the first Obie award in 1965.

The second article is from the Times, 9/21/2007; no author given.

I quote liberally from them now:

Village Voice, 1969 (unsure of month and date)

CLOSEUP column by Jerry Tallmer

And From the Wings…

So now it is eight years and maybe 300 new plays presented by Cafe LaMama, and a new Off-Off-Broadway home at 74A E. 4th St. with two theaters stacked one above the other, the cement still wet on opening night, and Ellen Stewart recognized around the world as mama to a whole new generation of playwrights.

“My biddies,” she calls them, urging that every single one be named so that no feelings are hurt. That being impossible, we will just say she has started on their way “at least 100 playwrights, maybe 150″ of every conceivable variety, some of whom are already up in the big time.

Ellen Stewart doesn’t like much to talk in any detail about herself or the past. These facts do emerge:

She was born in Alexandria, La., “and spent my life in Chicago.” She is a handsome woman of enormous class and style and joy of life, and her speech is geechee – “Zthees is Cafe La Mama, dedicated to zthee playwright” — coming down to her by way of the Negro slaves along the Ogeechee River in Georgia who were her ancestors.

“I didn’t come from a hard-life kind of thing,” says Ellen, whose mother was a schoolteacher.  “I went to Arkansas State College in Pine Bluff, and after college I didn’t even teach school, which is what I was supposed to do. Shall we say, I drifted around, so to speak?  The truth is,” charmingly put — “I was kind of pretty, you know.”

And she became a mother. Her son, Larry Hovell, used to be a teacher and now works in advertising in Chicago. His is the father of her granddaughter, Sorata Ellen, 2.

“Oh,” says Grandmother Ellen. “I can give you one job. I worked in electronics. I went to Western Electric and I was too dumb to do anything in electronics so they put me in school at the Illinois Institute of Technology.”

It was around that time that a doctor told her “that I had some brains and that I would have more trouble, like a stroke, if I didn’t use them.”

So, in 1950, wanting to become a fashion designer, she flipped a coin. “Heads I go to San Francisco, tails to New York. Blacks couldn’t go to fashion school in Chicago.”  It came up tails and New York. She landed a job in the powder room at Saks Fifth; three months later they made her an executive designer. Seven years later she went off into freelance designing, the means by which she still supports herself with lines of playwear for Victor and Joseph Bijou of University Place.

It was in 1961 that she started to fulfill a lifelong dream by opening the first Cafe La Mama in a tiny basement on E. 9th St.  She had in mind for her first playwright her foster-brother Fred Lights, who is today a stage manager for NBC.  Subsequently driven from pillar to post by every form of city and union officialdom, she survived it all, moving, going on, moving, going on, at last receiving a big Rockefeller grant ($65,000) and a bigger Ford grant ($139,000) which have made this last move to E. 4th St. possible.

If lots of previously unknown people have been helped by Ellen, lots of people have helped her, not least Tom O’Horgan, the director who started with Ellen and who now has contributed $10,000 to LaMama out of his proceeds from “Hair,” and Jules Weiss, a retired builder “who has helped me in everything,” most particularly the renovation at the new building which is an old building going back to when it was put up for a German music society in 1863.


The New York Times, September 21, 2007

La MaMa Founder Wins Prize

Ellen Stewart, founder and artistic director of the LaMama Experimental Theatre Club in the East Village, joined the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meruon as winners yesterday of the $125,000 Praemium Imperiale arts awards…Given by the Japan Arts Association and announced at the Japanese Cultural Center in Paris, the accolades [are] for lifetime achievement in the arts in categories not covered by the Nobel Prizes…In a telephone interview from Italy, where she is working, Ms. Stewart, 87, who created her Off Off Broadway theater club nearly 46 years ago and has been its director ever since, said of the prize: “It caught me by great surprise. Although America doesn’t realize it, we are kind of known just about everywhere in the world.”

[images via and]

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