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.