Long ‘Line’ forms to honor local theater icon

[media-credit name=”Photo courtesy of the 13th St. Repertory Theatre ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]
Edith O’Hara — the kid on the left, front row.
Logger’s daughter, at 95, keeps rolling along

BY JERRY TALLMER   |  It was in 1972, which is four decades ago even if you don’t want it to be, that a stage-struck woman named Edith Hopkins O’Hara (daughter of a northern Idaho logger) came across a Greenwich Village newspaper ad that read: “BUILDING FOR LEASE. CONTAINS A SMALL THEATER.”

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” is what Edith O’Hara has been saying ever since.

She didn’t die, but she moved into heaven, a small three-story brick-fronted 18th century townhouse on Manhattan’s West 13th Street — and ever since, she’s been running a theater there, and living there, despite hell, high water, low income and all sorts of attempts to get her out.

On February 15, Edith O’Hara hit “The Big 9-5.” The party had been three nights earlier — when maybe a hundred people who had worked at (or with) her 13th Street Repertory Theatre over the years, spent their Sunday night schmoozing, chewing and singing you-know-what, led by her guitarist son John O’Hara and his wife Annie.

Also on hand, of course, were Edith’s two famous actress daughters, Jenny O’Hara and Jill O’Hara — who together had done so much in recent years to keep the huffing, puffing wolf of eviction from their mother’s front door. Or chimney.

That threat, the birthday girl said this week, is now dead and gone. She can stay at 50 West 13th Street, midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, for life — and so can her repertory theatre.

It was, she specifies, “a private agreement backed by a lawyers’ settlement and approved by a court.”

So the long, unpleasant attempt to get her out has ended in failure?

“Failed utterly,” a listening Jenny O’Hara throws in, with inverse overtones of  W.B. Yeats.

Last year at this time, when Edith was only 94, she and her theater company received birthday tributes from a couple of people named Barack and Michelle, and one named Andrew Cuomo. This year’s whereases were from the New York City Council, the U.S. House of Representatives — Democrats and Republicans — and the Consul General of the Republic of Ireland.

One of the regular celebrants of Edith’s birthdays is the playwright Israel Horovitz, who lives only a couple of blocks away from the 13th Street Repertory Theatre where his very early one-act — a five-character piece called “Line” — has been on the boards intermittently for 38 years now, ever since Edith first saw it at La MaMa on Second Avenue in 1974 and said, “I’d like to get that for my theater.”

Among the scores of unknowns that ‘Nine’ has hatched into stars over the decades is Horovitz himself, who on Sunday night gave a moving short talk about the impact of 13th Street Rep on his whole family — not least his five children, one of whom is now musician Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, while another, Rachael Horovitz, is at this moment up for an Oscar as producer of that enjoyable “Moneyball” film.

Jenny O’Hara remembers that, “One of Israel’s kids wrote a play about British rule when he was six. He asked Mom if she could put it on, and she said, ‘Sure.’ ”

That Sunday night birthday celebration at the theatre, Jenny says, “was an outpouring of love and appreciation…very moving.” One of its highlights was the showing of Melodie Bryant’s 37-minute documentary about Edith and her theater.

On a napkin, Jenny O’Hara sketches the layout of 50 West 13th Street, from front door to living room, which becomes the box office and waiting room at showtime, to the 50-seat theater itself and tiny dressing room, out back where the carriages used to park, concealing a subsurface way station on the ‘underground railway’ for Civil War era slaves on the run.

To reach the living quarters — Edith’s bedroom — you have to climb two flights of stairs. This became impossible, Edith thought, when “on the last day in June, I fell and broke my hip, coming out of the dressing room to the stage.”

But the logger’s daughter didn’t know her own tenacity, even though, “In my whole life, I’ve not done what I’m told to do.” Back in the days when women weren’t supposed to blow their own horns, Edith Hopkins of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, learned to play the trumpet so as to lead her ten-piece, all-female band through performances of ‘Ten Pretty Girls.’

She now climbs those stairs every night and day.

‘Like a mountain goat,’ says the perdurable impresario of West 13th Street.

The 13th Street Repertory Theatre is located at 50 West 13th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. For info, visit 13thstreetrep.org or call 212-675-6677. To join the e-list, thirteenst@aol.com.