DIY theater impresario Ellen Stewart cultivated an extended family of theater folks after she founded La MaMa in the basement of an East Ninth Street building, which then moved to various East Village location before settling in its permanent home on East Fourth Street.
Ellen Stewart’s first theater was a twenty-by-thirty-foot space with a ten-foot ceiling—little more than a room with a hall, toilet, fireplace, coffee bar, and stage. About thirty people could sit at the nine tables crammed into the space. “I would stand up on the street on the sidewalk and tried to lure in customers,” Paul Foster said. “We were willing slaves to the theater. And so we had a lot of work to do on no budget, and just two people. But we didn’t know, because nobody told us that it could not be done, so we just did it. We had no expertise. We’d admit it, but we wouldn’t shout it.” After nine months of renovations, the unnamed space opened on July 27, 1962. Its first production was One Arm, a Tennessee Williams story adapted by Andy Milligan, the intense dressmaker who also directed shows at Caffe Cino. He taught Stewart and Foster the basics: what was stage right and stage left, for instance, and everything about lighting—a lesson they learned one day when Milligan asked them if they had any gels, the industry term for lighting filters. It was a simple question that confounded this unlikely theatrical couple, a beautiful black woman and gay white ex-lawyer. “I looked at her and she looked at me,” Foster recalled, “and I said, ‘I don’t know, sugar pot, you have any gels?’ And Ellen said, ‘Hmm, let me look at my purse.’ Of course, who would put lighting gels in a purse? Andy knew he had to take total charge, and he did. We used him like an open book, and he was a very good teacher.” With no money to buy theater lights, Milligan taught them how to place an ordinary lightbulb in a large tomato can, painted black, and attach the gels with a rubber band.
From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Upset by what was happening to La MaMa and other venues, Ed Sanders used Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts as a bully pulpit: “Shriek! Shriek! The Goon Squads are loose! We are motherfucking tired of the brickout of books, movies, theatre groups, dope freaks, Times Square gobble scenes, poetry readings, night club acts, etc. in New York. The Department of Licenses, the freaks in the various prosecutors’ offices, the Nazis, the fascists, et al., have joined psychoses for a Goon Stomp.” La MaMa’s 82 Second Street venue opened on June 28, 1963, with Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, but by October the theater literally went dark because no one could pay the electric bill. After quitting as a designer for a Brooklyn swimsuit factory, Stewart began working for the fashion label Victor Bijou to pay the bills. Selling instant coffee at La MaMa wasn’t a big moneymaker, but that didn’t stop the Buildings Department from charging her with profiting from the coffee sales, and the city padlocked La MaMa’s doors once again in March 1964. Stewart was finally able to keep her new location open by giving away the coffee for free and turning the theater into a private club. “You paid one dollar dues,” Robert Patrick said. “For that, you got to see all of that week’s shows.” The new twenty-by-eighty-foot loft at 82 Second Street could seat seventy-four people, a big improvement from its original basement location, but it still needed a lot of work. Friends came to build a twenty-by-eight-foot stage, dressing rooms, and a coffee bar, and also installed a light board. They scavenged the streets for tables and old chairs, which furnished the new theater.
On Sundays, Ellen Stewart used her free time to explore the city on the subway, and she eventually stumbled upon a few blocks on the Lower East Side that were overflowing with fabrics sold by vendors. A Jewish merchant with “this little black thing on his head,” as Stewart called it, approached her, looking to make a sale. Abraham Diamond soon realized she had no money, but he could tell she had a talent for design, so he took her under his wing and adopted Ellen as his “artistic daughter and designer.” “Orchard Street is just a couple of blocks south of where La MaMa was,” said playwright Paul Foster, who helped Stewart start Café La MaMa and stuck with her through the years. “That’s where she met her buddy, Papa Diamond. He kept a pushcart in his window, to show everybody what he came from, because he was a peddler. He adored Ellen, and she adored him.” Diamond provided Stewart with fabric, and she would take the subway back to Diamond’s store every Sunday with a new outfit, when her “Papa” ushered her around Orchard Street, praising his “daughter’s” designs. Back at Saks, where she worked from 1950 to 1958, customers saw Stewart in one of her self-designed outfits and thought she was a Balenciaga model. “Somebody finally noticed,” recalled Robert Patrick, “and she wound up with her own little boutique, Miss Ellie’s Boutique at Saks.”
The neighborhood’s Ukrainian residents were suspicious of their first black neighbor, Ellen Stewart. “She was attractive, and they saw white young men going down to the basement, so they kept calling the police thinking that she was a prostitute,” Agosto Machado said. “They were unaware that she was trying to start a theater, and that the young men were gay men who were helping her, so they harassed her and harassed her and harassed her.” Nosy neighbors eventually called the health department to shut her down, but in a stroke of luck—one of dozens that kept La MaMa open over the years—the inspector had a history in theater and vaudeville. Instead of issuing a summons, he helped her obtain a restaurant license to avoid further legal complications. Stewart’s theater still had no name during the inspection, and she needed something for the restaurant license application. After one friend suggested “Mama,” they decided to fancy-it‑up by calling it “Café La MaMa.” After satisfying the health inspector, Stewart focused on winning over her neighbors. “Ellen had a very wonderful way of putting people at ease,” Paul Foster said. “She baked cookies, and gave them cookies. She ingratiated herself, and pretty soon, they became friends and we got them into the theater. It was maybe the first one that they had ever seen in their lives.” But Ellen’s charm offensive did little to protect the theater against a constant stream of citations from city officials throughout the 1960s. In April 1963, the city’s Buildings Department enforced a ban on theaters in the area and shut down Café La MaMa once again. Undaunted, Stewart moved her theater to a second-floor loft at 82 Second Avenue, and soon after was forced to move it farther down Second Avenue. Like a bureaucratic version of whack-a-mole, La MaMa then moved to St. Mark’s Place, and finally to its longtime home on East Fourth Street.
“La MaMa” referred both to Ellen Stewart herself—a warm but tough-as-nails maternal figure—and the theater she founded. With no theatrical experience, she established Café La MaMa in a basement location in the East Village back in 1961, not long after Joe Cino had turned his coffeehouse into an Off-Off-Broadway theater. “Ellen Stewart was La MaMa,” recalled Agosto Machado. “She gave care, attention, and nourishment for playwrights, directors, set designers, costumers, and others in her theater.” The details of Stewart’s early history are hazy. The only facts she ever verified were that she was born in Chicago and lived for a while in Louisiana—likely where she picked up her strong Geechee dialect and gave birth to her only son, Larry Hovell, 1943. After living for a while in Chicago, Ellen enrolled in New York’s Traphagen School of Design, one of the few fashion schools that accepted African Americans in 1950. Upon arriving at Grand Central Station, Stewart discovered that the apartment she was promised fell through, so she used the last of her savings on a Spanish Harlem hotel room. After a few days struggling to find a job, she lit a candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and called on her faith to help her get back on her feet. As Ellen was leaving the church she noticed Saks Fifth Avenue across the street and, miraculously, was given an entry-level job working as a design assistant. It was like a plot ripped from a Hollywood film, and her long and winding story grew more cinematic and fantastical throughout the 1960s.
From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
While at Saks, Ellen Stewart’s foster brother Fred Lights wrote a musical, The Vamp, that debuted on Broadway in 1955 and starred Carol Channing as a farm girl turned film star. Unfortunately, Lights’s script was heavily rewritten by the producers and became a $400,000 flop. He bitterly left the theater world with no intention of returning, which is how Stewart arrived at the idea of opening a theater of her own. Assuming that it was “like playing house,” she planned to make money with freelance designing while simultaneously running her venue. Stewart hoped her theatrical babies (or “bibies,” as the word was rendered by her unique accent) would have a place to gather and “write plays and all their friends would be in them and live happily ever after.” The idea of doing something she was passionate about was inspired by Papa Diamond, who told her, “Whatever you do for a living, always keep a pushcart—something you’re doing because you love it, because it’s good for people.” Theater became Ellen’s pushcart. In September 1961, while living at 334 East Fifth Street, Stewart came across a sign that read basement for rent. Hoping that 321 East Ninth Street would make a nice spot for a clothing boutique, she signed a lease and handed over her first fifty-five-dollar rent check. The basement space hadn’t been used since the building was constructed decades earlier, so it required hours of trash removal and cleaning, and a floor was built atop the dirt using wood from salvaged orange crates. Stewart employed the help of a few friends, which is when Fred Lights mentioned that the space would make a nice theater.
One of their earliest productions, Harold Pinter’s The Room, flouted all kinds of theatrical conventions—including getting permission from, and paying royalties to, the playwright. The Room was scheduled to open on October 31, 1962, just before its official New York debut at the much fancier Off-Broadway house, Cherry Lane Theatre. “Not knowing anything about theatre, we didn’t know you had to have rights or anything,” Ellen Stewart said. “You find a play, you just do it.” She quickly discovered this was not the case. The day before the opening, a finely dressed man approached Stewart in her theater and asked in a distinct British accent, “Where is this Mama woman?” It turned out to be the playwright himself, Harold Pinter, who was accompanied by his agent. Stewart calmly explained that she had no money but hoped that she could produce all his plays—at which point the agent started yelling at them, threatening to sue. Pinter’s agent declared that no one could produce his plays without her consent, but that only ruffled the playwright’s feathers. “Since when can Harold Pinter not put on his own work?” he said. “My dear lady, I hereby give you permission to do The Room as many times as you like.” Foster recalled, “The agent looked like she had just swallowed a horse.”
Neither Ellen Stewart nor Paul Foster had any savings or a steady paycheck, but they were resourceful. “If somebody needed to make the coffee for the customers, I would make the coffee,” Foster said. “If there was some woodwork to be done, I would get the nails and I would nail it together.” To call it a shoestring budget would be generous. “At that particular point, none of us had any jobs, so we had to make do. We went scrounging, looking for the sets and refuse that people would throw away. We would hit the sidewalks at nightfall and all of us would go trash picking,” Foster continued. “Off-Off-Broadway was very transformative. You took pieces of cable and then swear it was a magic wand, and it became a magic wand!” As La MaMa’s resident designer, Stewart costumed most of the early shows—often by picking up discarded fabric left on the street in the garment district on the West Side. (Living among the economic ravages caused by deindustrialization had some advantages.)
Paul Foster grew up in a small Quaker town in New Jersey, then moved to New York City in 1954 to attend the NYU School of Law, but this artistic-minded man was not cut out to be an attorney. “I started to thrash around for a career that would be good for me and I accidentally ran into Ellen Stewart,” Foster said. “I had never known a black woman before. I grew up in a totally white environment, not even realizing it, and, well, she educated me in the current thinking. We hit it off right off the bat. She was just a wonderful creature. I admired Ellen so much. We became extremely good friends.” Foster mentioned to Ellen that he had written some plays but never had anything published because he was too busy going to college and law school. She told him, “If you’d help me build a stage, we’ll put it on.” He thought, Well, why not? “It was a kind of crazy idea. She was on unemployment at the time and had rented the basement space in the East Village, in a Ukrainian neighborhood.”
When Ellen Stewart learned of the family’s garage theater in Florida, she inaugurated a “Young Playwrights Series” at La MaMa. George Harris III and the rest of the kids mounted Ann Harris’s Bluebeard and The Sheep and the Cheapskate, which they revived at La MaMa. “And there we were,” said Walter Michael Harris, “not only doing the ones we did in Florida, which were two that Mom wrote in college, but Mom was also inspired to create some more shows—working with my brother George and me on the book and the music.” This started a family tradition of writing about whatever was going on in their lives. “Our Macbeth parody, titled MacBee, spoofed the Mad Men era of advertising,” Walter said. “We all had some experience with this world, as we were constantly auditioning for TV commercials. We kids were all traipsing up and down Madison Avenue with our headshots and our portfolios, looking to find TV or commercial work, and so our show MacBee was about that.” They enrolled in acting classes—learning Method acting and discovering how serious and ridiculous it could be—which inspired their satirical musical, There Is Method in Their Madness. It received a positive review from Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith, and the El Dorado Players continued to thrive on the La MaMa stage.
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After staging their DIY productions in Clearwater, Florida, the Harris family decided to dive into show business by moving to New York. “I recall sitting around in a room, with Mom and Dad having discussed it,” Walter Michael Harris said, “and they decided to put it to us kids, and they asked us what we thought.” Mary Lou recalled, “We had those pivotal moments where somebody would say, ‘It’s time to jump.’ We always did, and I feel like we always jumped to the right place.” In January 1962, Big George moved to the city ahead of the rest of the family to check out the situation. He got his Equity card right away with a play called Wide Open Cage and, purely by chance, met Ellen Stewart. They became close, and she helped find the first apartment his family would move into—a cramped walkup apartment on First Avenue, just around the corner from La MaMa. “Thanks to Ellen,” George said, “I had a place to live, current New York credits, and introductions to playwrights and producers.” The next person to move to New York was G3, in 1963. “My brother George came back and forth a few times,” Jayne Anne said, “and then when I was eight, going on nine, I remember getting on the train with him, and it was a twenty-four-hour ride. We ended up in a car full of nuns who took us under their wing because we were in coach and they had little rooms.” By 1964, the rest of the family was in New York. Eloise Harris’s first sight after arriving in the city was steam coming out of the sewers and a massive Camel cigarettes sign that blew smoke rings into the air. “Imagine taking your kids and moving to the Lower East Side with the idea that everybody is going to be actors, and then everybody just went ahead and did that,” said Eloise. “No one was thinking, like, ‘How are we going to make money?’ There was no real plan.” Ann Harris recalled that they just decided to do it. “I mean, with no knowledge of anything except suburban life,” she said, “and this was the nitty-gritty city in the East Village.”
Caffe Cino burned down on Ash Wednesday in 1965, an omen of trouble on the horizon. Edward Albee, who was the most famous person in theater at the time, threw benefits for the Cino, and Ellen Stewart also used Café La MaMa to stage benefits organized by Harry Koutoukas. People urged Joe Cino to use the fire as an opportunity to expand his theater and move into a bigger space, but he wanted it to retain its original atmosphere. Just two months later, Caffe Cino reopened in its original location on Cornelia with Koutoukas’s With Creatures Make My Way. The show revolved around a transsexual, transhuman figure who lived among “baby alligators that are flushed down toilets every day,” as well as other strange critters. With Creatures Make My Way was an homage to Caffe Cino—a refuge for outsiders, artists, and oddballs who didn’t fit in anywhere else. As Koutoukas wrote in his stage notes, the setting was an underground inversion of “the churches of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, known as WASPS, that exist everywhere.” Exiled from that normal world, the Creature spent his days playing Mozart on a huge pipe organ, pining for a lobster he loved many centuries ago. At the end of the show, the Creature discovered that his newest friend—a pearly piece of ectoplasm—was actually his long-lost love, the lobster. Koutoukas’s “camp” concluded with the two joining together in a song and dance, as the Creature observed, “music Scotch-tapes the whole world together, doesn’t it?”
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
On the morning of March 30, 1967, the phone rang at Johnny Dodd and Michael Smith’s apartment down the street. “Joe was killing himself, and he was calling Johnny Dodd,” Smith said. “I picked up the phone because I was awake and Johnny was asleep. That was the reason I walked in on his death.” Smith let himself into Caffe Cino and saw Joe on the floor surrounded by blood, lit only by the dawn sunlight and the café’s twinkling Christmas lights. Joe picked up one of the other knives on the floor, but his hands were so slippery with blood that he could barely hold on to it. Smith screamed for him to stop and tried to pry the knife from his hands, to no avail. An ambulance finally came and took Cino to St. Vincent’s hospital, where he survived the day and was given antibiotics. Ellen Stewart stood vigil the whole time as dozens came to donate blood, but he died three days later. “After Joe killed himself,” Robert Patrick said, “both Harry Koutoukas and Ondine came to me in tears saying that they had killed Joe by slipping him some drugs. They had gotten some terrifically good, superior acid, and each of them had dropped a tablet of it in his drink. They never knew the other had, by the way. Each of them thought they had killed Joe.”
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
La MaMa’s third home was a slightly larger space. It was twenty-three by seventy-five feet and had twelve-foot ceilings, all of which housed the usual coffee bar, dressing room, toilet, a bit of storage, and a stage that stretched the width of the room. The legal capacity was seventy-four, though more would often be squeezed in. City officials had run Ellen Stewart out of three locations by 1968, but she never gave up on her theatrical pushcart. “The only way around all the problems with city government regulations was to get our own theater,” Paul Foster said, “and that’s when we got the Rockefeller and other foundation grants.” Unfamiliar with the process of submitting a formal proposal, Stewart naively called up the Ford Foundation and extended an invitation to visit La MaMa. After Ford Foundation Vice President McNeil Lowry and his wife attended a performance, Stewart brought them to the Fifth Street Deli and charmed them over hot dogs and sauerkraut. Stewart told them she needed $10,000 for a down payment on a building at 74A East Fourth Street, along with $15,000 to renovate the four-story space as a theater; a week later, in November 1967, La MaMa received its first foundation grant of $25,000. La MaMa’s newly acquired building, a former hot dog factory, needed a lot of work. Two floors were made into theaters that sat eighty-five people, one floor was set aside for rehearsal space, and the top floor became Stewart’s residence. As she worked on setting up La MaMa’s permanent home, her theater continued staging shows in a temporary space at 9 St. Mark’s Place. At last, on April 2, 1969, a renovated and newly renamed La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club opened its doors to the public.
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Ellen Stewart was open to anything, including a play with no onstage actors: just two Ping-Pong balls swinging back and forth. Paul Foster wrote Balls after he had an argument with some La MaMa actors, and as he was stomping and huffing about, he thought, That does it! What I need is a play without actors! The show’s two main characters—two swinging balls—were voiced from offstage over a loudspeaker, and all the audience could see was the white spheres moving in and out of their own shadows. It was pure white against pure black, an empty world in which the two deceased protagonists played ball and talked. “They’re in a little cemetery by the sea,” Foster explained, “and a storm is threatening to engulf their graves. But the balls didn’t change tempo, they were always slowly, slowly just going back and forth. You’re left with the feeling of great loneliness: ‘Well, if we can’t play ball, what the hell are we going to do with the rest of eternity?’ ”