Ellen Stewart Hassled By Neighbors and the City

Ellen Stewart Hassled By Neighbors and the City

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.

From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


Café La MaMa (original location)
321 E 9th St, New York, NY 10003