Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Memoir: Byron Toben on Ellen Stewart

Intimate Apparel brings with it the ghost of a quintessential theatre person
by Byron Toben
March 27 was the 50th anniversary of International Theatre Day and the Centaur Theatre, like many around the world celebrated by having its superb cast of the hit “Intimate Apparel” declaim tributes to theatre around the world just before its last preview. This confluence of the international and the subject of this play conjured up memories of my passing friendship with Ellen Stewart, La Mama herself.
Ellen, for those folk who may not have heard of her, was the doyen of the Off-off experimental theatre movement starting in the New York of the 60s. She rose from store cleaning work to become a successful beachwear designer and eventually a Ford Foundation recipient with worldwide theatre acclaim before she passed away last year at 91.
I was a student at the time and the off-off movement was just starting to burgeon.

Her funeral at St. Patrick's on Fifth avenue was packed full and you can read dozens of accolades and obit details on the internet. However, I have not seen any that mentioned two life incidents that she told me over coffee.
I was a student at the time and the off-off movement was just starting to burgeon. On a budget, I often attended her 2nd Avenue space above a dry cleaner which acted as a venue for all kinds of struggling young actors, dancers and musicians. I was the only one to wear a suit and tie so I stood out. We would run into each other around University avenue and have a snack or coffee.
One day, a kindly Jewish merchant asked if she was ever going to buy anything.

How did she gravitate from cleaning lady to big time designer at such as Sachs 5th Avenue? Broke, she often haunted the fabric shops on Canal Street. One day, a kindly Jewish merchant asked if she was ever going to buy anything. When she pleaded poverty, he gave her some fine textiles to make some samples with “Pay me if any one buys”. Sachs did, and hired her as a designer to the trendy set. Finally, some  savings.
At that time, she had no theatre background or interest, having grown  up in Louisiana (which accounted for her Cajun accent). However, her brother arrived from Chicago, where they were born, determined to break into Broadway musicals as a composer. Several producers were impressed, but sadly, in the tenor of the times, refused to credit him as he was black. Hoping to provide a space where he could put on his own little shows, she illegally converted a basement space into a café sized theatre. Her brother, disheartened, left New York. 
“the quintessential theater on a shoestring”

Left with a vacant space, she invited local artistic denizens to experimentally perform there. She prefaced each show at La Mama E.T.C. swinging her trademark cowbell and after several years of troubles, finally won status for her catalytic activities. Many famous actors and playwrights got their start at “the quintessential theater on a shoestring.” Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler , Nick Nolte, The Blue Man group passed through in the 60s and '70s. Playwrights like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Harvey Fierstein wrote and Phillip Glass composed.
“Intimate Apparel” by prize-winning Lynne Nottage, features a black lady in 1905 who seeks to break out by becoming a seamstress in New York. A kindly Jewish white guy is woven into the plot. While the protagonist does not become successful like Ellen (19,000 productions around the world) the broad similarities were irresistible to write this memoir. 

Here’s looking at you, Ellen, wherever you are.

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