a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘Nancy Heiken’

Ellen Stewart, the legendary “La Mama” passes.

I’m a bit bewildered by the events of yesterday. I attended the wake of the late Ellen Stewart, LaMama herself, who started my career, and who was a major figure in my life.  The wake was an incredibly uplifting experience. Paradoxically. Wakes are always kind of frightening, in and off themselves, but this was not. There was soooo much love and joy and peace. Ellen’s great spirit was THERE.

She was one of the legends of our time. An African-American woman who broke through barriers, social and artistic, every day of her waking life.

A more fulfilled, influential, far-reaching, and yes, global life I really can’t imagine. That one woman did all these extraordinary things is just mind-boggling.

Her influence in MY life was extraordinary. She was the first person to say “Yes” to my hopes and dreams of breaking into Show Business. She allowed me in to her “home” of “La Mama” and I was one of her “babies.” I first stepped in the door of the red-rimmed building on 74A East 4th St. on October 1970. She passed at 91.

The first day I got to LaMama and the first things I remember are people were saying that (a) “Ellen is in St. Vincent’s(the West Village hospital)again.” Followed not long after by people saying(b) “Ellen is in Europe.”

The two statements seemed absolutely contradictory and yet those two sentences really summed up the dicotomy of  her life.

It seemed once I got to know her that every time she got out of the hospital (it was always unspecified “heart problems”) she got on a plane and went to some AMAZING theatrical event somewhere unexpected in the world, seemingly founding La Mama companies wherever she would go.

She had La Mamas all over the universe and she truly defined the words “multi-cultural” before there even was such a word.

At her wake, there was a closed coffin, white  flowers ( where they lilies?) everywhere and a (marvelous slide show was playing in the West Village funeral parlors two rooms that were PACKED with Ellen’s “babies.”

She HAD to play the mother role and it was one she excelled at, obviously, and you were always the “baby” no matter how old you got to be.

She started as an elevator operator at Sak’s Fifth Avenue, probably the only job opened to her in that esteemed store. Still an epitome of style. And boy, did Ellen have style! She designed her own dresses, totally self-taught, and wore them in her elevator, and they were sooo strikingly orignal, that the stores’ owners took note and before you knew it, she was DESIGNING clothes at Sak’s! The first black woman to do that. And this was in the ’50s! There were many early black and white photos of Ellen from those days, and before. She certainly seemed model-beautiful. Breathtakingly so. It was wonderful to see fashion shots of her from a time before we knew her as La Mama.

By the early ’60’s she had started her coffee-house theatre and called it La Mama, since “Mama” was what everybody was calling her then. And it was in an East Village basement. And it was the beginning of the Off Off Broadway movement that was to change the American theatre.

La Mama was totally color-blind and so was her theater. It was one of the first places that African-Americans could find a home. One of her brothers wanted to do a play he had written but according to Ellen “He broke his soul” trying to find a place to do it. And so she started her coffee house theater.

I would say single-handedly she started the Off Off Broadway movement but actually there were two other theatrical spaces that were burgeoning simultaneously with La Mama. The Cafe Cino, run by the late Joe Cino. And the Judson Poets’ Theater which was housed in the famous Greenwich Village Church right on Washington Square. And the late Rev. Al Carmines was its’ resident composer, turning out new musicals every single week, it seemed, that the congregation appeared in. EVERY single member who wanted to sing, could sing. The chorus was enormous and filled the church was years with celestial music.

Ellen meanwhile watched her coffee house basement theater grow to the point that it had to move into a four story building, 74A East Fourth Street, which is where I met her, and which is where it is still functioning today.

I started as an assitant stage manager there. The PROP boy, in essence, for the resident GPA Nucleus which was at the time Ellen’s Black company and the all black cast were doing Ed Bullin’s “Street Sounds.” Future Tony Winner Mary Alice (“Fences”) was in the cast of a play that was nothing but monologues.

It was something I never DREAMED I would do and it started me in one improbable(to my VERY young mind) job after another at La Mama.

I worked the box-office guarded by two VERY vicious German Shepherd dogs, one white and one black, called Slick and Sooner. And I was deathly afraid of dogs! AND I was allergic! But Ellen made me do it and I got over both those fears.

I think she thought it was GOOD for me. Or anyone in her orbit, to do things they were afraid of and thought they CAN’T possibly do.

Over my protestations over Slick and Sooner and I being enclosed in such a confined space, I remember her saying “You’re going to be glad they’re there.”

And eventually, I was. The East Village was a VERY dangerous place then, and NOBODY bothered Slick, Sooner or me.  Ellen was of course, right, as she always was.

Eventually I started my career as an actor there in Sam Shepherd’s “Melodrama Play” as a stoned hippie who couldn’t stopped laughing.

And Ellen started doing my plays there, too. “Audition!” in 1972 and later “The Kitty Glitter Story” which starred Agosto Machado and later she showed my first film there “Two Saints” which also starred Agosto, the magnificent Oriental transvestite, who I had met around the corner at the original WPA when I was cast as Candy Darling’s mother in Jackie Curtis’ Warholian musical extravaganza “Vain Victory.”

I met Andy Warhol there while I was working on the box-office one night and Tennessee Williams, too. What did they have in common? Both were gay and both were nervous wrecks. Andy had just been shot and Tennessee was so worried about the opening of his new play “Small Craft Warnings” across the street at the Truck and Warehouse OFF Broadway theater, he was fleeing town.

I met most of the people who were to form my life there, and many who are still my friends today. My composer Donald Arrington and Susan Haskins and filmmaker Nancy Heiken main among many.

I could go on and on. And maybe I will, someday, with the title “I Remember La Mama” firmly placed in my mind.

R.I.P. Mama

Memories of Jill Clayburgh, R.I.P.

I met Jill Clayburgh and her beautiful, talented daughter Lily Rabe at a Drama Desk Luncheon at Sardi’s a number of years ago. Actually, it was the year of “Doubt” because Cherry Jones was on the panel. I think it was about something like “What the Drama Desk  Award Meant to Me as an Actor” because there was nothing but actors on the panel. Frances Sternhagen, John Lithgow, Cherry and others.

And Jill and Lily and I were sat next to each at this event which was quite lengthy I remember and the lunch came first.

Jill was talking about our mutual friend Amy Robinson, who went to Sarah Lawrence, as did Jill. They were both in Florida doing something together regardingwhat ended in  the Bush/Gore mess down there. Was this before the election even? Were they trying to register voters? Oh, they were campaigning for Gore. That was it.

 I was surprised, and Jill was saying about Amy “She’s STILL producing her movies. But you know, movies today are not like the movies they used to do (in the ’70s)” Which is putting it mildly.

Most recently Amy was one of the producers of Meryl Streep’s latest triumph “Julie and Julia,” but I knew Amy as an actress at LaMama, just having graduated from Sarah Lawrence. Amy was in the wild experimental troupe Grupo Bilingue with me in the VERY early ’70s, and had been Petlurah, Cossack in an Israeli play called “Toy Story” at La Mama, where I was the assistant stage manager! This was very early days!

Susan Haskins, now the producer/co-hostess of PBS TheaterTalk with Michael Riedel, was also a classmate of Amy’s from Sarah Lawrence, and both Susan and Amy were IN THE CAST of my first play “The Babs’n’Judy Show” at the WPA theater, directed by another Sarah Lawrence alum, Bob Plunket. It was a smash hit at the time and really launched my career as a playwright.

Amy played a talk show host(!) named Carmelita Pope, and Susan had a few lines as a “TV director”(!?!) Talk about prophetic!

Anyway alllll these Sarah Lawrence connections gave Jill and I plenty to talk about over that lonnnnng lunch.

Jill was taught at Sarah Lawrence by the same teachers that had taught Amy, Susan, Bob and also now documentary filmmaker Nancy Heiken who just had an international success this year with “Kimjongilia.” These were the great academic/experimental theater directors the late Will Leach and Jon Braswell.

I remember that Jill admitted that yes, she had participated in the Sarah Lawrence song nights, which was an evening of current pop standards sung by the undergraduate young ladies of SLU. Jill didn’t remember what song she sang. I think Carly Simon was a classmate. But NOT Yoko Ono.

Jill’s big film break, of course, had been getting the part of Carole Lombard, in “Gable and Lombard” which had launched her cinematically. She got particular praise for that portrayal, she thought, always being modesty itself, because people didn’t have a very strong view of Lombard, as they did about Clark Gable. James Brolin, believe it or not, played Gable!

She then went on to become the poster girl for the Women’s Movement in film after film that broke stereotypes of women’s leading roles in movies, probably forever, “An Unmarried Woman” being main among them. It shouldn’t’ve surprised me that Jill was registering voters in Florida. She’ll always be remembered as a seminal, political figure because of her great screen portrayls in the ’70s, which earned her two Oscar nominations.

She also told me that she got in to Show Business because her mother had been a secretary to David Merrick, the controversial Broadway producer, and so, she had virtually grown up on the Great White Way. And she and her mother both liked the universally despised Merrick. Her mother always took her to Sardi’s as a little girl. So she always associated Sardi’s, the legendary Broadway watering hole, with the happiest memories of her childhood. She knew the Sardi’s menu upside down and backwards, and knew all the nooks and crannies of it. We were having the Drama Desk luncheon on the third floor. I didn’t even know that they HAD a third floor! But Jill did. And she had been there many times.

Lily, her beautiful blonde daughter, was sitting between us at Sardi’s and had heard all these stories before. And I told Lily that she was going to get nominated for a Drama Desk Award for the play she was making her debut in that year. And she did!

Jill and I were soul-mates from that time on, and pen pals via email. She told me she NEVER answered the phone(!) but emails she always responded to. And as her work in this past decade kept shifting her back and forth between both coasts, emails were something she actively enjoyed doing. Since she never answered the phone!

She told me that when she was young, stalkers, etc. were a problem, but “not anymore” and she laughed, although she still never answered the phone.

Lily Rabe is as photogenic and as beautiful in her own way as her famous movie star mother, and of course, the great chronicler of Viet Nam, playwright David Rabe, was Lily’s father and Jill’s husband of many, many years.

Lily was playing Portia to Al Pacino’s Shylock in Shakespeare in the Park in NYC this summer, and she was terrific in it, as was the production as was Pacino. This was quite a serious dramatic breakthrough for Lily, who has consistently worked in New York theater over the past decade. She also, by the way, went to Sarah Lawrence.

I waited for her after the show to say “Hi” and congratulate her on this stunning success in Shakespeare, no less. But the security outside the stage door in the Park was kind of tight that night and I was saying “Hello” to two other friends in the show, Heather Lind, who just graduated from NYU and Hamish Linklater.

So when I didn’t see Lily emerge, I thought “Well, I’ll catch up with tales of her and her mom and dad later.” But that wasn’t to be…

The last time I saw Jill Clayburgh in person was after a performance of “The Clean House” at Lincoln Center. We had a long walk down Broadway in the moonlight. It was the year Penelope Cruz got nominated for Best Actress for the Spanish language “Volver” and we were discussing that. She was a member of the Academy, of course, because she’d been nominated so many times.

That silvery moonlit NY night was the last time I saw Jill Clayburgh alive, though we continued to communicate by email, and in recent years she was mostly in LA. I was shocked to hear that she battled leukemia for so many years. She never mentioned it. Never complained.

She was the epitome of “A Class Act.”

R.I.P. Jill. A great actress, a great lady, a great spirit, a great loss.

PS: I never had the great good fortune to have Jill as a guest on my program, but you can see her in a very nice clip that’s in Main Frame at www.youtube.com/theatertalk

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