Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006

Villager Theater Special

Ellen Stewart: Still pushing that pushcart


It is five steep flights from the ground floor to the top floor of 74-A East 4th Street, and Ellen Stewart, whose living quarters are three small, cluttered rooms on that top floor, says she “can no longer go up and down those stairs unless four boys from one of the shows can take me up and down.”

That may be, and I don’t know if four boys were required to carry Ellen down to the big bash October 18, 2006, in celebration of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club’s 45th year of existence, but I do know that one week later, sitting at her living-room table in a shimmering silver dress — “a sweater actually, I bought it in Istanbul 24 years ago” — the mama of La MaMa, in what is surely at least her seventh decade, counted off the locales “where since May I did five different plays in five different countries in five different languages.”

They were, in short (less narrative description): 1. “Herakles,” here in New York, in English; 2. “Asclepius,” in Albania, in Albanian; 3. “The Raven,” by Carlo Gozzi, in Venice (“where I opened the Biennale, a big honor”), in Mandarin Chinese; 4. “Donysius,” in Taiwan, in Greek; 5. “The Four Kingdoms,” by Ellen Stewart, in Guatemala, in Spanish.

Why Mandarin Chinese in Venice? “Because I had a feeling and wanted to.” The actors en route were either members of La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company or students within the countries at hand. She created the music for four of the works. Directed, mostly in English, all five of them, sometimes with the support of an interpreter, sometimes without. “I wouldn’t call myself fluent, but I’m pretty good in Italian and used to be good in French. I had to learn some Albanian.”

Short pause.

Then she throws in that even before this recent May she had traveled to Italy, Albania, Serbia, and Holland.

Ellen Stewart has had a heart condition and a considerable  roster of other medical concerns since what must have been her early 30s. Here is a story I’ve told at a bit greater length before:

One Saturday night a few years ago, when she and I were supposed to be doing an interview, I found Ellen sitting on the wooden bench just inside La MaMa’s front door, all huddled up and shivering. “I can’t move,” she said, or moaned. I put my arm around her. “No, no, you go do your job,” she said. Later that night I phoned La MaMa to ask how she was. She couldn’t come to the phone. She was still sitting on that bench, I was told, unable to move, shivering. Early the next morning, Sunday morning, I called La MaMa again, and asked for Ellen. “She can’t come to the phone right now,” I was informed. “She’s over in the Annex, moving the furniture around.”

That’s Ellen.

“Eighty percent of what is now considered the American theater originated at La MaMa,” actor/playwright Harvey Feirstein told Vanity Fair magazine 10 years ago. Ellen herself has no idea how many works of theater, dance, cabaret, and whatnot have been presented at La MaMa E.T.C. since she opened it in a basement at 321 East 9th Street on July 27, 1962. “At least 2,000,” she says as, at her living-room table, she clasps and unclasps her hands and moves them through her hair. And has done shows in a hundred countries? “I don’t know about a hundred,” she says with a laugh. “But a lot.” She stops linking her fingers so she can use them to tabulate. “By 1968,” she says, “before we moved into this building, we had already played in … [ticking them off, slowly] … Belgium, Germany, France, Scotland, England, Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden … ”

And even well before that, Ellen Stewart, the slim, proud, coffee-colored Geechee beauty from Louisiana by way of Chicago, had already done a lot of living.

Geechee is a patois off the tongues of certain colored peoples in Louisiana and the Carolinas. “It comes to me from my father, but” — as she has said many times before — ”I don’t want to talk about my family.” All we can know is that her father was a tailor, her mother a schoolteacher, and that Ellen herself had a son named Larry, a grown man who lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, until his death in the year of the moving-furniture-in-the-Annex anecdote above. Who was Larry’s father? “A waiter in —.”  She cuts it short, drops the subject.

What she did talk about, once upon a time, to this writer, was the life of a black girl from Chicago who had a great gift in fashion design and dressmaking.

“In Chicago,” she’d said (and I wrote), “the coloreds were not allowed to go into the fashion industry or to attend fashion schools. Ellen Borden [Mrs. Adlai Stevenson] had tried to pay my tuition to one school there, but they wanted me to sign a paper saying I would not go actually to the school until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, would not fraternize, would not enter any competition. I didn’t sign it. It wasn’t right.

“I heard of a place called Traphagen that had a school in Los Angeles and another in New York. I flipped a coin, heads California, tails New York. It came up tails. Came here on the train. This was 1950 … I went up to Harlem, to the Hotel Theresa. Castro had taken over the entire hotel. I’d come with $60. A cab driver charged me $50 for the ride from Grand Central to the Theresa. Somehow I found another hotel in Harlem that took me in.

“Monday morning the man on the elevator told me I could ride all the way downtown on a bus. Went downtown, looking for a job, didn’t get it, saw this big church across the street from a big store. Went into the church, which was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said a prayer, came out and went into the store, which was Saks Fifth Avenue. I didn’t know what Saks Fifth Avenue was.

“The salesgirls wouldn’t tell me anything. An elevator girl told me to go up to Personnel, on the 8th floor. While I was there, Edith Lances, who had a whole department for custom-made brassieres and corsets, came looking for a trimmer to cut the threads off the brassieres. I could do that. She took me down to the 4th floor and put me to work.

“In those days, in Saks Fifth Avenue, the coloreds had to wear a blue smock, but at lunchtime you could take the smock off. Rumors were flying all over Saks that an exotic colored model was going around the store wearing Balenciaga clothes. We were all trying to figure out who this model was. Turned out it was me. Then all these white women started to ask what I was wearing. I was afraid of them …

“Edith Lances thought I should have a better job and took me to Sophie Gimbel, who owned the store. Sophie Gilbert said: ‘No niggers in my department.’ Yes, she really said that. So Edith Lances decided I was going to be her executive designer … [She] said: ‘You take off the smock, and from this day on you are Miss Ellen.’ At that time in Saks, Negroes were not allowed to be called Miss or Mister either. Well, they set me up in a workshop, a floor of my own, my own department, staffed by 15 concentration-camp survivors from Eastern Europe … [but] the coloreds demanded that I put the smock back on and not be called Miss.”

It got worse than that, black on black, and finally Miss Ellen quit in disgust and took herself off to Morocco, when on another fine day “when I was feeling sorry for myself” she heard her Papa Diamond — Abraham Diamond, an old Jew on Orchard Street who back in 1950 had taken her into his own family — talking to her.

“In the Casbah in Tangiers, Papa Diamond spoke to me. Oh yes, he was dead by then, but he spoke to me. He said: ‘You go back and get a pushcart, and I’m going to push it with you, and you’re going to go anywhere you want.” A friend she bumped into in Tangiers suggested Ellen should go back and start a theater.

“The next day after Papa Diamond spoke to me I took a boat to Algeciras, a train to Bilbao, a train to Rotterdam, another boat to New York. And a few days later I went downtown and walked around and found this basement at 321 East 9th Street and rented it” — for $50 a month.

The pushcart was also intended to push two of her friends — Frederick Lights, whom she’d grown up in the same building with in Chicago, and Paul Foster, a student of naval architecture — into becoming the playwrights they should be. It worked for Paul Foster, but not for Lights, who’d had such a raw deal on Broadway that he remained forever blocked.

The first plays ever done on 9th Street were Leonard Melfi’s “Lazy Baby Susan,” Michael Locasio’s “A Corner of the Morning,” and Andy Milligan’s adaptation of the Tennessee Williams short story “One Arm.”

There’d be 10 people in the audience — “Maybe.” Ellen would ring a cowbell to get them to stop talking. “And also it gave me courage to say something” — something like: “This is La MaMa E.T.C., dedicated to the playwright … ”  She was still ringing the cowbell and saying that introduction before almost all shows 30 and 40 years later, but of late has — because of those stairs — tapered off.

“Believe it or not, it’s easier for me nowadays to be outside this country than in this country, because when I go outside I’m in hotels with elevators and services of all kinds, and it’s not such a hardship.”

When she started La MaMa she had had no job since leaving Saks — was freelance dress-designing for Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel, Saks — “but now that I had responsibilities, had the theater,” she got a job with a firm that manufactured children’s beachwear, across the street from Macy’s.

It wasn’t any pleasanter on East 9th Street than at Saks. “The neighborhood didn’t want to live with niggers. That whole building was Italian — a covenanted building — no Jews, no Hispanics, no niggers, enforceable by law. They tried to make the landlord, Stefan Slywotski, put me out. He wouldn’t do it, so they started to destroy his building from within. I couldn’t let that happen, so in the middle of the night I moved to a building at 82 Second Avenue owned by Rabbi Julius Neumann.

“At this time Koch [the mayor] and Moses [commissioner of everything] were cleaning up the Village and East Village. They cleaned up on me.” She was busted twice for putting on entertainment without a license. One more conviction would have been a felony.

“Some of the local merchants helped me to fight Koch. Long story short, I was given permission to get what was then called a coffee-house license — which was impossible to get. When Rabbi Neumann learned that, he decided I might as well also get a liquor license. I didn’t want a liquor license. He tried to force me, did terrible things to me, so, long story short, I moved La MaMa to 122 Second Avenue, up over a dry cleaner’s.” And that’s where this writer first latched on to La MaMa.

From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump for Ellen to an interim refuge on the first floor of a Bowl & Board on St. Mark’s Place and then, finally, to 74-A East 4th Street — a block where there already existed two theaters, “one owned by Rodale, the health guy” and the other she remembers as a Writer’s Stage, but this theatergoer thinks it must have been the little playhouse on the opposite side of the street where the late David Ross produced and directed his brilliant mountings of Chekhov, Ibsen, Wederkind.

In any event, the prior existence of two theaters on the block gave her, she hoped, absolution from the long arm of the Koch, and it appears that she hoped right.

“I was thinking of moving to Germany, where I’d been invited, when I met McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation, and he asked me what did I need. I said I needed $25,000 for this building that was for sale on East 4th Street — which I didn’t know at that time was three walls and no roof.”

Persuaded by his wife and by his wife’s friend Edith Markson, McNeil Lowry — a very good man who would on another occasion put through a small Ford Foundation grant for this writer — got Ellen the $25,000 seed money she’d asked for.

“Of which I paid $10,000 down, with $15,000 going toward the roof, but in the end, long story short, what went into this building from McNeil Lowry and others was $350,000. And I didn’t go to Germany.”

What did you do with the money from your 1985 MacArthur “Genius” Award?

“Used it as seed money for the La MaMa artists’ residence outside Spoleto, Italy. It now holds 35 people comfortably. Part of the building has been there since the year 1250, but was a complete ruin. We just finished it last year,” she says with a proud smile.

Nobody knows just when Ellen was born, maybe not even Ellen. Fish around on Google and you get a fistful of different dates. In any event, it’s been a while since she passed the 50-year mark. Any significant changes in life or work since then?

“I never thought about it. I’ve always been doing things, always. I spend a lot of time these days on the phone. And a lot of time on the bed. Everybody comes up here. You came up here. Just write one thing. That I love you. Are you going to write that?”

I said I’d think about it.

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