The mother of La MaMa and so many others turns 90

By Wickham Boyle 

Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa, doyenne of experimental arts in New York City and around the globe, turned 90 on Sunday — and she was thrown a fete commensurate with her station. 

I worked at La MaMa as a 20-year-old back in the ’70s and was Stewart’s executive director throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s. I had my children at La MaMa, almost literally, as both were born on Saturday nights and I worked Friday and returned to work on Tuesday. They were the theater’s babies and Ellen was the grandmother they knew best. 

As I was emotionally thrashing this piece about in my head, I decided to walk my grown daughter back to work after lunch. As we exited our loft, we bumped into an old friend, Randy Bourscheidt, the current president of Alliance for the Arts. I had worked with Randy when he was deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs under Henry Geldzahler. I said I was procrastinating writing this piece on Ellen Stewart, and Randy had to unfold his favorite MaMa story. 

He had rented a house in Italy outside of Spoleto, where Ellen owns property. When his hot water broke, he called the woman from whom he had rented and she quickly arrived with Ellen in tow. True to form, Ellen took out a wrench and fixed the hot water pronto. When she left, Randy turned to his sister and friends and said, “Don’t ever forget you just watched one of the most important women in American theater fix our hot water.”

I couldn’t toss a stone and not hit someone Downtown who has an equally, funny, touching, brave, chilling or extortive story about Ellen Stewart. She is a woman born in segregated Louisiana who made her way north to Chicago and finally to New York City, where she worked as a fashion designer. She designed couture dresses and had two of her creations at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, but as she always said, “I left fashion and chose theater and poverty.” And many of us hapless acolytes followed and found, she was right, no money but oh so interesting lives. 

On Sunday night in the La MaMa complex on E. Fourth St. the crème de la crème of experimentalism was in attendance, sipping wine or chugging beers and remembering. In attendance were Mabou Mines’s Ruth Maleczech; composer Liz Swados; directors Andres Serban, George Ference, John Jesserun, Ping Chong and Alan Eisenberg, the former head of Actor’s Equity; comic Tom Murrin; performance artists Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, and costumers, administrators, funders and techies by the dozens. 

I asked actor and director Steve Buscemi what La MaMa meant to him.

“La MaMa has always been the hotbed, the cutting edge, and we all acknowledge Ellen for that,” Buscemi said. “But for me, when I got a job in John Jesserun’s ‘Deep Sleep,’ I felt I had found a job in the real theater. As an actor it gave me a tremendous boost. I will always be grateful for that.” 

It was a many-layered evening, part party, part museum opening and part dedication, as the La MaMa Archives, a longtime dream of Ellen’s, were officially opened. The archives house the enormous Ellen Stewart Theater Collection: masks, puppets, videotapes, photographs, bells, musical instruments, anything and everything that graced the stages during 48 years of La MaMa wizardry. Now it is gathered all together in one huge loft space.  

After drinks, snacks, endless air kisses, heartfelt hugs and chat, the crowd was herded upstairs to be led into the newly christened Ellen Stewart Theater. Many members of the original Great Jones Repertory Company intoned the famous chant from “The Trojan Women.” There was hardly a dry eye as we wept for the beauty and global sensations created or midwifed by Stewart and for the nostalgia of the times past. 

Before the show started, Ellen herself appeared, and although in a wheelchair, she was resplendent in silks, her style as vibrant as ever. The entire theater rose, cheered and applauded. Stewart faced us, waved and was off. 

The benefit spectacle included dance from tap to modern, music from classic to folk to new wave, theater, videos and tributes galore. We were regaled by stars John Kelly, Meredith Monk’s company, H T Chen and Dancers, Bill Irwin — fresh from, in his words, “the industrial theatrical complex uptown, Broadway,” where he is staring in “Guys and Dolls” — and a video tribute to Ellen Stewart. 

In the video compilation, we saw a very young, exquisitely beautiful Ellen Stewart, and in clips she morphed before our eyes into the woman who cajoled and wheedled so many of us to do beyond our best, to dare to be great. In 48 seasons, Ellen Stewart and La MaMa have gown from a basement theater to a theatrical complex serving artists and audiences from around the world and across the street. 

Ellen Stewart had a birthday bash on Nov. 1, but the rest of the world has been getting the gifts and will continue to reap the rewards of all the theatrical seeds she so assiduously planted for nearly half a century. Happy birthday, Mama.