Ellen Stewart Opens a Basement Theater

Ellen Stewart Opens a Basement Theater

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.

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


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