a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘Off Off Broadway’

Helen Hanft (1934-2013) A Great Actress Passes. She was my Muse.

It is with great grief and shock that I am saddened to report the passing of one of America’s great actresses, Helen Hanft. She was 79 and it was very sudden.

I had the great good fortune to have had known and worked with Helen for nearly 40 years. She was the greatest of inspirations to me as a playwright and actor and director, too.

I wrote nearly a dozen plays for Helen including “Reety in Hell”(1973) at the WPA , “The Kitty Glitter Story” (1974) at La Mama E.T. C., “Stoop” and “London Loo” two one-woman one-acts which she performed together as a one woman show (1977) at the Van Dam Theater, “The Blonde Leading the Blonde” at the Theater for the New City(1982) and “Bambi Levine, Please Shut Up!” in 1996 also at La Mama. Among others.

Renowned for her great comedic sense, I was always trying challenge her as a dramatic actress as well. She had the chops.

She was always acting from an early age, having attended the Performing Arts High School where classmates included Dom DeLuise, Rita Gam, and the artist Shelley Estrin, whom she remained friends with through the years.

Helen always remembered Sidney Lumet spending more time on Dom De Luise. Although both clearly future comedians, Lumet called Helen “too happy-go-lucky.”

She and I met in early 1973 when we appeared together as actors at the WPA Theater in a production of Sardou’s original play of “Tosca” on which the Opera was based. The play differs from the Opera in that there is an entire Second Act that Pucinni deleted when he musicalized it. And Helen and I played characters that do not appear in the opera. She was Marie, Queen of Naples. And I was the Marquis D’attavanti.

A little nervous upon meeting her I said, “Are you the legend Helen Hanft?” and she rolled her eyes delightedly and said “Yes….” drawing out the word for dramatic emphasis as only Helen could.

Many people are surprised to find that Helen and I were married by the Rev. Al Carmines at the Judson Church, where he also lived. It was circa 1975 and Sweet William Edgar, with whom she was appearing Off Broadway at the time in “Women Behind Bars” was one of the two witnesses.

Al Carmines, a legend himself, said to us, at the time, ” This is a religious service. I am a clergyman but you have to go down to City Hall and get the license and the blood tests.” Helen and I never did.

And Al said, “But this a spiritual marriage. In the eyes of God, you are forever united.” And it was true.

She was my Muse.

Bobby Cannavale Trimuphs at Drama Desk Awards!

I’m very happy this morning to report that that great underestimated(but not by me) actor Bobby Cannavale won the Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in a Play for “The Motherfucker with a Hat.” It was richly deserved. Congratulations, Bobby!

And now on to the Tonys!

Also winning big was “Book of Mormon” with five wins, but none of them in the acting categories.

And now on to the Tonys!

Are the Drama Desks a bellweather for the Tonys? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

I think this does help Norbert Leo Butz who won for “Catch Me If You Can” as the beleaguered good guy FBI agent Hanratty. Tom Hanks played him in the movie. This was the only award that “Catch Me” got…

Will the Tonys follow suit? Perhaps. But the fabulous Butz already has WON a Tony and recently for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Do the Tony voters take that into consideration? I think they do. But this does help him.

Another head-scratcher was the lovely Laura Benanti who won in the VERY competitive Best Featured Actress in a Musical category for the long-closed “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

I saw it and reviewed it, not favorably. It was a mess. But Laura was very, very good as the MOST nervous of all the Nervous women. The Drama Desk notably does not care if a show is closed or not. Laura is nominated for a Tony, too. Along the Patti LuPone from “Nervous.”

The Tonys DON’T usually give one of their most-prized awards(since they are seen on National television) to a show that’s closed. And Laura has also won, and recently, for “Gypsy.”  Tammy Blanchard, who was not nominated for a Drama Desk (for “How to Succeed…”) and Nikki M. James(“Book of Mormon”) was nominated for BOTH are all competing in that red hot category.

The patchy “Anything Goes” got five Drama Desk Awards including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Choreography for director Kathleen Marshall.

More on all hoopla this later. I have to dash to the Waldorf to interview Christopher Plummer for HIS new movie “Beginners” which Focus is going to push hard for to get Plummer another nomination, and maybe his long-over due Oscar. We’ll see what category they put him in. A beautiful performance as a man coming out of the closet at 75, he could win in Supporting. We’ll see…

A New Play! “The Six Flights of Matilda Boosoms” coming up! Fast!

Dear Readers, dear cineastes and dear theatre-lovers, especially you New Yorkers, I’ve got a staged reading of my new play “The Six Flights of Matilda Boosoms: A VERY dark comedy thriller” coming up FAST! Next Tuesday night, March 15 at 7pm at the Ensemble Studio Theater.

It’s part of their Memberfest, and the great actress Judith Roberts(google her) is the Member whose festivities this is and who is playing the title role of Matilda Boosoms. A VERY presentable woman of an age certain, who lives in a six-flight walk-up in Greenwich Village. It’s set in 2004(though Matilda’s mind is in 1964!) and Matilda is finding it harder and harder to get up and down all those stairs. It’s beginning to take it’s toll on her physical and mental health. And in a post 9/11 world, she begins to think that her neighbors are out to kill her. Or is it vice versa?

No reservations necessary. 2nd floor theater. EST as it’s abbreviated is on W.59th street near 11th Ave, but the entrance is on W.52nd. More soon. Like the exact street address of the theater! Lolol…

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

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