Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ellen Stewart, La Mama of all New York

Ellen Stewart has died, La Mama herself -- old, venerable, full of years, ringing her bell and raising hell to her dying instant, but still: It's a different New York now. For a glorious time it was the New York she made. Now it's not; it's Donald Trump's New York, Rudolph Giuliani's New York, Bloomberg's New York, Julie Taymor's New York.

She came from Chicago (though she spoke with a mad self-devised faux-Caribbean accent) and started producing theater Off Off Off Broadway before there was an Off Broadway scene, in the early 1960s -- the police saw a lot of white men (actors, auditioning) going to see this black woman who lived below street level in an old storefront on the (then) utterly disreputable and unsafe Lower East Side. They drew the natural conclusion, and busted her for prostitution. She crowed about that!

She started a restaurant, Café LaMama, because she couldn't afford a theater license but could afford a cabaret license, and she gave every sort of entertainment on its tiny stage, while comestibles were ... more honored in the breach than in the observance. Your eyes would bug out at the list of her alumni! Tom Eyen, Tim Miller, David Sedaris, John Kelly, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jeff Weiss, Andrei Serban.... LaMama (accent on the last syllable, please) became a veritable Alcina, the witch of Ariosto's poem (and so many operas), Manhattan her enchanted island, where every star-struck kid was transformed into a flowering tree or voracious menagerie animal of art!

A year or two ago I went to a revival of Tom Eyen's "Why Hannah's Skirt Won't Stay Down," a tour-de-force which got Eyen noticed because the only character on stage besides Hannah was a beautiful youth, stark naked. This was not common at the time and got the whole production hauled off to court. The revival starred the original Hannah, back to celebrate its fortieth anniversary ... and a boy who couldn't have been in the original, not having been born yet back then. Ellen introduced it, bell a-ringing, and pointed out a demure, very respectable lady in the audience as "the one who put up the bail money for me when this play was closed. So you see," she added, "sometimes the things I tell you are actually true."

By the time she died last week, the city had sold her (for one dollar) a huge building with theaters in it on East Fourth Street, named it the Ellen Stewart, and she could sell tickets to tell her tales of the tours of Baalbek, the arrests for indecent exposure, and was still bringing in the latest companies from Tunisia and Belarus, holding international marionette festivals, seeking out talent, and attempting to complete her project to rewrite and stage every Greek tragedy. No one could do what she did today on the sort of shoestrings she worked on for her first thirty years of producing.

What will kill New York, however, is that there is no place for dirt-poor but creative young kids to live and interact for a couple of years while they figure out what they want to do artistically; there was in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. You could get a roach-infested, toilet-in-the-hall, tub-in-the-kitchen, muggers behind every potted plant, cold-water flat for $18 a month on the Lower East Side in 1970. (I know. I went home with guys who lived in such places.) Now it's $1000 a month as far out as Bushwick in darkest Brooklyn -- forget Manhattan! I don't know how they do it. Fewer and fewer of them will.


Anonymous said...

quello che stavo cercando, grazie

Robert Patrick said...

My video memories of Ellen:

Lita Villa-Coult said...

Very Enjoyable and Informative Read! Thank - you for that NY Tidbit! Savored and Appreciated!