“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