Volume 75, Number 40 | February 22 -28 2006

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Edith O’Hara on the stage in the Thirteenth Street Repertory Company theater

Facing eviction, theater icon vows show will go on

By Jerry Tallmer

This is a story with a great many threads. Here are two of them:

Thread No. 1: Edith O’Hara has lived in a three-story, brick-fronted 18th-century house at 50 West 13th Street for 34 years. During that same period of time, she has also run a small theater in the building. O’Hara was born February 15, 1917, which made February 15, 2006 — last Wednesday — her 89th birthday.

Thread No. 2: On or about January 20, 2006, the theater, care of Mrs. O’Hara, received from a corporation called White Knight Ltd., “owner of the premises,” a notarized demand dated January 19 “that you vacate and remove from the premises now occupied by you on the ground floor, basement and connected space located at 50 West 13th Street, NY, NY now occupied by the theatre on or before the 28th day of February, 2006.”

The January 19 notification further declares: “Upon your [the theater’s] failure to remove from said premises as hereinabove demanded a legal action will be commenced by the undersigned to vacate, remove, evict and or eject you from occupancy.”

The notice did not demand that she vacate and remove herself from her longtime living quarters in an apartment above the theater, and an attorney for White Knight has stressed to The Villager that “Mrs. O’Hara was never told … that she would have to give up her apartment. The corporation did not threaten to evict Mrs. O’Hara.”

Be that also what it may, Mrs. O’Hara’s daughter Jill makes the point that her mother “is still working 10 hours a day, and the theater is what keeps her alive.”

The January 19 undersigned was and is Stephan Loewentheil, a Baltimore, Maryland, dealer in and collector of rare books and documents. Googling him on the Internet, one finds that at an auction in April 2003 he bought, for $222,500, a data card used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission.

Edith Hopkins O’Hara, who feels she shares “the pioneer spirit” of her father, Oscar Hopkins, a logger in the panhandle of northern Idaho where she was born, is not about to tamely vacate and remove herself from the premises now occupied by the theater. At 89 she’s fighting back, “and my kids are fighting tooth and nail to help.”

Her kids — those she gave birth to, not the thousands of others — are the actresses Jill and Jenny O’Hara and guitarist-composer-lyricist John O’Hara, Jr.

It is not so very long ago that a good share of this city was in love with Jill O’Hara, the blue-eyed, black-haired lass who went from “Hair” to ingénue of Broadway’s “Promises, Promises.” Jenny O’Hara, who has had an even busier career, made a lot of people laugh in Broadway’s all-female version of “The Odd Couple.” Jack O’Hara, a sound-and-lights tech at the Blue Note on West Third Street, went from playing guitar with Jill in Village coffeehouses to inventing pub-rock with his Eggs Over Easy trio.

One of the troubles with vacating “said premises” at 50 West 13th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, is that Edith O’Hara’s Thirteenth Street Repertory Company has a show that’s to run there February 16 through April 7. It’s a play called “Conversation With a Kleagle,” it’s by Rudy Gray, and it’s about the Ku Klux Klan — quite fitting for “said premises,” which also once upon a time had a hideaway out back — an Underground Railway refuge for runaway slaves — under a lawn where the theater is now. Or so said this newspaper, The Villager, in a short dispatch of November 8, 1956.

The source of that fragment of history was a Marianna von Allesch, who, in the 1950s, had a ceramics workshop on the site. Access to the hidden 9-foot cellar is now via a trapdoor in the dressing-room area backstage. From 1941 to 1948 The Villager itself had its offices just down the block to the east.

“Conversation With a Kleagle” will be, by Edith O’Hara’s rough reckoning, the 400-and-somethingth play done at the 50-seat theater — “We got the seats ‘The Fantasticks’ had” — since she opened its doors in 1972.

(A previous threat to the 13th Street Theater’s existence came with a cash crisis in 1982. As my colleague, the late Curt Davis, put it in the New York Post that May, Mrs. O’Hara, then as now, “refuses to say die.” And didn’t.)

There is one play that has been running at Thirteenth Street, two or three shows a week, 52 weeks a year, ever since 1972, and that is “Line,” an early work if not indeed a first work by the Israel Horovitz who, prolific as all get out, has since become pretty famous. He lives not far from the theater.

The casts of “Line” — a short, astringent comedy about status — have encompassed lots of equally famous people over the years, among them Richard Dreyfus, Ann Wedgworth, John Randolph, John Cazale, Chazz (“A Bronx Tale”) Palminteri, Barnard Hughes (father of “Doubt” director Doug Hughes) and Horovitz himself.

“The Indian Wants the Bronx,” the Horovitz drama that gave the world Al Pacino, ran here nine years (though not with Pacino). Barry Manilow started here. Bette Midler one day popped in to remind Mrs. O’Hara that she, Midler, had started here. Norman Mailer, William Hickey and Lanford Wilson have worked here. Just for instance.

The great love of Edith O’Hara’s life — apart from theater (but of it) — appears to have been Art Smith, a leading actor and courageous quiet radical in what Harold Clurman called “the Fervent Years” of the 1930s and ’40s. I myself, as a youngster, saw him in the Group Theater’s “Johnny Johnson” and “Golden Boy” and only regret I missed him as Myron Berger, the nebbish father, in the Group’s great “Awake and Sing.”

Edith Hopkins met Art Smith at a summer theater in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, in 1940 — but first we have to get her there.

“I had no background in theater whatsoever,” said Mrs. O’Hara one recent morning. “When I was a little girl, up in the mountains of Idaho, there were no movies, no radio; I went to a little school with 10 kids in it. My mother, Mary Rosenbaum, died when I was 1. My stepmother, Posey, died when I was 11. We moved to Coeur d’Alene, and from then on I didn’t have a mother.

“When we moved into town, a seventh-grade teacher put me in a play, the most wonderful thing that ever happened. The boys wouldn’t be in plays. I played George Washington. I graduated in 1934, but had to wait two years to go to the University of Idaho because my sister Virginia and I had to take care of the house. Virginia’s dead now. My brother Charles Hopkins is a retired architect.

“In 1940, at the end of sophomore year in college, I came east to where one of the teachers had a summer theater at Rye Beach. There were three Group Theater actors in the company, and Art Smith was one of them. He was married, separated, not divorced. I didn’t know how to handle that. I went out to UCLA while deciding what to do about Art Smith, and I hated UCLA. Too big.

“Well, junior year I had this little red convertible, and one day another little red convertible pulled up next to me, and that was a gentleman named John O’Hara, not the great writer but a traveling salesman. I started dating him. He kept pushing to get married. I told him goodbye, went to spend a couple of weeks with my dad, and John O’Hara appeared at my doorstep.

“All right, we got married. Had the three kids. Settled down in a tiny town, Warren, Pennsylvania, where they had a wonderful library and good community theater. I always loved words, books, reading. I decided I would start a little children’s theater, from first grade to high school and everywhere in between.

“This was in the 1950s. When Johnny [John Jr.] was 13, Art Smith and I went and ran a summer theater together at Bushkill, Pennsylvania. Signed a lease and started my first theater, without a thought. Same pioneer spirit my father had. And I realized that I liked that — developing new talent — better than acting.

“When my kids left home, I got divorced. It was not a wonderful marriage. I gave my kids the freedom I had. They have one year of college between them. I worked four years as a newspaper reporter in Warren, then as a kindergarten teacher, and then in the third year of my summer theater we had a beautiful show called ‘Touch,’ really something very special, about kids ‘looking for more’ — should they or shouldn’t they? Harold Clurman came and gave it a rave and Robert Weinstein took it to his Village Arena on East Fourth Street in New York, where it was a big hit and ran a year.

“I decided to stay in New York and get myself a theater. I looked for the whole year of 1971 to ’72. Then I saw an ad in the Village Voice: BUILDING FOR LEASE. CONTAINS A SMALL THEATER. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

One recent visitor to that heaven was Rajan Verma, president of the Bombay, India-based International Centre for Cultural Relations. “He came here to study my theater, stayed here, was fascinated, had tears in his eyes” — and this past January, the same month she got her eviction notice, the I.C.C.R. awarded Edith O’Hara its Lifetime Achievement Award as “artistic director, producer and mentor to thousands in the creative arts.”

All of which cuts no ice if Edith O’Hara, at long last, loses her theater. That feelings on both sides are intense is underscored by the advice delivered over the phone by Stephan Loewentheil to this writer that “you would not wish to have your financial and professional and ethical salvation, shall we say, imperiled” by reporting “anything she [Mrs. O’Hara] told you” without getting the facts straight.

That advice was echoed, and made more specific, in several lines of a four-page single-spaced letter to The Villager and to this writer from Mr. Loewentheil’s New York lawyer Steven Eckhaus.

The same letter charges that, among other things, “for at least the past year, Mrs. O’Hara and the theater have not paid any rent to the corporation that owns the building” and that “[i]n recent years her theater has lost its standing as a Not-For-Profit-Corporation.”

To which two points her response is as follows:

“Our arrangement for the building from day one was that the theater would pay every single expense of running the building — taxes, interest, insurance, repairs — instead of rent. We just recently paid $8,000 in real-estate taxes. I sometimes put in my own money. There’s no signed lease. So he [Mr. Eckhaus] is totally off the ball with that.

“The not-for-profit has been inactive, but that’s not any problem of theirs. It’s strictly our business.”

The last paragraph of the Eckhaus letter states: “The Loewentheils hope to work out an amicable agreement so that they may at some future time live in the townhouse themselves and have made no decision about the future of the theater.”

Edith O’Hara made her decision about the future of the Thirteenth Street Theater long ago. She wants it to have a future.

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