Playwright Paul Foster met Ellen Stewart in the early 1960s and helped her open the first of Café La MaMa, which was soon showcasing Foster’s plays—including Balls, Tom Paine, and Madonna in the Orchard.
On Cornelia and Fourth Street was a dress shop with a fancy mannequin in front where movie stars sometimes shopped. It was run by Andy Milligan, a designer who also directed some of the earliest shows at Caffe Cino. He later went on to make trashy low-budget movies such as The Ghastly Ones, Vapors, Seeds of Sin, The Body Beneath, The Man with Two Heads, and Torture Dungeon. “Andy was an S&M motorcycle freak, but a good director,” said playwright Paul Foster, who was connected to another Off-Off-Broadway theater, Café La MaMa. “He was outrageous. He would say anything and do anything, which was exciting because it was new. Andy was quite a character.” Robert Patrick added, “Andy Milligan was a dress designer and into S&M, as pretty boys learned when they first hit the Cino.” He staged a homoerotic dance during his production of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch at the Cino, and Milligan’s version of Genet’s The Maids had a lesbian sex scene that was sizzling for its time.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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
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.
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.”
In 1968, Michael McGrinder staged his first play, The Foreigners, at the Old Reliable, and it quickly became a second home for him. “Michael McGrinder was very rare in those circles,” Robert Patrick recalled. “He’s a heterosexual. That was an amazingly gay crowd at the Old Reliable.” As for the clientele in the front bar—which was mostly composed of straight truckers and dockworkers who came by for cheap booze and friendly girls—that didn’t really change. And for the most part, the two groups maintained a peaceful coexistence. “I think everybody, including the drinking workingmen, appreciated the surreal aspect of it,” Patrick said. “If I did some crazy musical where actors would be entering from the bar, you’d just be leaning on the bar itself in between two Polish laborers to support your costume, or headdress. And when it was time for your entrance you said, ‘See you later, fellas.’ And they’d say, ‘See ya.’ ” As Paul Foster observed, “I find that blue-collar people don’t give a damn what you do as long as you pay your way and don’t try to get sassy with them.”
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?’ ”
After Café La MaMa’s move to 82 Second Avenue, Ellen Stewart was still under the watchful eye of the city. She had already been sent to the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village a few times and risked becoming a felon—all for the crime of running a DIY theater—and the city was planning another raid. Someone tipped off Stewart, and she was able to quietly secure a new place down the street and move the entire contents of her theater literally moments after the end of a show. “It was the closing performance of Balls, Paul Foster’s play,” Ellen recalled. “There must have been thirty-five people who came to see the play. Many of them had never been there before. I told them just to strike the café.” Some audience members had no idea what she meant, but they followed the lead of others and began picking up chairs, tables, and set pieces. Everyone went down the steps at 82 Second Avenue, walked up the street past the dry cleaner, and arrived at a second-floor loft at 122 Second Avenue, where they set up the new theater. “We took everything—paintings, tables, chairs, coffeepots—everything,” Stewart said. “Well, they moved me in one hour.” One lady in high heels who was carrying an armful turned to another woman and innocently asked, “Do they do this often?”
By the mid-1960s, musician and director Tom O’Horgan had become part of the La MaMa family. “Tom came into the Cino,” playwright Robert Patrick recalled, “moping and sulking that his life was over and he wasn’t getting anywhere, and that he was a woebegone, middle-aged gay musician. Then Joe Cino said, ‘Here, you can have the floor.’ Tom did two rather conventional nightclub-type reviews with eccentric touches. After Paul Foster saw that, he brought him to La MaMa, where Ellen supported him.” He eventually directed some sixty plays at Stewart’s theater and had even greater success directing the Broadway debuts of Hair in 1968 and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. Much earlier, in 1964, O’Horgan had directed an important production of The Maids, the first to cast men in the two pivotal female roles (as playwright Jean Genet intended). “I played the Madame,” said Mari-Claire Charba, who was also cast in The Maids. “We presented it at La MaMa, and it was a big success. That was the beginning of his directing career, because before that he was really a composer and a musician.” Charba’s earliest memory of O’Horgan was at a Happening he orchestrated at Judson Church. “He did this thing where everybody was inside the Judson,” she said, “and then they all came out onto Fourth Street where all these drag queens were.”
“We were doing all these exercises that became the epitome of that performance style of Hair,” Marie-Claire Charba said. “Tom shifted Broadway into all this physicality, and we were precursors to that. Like Hamilton, we did that with Tom Paine. When I saw Hamilton, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that was like Tom Paine,’ which was done—what, fifty years ago? Same thing. Tom O’Horgan took a historical play and moved it into mixed media.” The busy director was simultaneously working on Tom Paine at La MaMa while running the first rehearsal workshops for Hair in early 1968. “There was a lot of crossing of inspirational ideas with those two plays,” La MaMa playwright Paul Foster said, recalling one moment in Tom Paine that was absorbed into Hair. Foster had a scene in which the people of France were starving in order to feed the Termite Queen, who attacked the hungry mob and began eating the clothes off their back. “No, don’t stop, just keep going,” O’Horgan said during a rehearsal, so the performers kept tearing off their clothes until they were naked. “These were young kids and they didn’t have any qualms about getting naked,” Foster recalled. “It was a powerful moment in the show, and it rose out of a need to say something visually.” Two weeks later, Hair featured a similar nude scene when it debuted at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968.
From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Café La MaMa’s secret weapon was Tom O’Horgan: a multitalented director, musician, and choreographer who worked on dozens of shows at Ellen Stewart’s theater. A musician with no traditional theatrical training, he had worked throughout the 1950s as an offbeat variety entertainer, cracking jokes while playing early English ballads on the harp—even appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. “He was ambidextrous when it came to his playing, whatever he thought the piece needed,” playwright Paul Foster recalled. “It added a whole new dimension to theater.” O’Horgan merged music, gesture, and dialogue by using performers’ bodies to create what he called kinetic sculptures. One exemplar of this approach was Foster’s Tom Paine, a “living play” that seamlessly integrated the auditioning, casting, rehearsing, and script development processes into an organic whole. To master this new theatrical style, all fifteen members of the La MaMa troupe attended five-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week workshops that included music making, movement exercises, and dialogue. “There were people fiddling around with theater form,” Robert Patrick said, “and so Tom O’Horgan and Paul Foster and the La MaMa troupe put it all together into a workshop method that developed the idea of collaborative creation in theater.” O’Horgan’s performers might come out wearing drapery—chanting and moving about—then suddenly swirl and shift into a scene that was developed from another overlapping theme. “Sometimes,” Foster noted, “you just wanted to emphasize the texture, and you’re willing to lose comprehension.”