Gentle Genius Ellen Stewart (Café La MaMa) Dead at 91

In 1961 I was a 17yo goof off who read “Howl,” whose hero was Jack Kerouac and dreamed about being “On the Road.”  I used to sit outside the door of the Metropole in Times Square to hear John Coltrane play.  I lived in the East Village, hung at the “Fat Black Pussycat,” watched girls at Washington Square, and drank at Stanley’s.

"La MaMa"

It was in this context that I met Ellen Stewart through Tilla Fruh, a co-worker at a temp service.  Ellen was a beautiful woman of about 40 who had a coffee house theater on 2nd Ave (I believe) and my early memories were of her paying off the city officials to stay open and the plays, often in the round.  I had something to do with Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” and a few others in a minor capacity.

Ellen had many roles she played. I knew about the theater, the people from the “uptown” who used to come and occasionally leave a $20 for the waitress who followed her passion for the dance.  Ellen was ever encouraging, never cross, and truly “La Mama.”

In 1962 I hitchhiked to California. – carlos

Ellen Stewart, Off Off Broadway Pioneer, Dies at 91

By MEL GUSSOW and BRUCE WEBER, Published: January 13, 2011

Ellen Stewart, the founder, artistic director and de facto producer of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, a multicultural hive of avant-garde drama and performance art in New York for almost half a century, died Thursday in Manhattan. She was 91.

Not only did she introduce unusual new work to the stage, she also helped colonize a new territory for the theater, planting a flag in the name of low-budget experimental productions in the East Village of Manhattan and creating the capital of what became known as Off Off Broadway.

She was a vivid figure, often described as beautiful — an African-American woman whose long hair, frequently worn in cornrows, turned silver in her later years. Her wardrobe was flamboyant, replete with bangles, bracelets and scarves. Her voice was deep, carrying an accent reminiscent of her Louisiana roots.

Her theater became a remarkable springboard for an impressive roster of promising playwrights, directors and actors who went on to accomplished careers both in mainstream entertainment and in push-the-envelope theater.

Al PacinoRobert De NiroHarvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia DukakisRichard DreyfussBette MidlerDiane Lane and Nick Nolte were among the actors who performed at La MaMa in its first two decades. Playwrights like Sam ShepardLanford Wilson,Harvey FiersteinMaria Irene Fornes and Adrienne Kennedy developed early work there. So did composers like Elizabeth SwadosPhilip Glass and Stephen Schwartz.

“Eighty percent of what is now considered the American theater originated at La MaMa,” Mr. Fierstein once said in an interview in Vanity Fair, perhaps exaggerating slightly. His play “Torch Song Trilogy” was developed there.

La MaMa became the quintessential theater on a shoestring. Salaries were minimal, ticket prices were low, and profits were nonexistent. For decades Ms. Stewart often swept the sidewalk in front of the theater herself.

But an adventurous theatergoer would be rewarded there. More than 3,000 productions of classic and postmodern drama, performance art, dance and chamber opera have been seen on La MaMa’s various stages. She would typically appear onstage before a performance, ring a cowbell and announce La MaMa’s dedication “to the playwright and all aspects of the theater.”

During the earliest days of her theater she supported her family of artists — her children, she called them — with the money she continued to earn designing clothes. She installed a washer and dryer in the basement for the performers, and many a visiting artist slept in her apartment or in the theaters themselves.

La MaMa’s range of activity was kaleidoscopic and multicultural, embracing an Eskimo “Antigone,” a Korean “Hamlet” and a splashy re-creation of the golden days of the Cotton Club in Harlem, directed by Ms. Stewart herself.

She was a theatrical missionary, scouting new talent abroad and planting La MaMa seeds wherever she went. She produced site-specific performances all over the world — a “Medea” created by Mr. Serban and Ms. Swados, for example, at the ruins in Baalbek, Lebanon, in 1972. Satellite La MaMa organizations sprouted from Tel Aviv to Tokyo. With the $300,000 MacArthur grant she bought a former monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turned it into an international theater center.

“If the play is good, then it’s good,” she said when asked about her devotion to experimental work. “If it’s bad, that does not change my way of thinking about the person involved. I may be disappointed in production values, but I’ve never been sorry about anything I put on.”

Ms. Stewart was born in Chicago on Nov. 7, 1919 and spent her childhood years there and in Alexandria, La. She was never eager to speak about the part of her life before her arrival in New York, and details about it are scarce. She was married at least once and had a son, Larry Hovell, who died in 1998. Her survivors include an adopted son, Duk Hyung Yoo, who lives in South Korea, and eight grandchildren.

Everyone already referred to Ms. Stewart as Mama, and one of the actors suggested La MaMa as a name for her space. The theater was called Cafe La MaMa, and later La MaMa E.T.C. (for Experimental Theater Club).

At first people were sometimes literally pulled in off the street to see the shows: Tennessee Williams’s “One Arm,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Before Breakfast,” Fernando Arrabal’s “Executioner.” Ms. Stewart would sometimes present a play — like “The Room,” by Harold Pinter — without authorization.

Neighbors initially tried to close the theater down. They thought she was running a brothel, she said in interviews. Otherwise, why would so many white men be visiting a black woman in a basement?

But the shows went on. La MaMa was one of New York’s first coffeehouse theaters and became a pillar of Off Off Broadway, which sprang up as alternative theater when Off Broadway began pursuing a more mainstream audience. As word of La MaMa spread, artists flocked to it.

Gradually federal and foundation grants came in, giving added certification to a theater that became an important New York cultural institution.

In 1969, with the help of $25,000 from W. MacNeil Lowry and the Ford Foundation, the company moved to a former meatpacking plant at 74A East Fourth Street, where it created two 99-seat theaters and office space. Ms. Stewart lived above the theaters. In 1974 she opened the Annex, a 295-seat theater a few doors down the street in a converted television studio. It was renamed the Ellen Stewart Theater in a gala celebration in November 2009. La MaMa also has an art gallery, a six-story rehearsal and studio building nearby and an extensive archive on the history of Off Off Broadway theater.

Ellen Stewart, Café La Mama Dies…


About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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