Ellen Stewart, one of the great visionaries of off-off-Broadway and founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club on East Fourth Street, died yesterday after what co-artistic director Mia Yoo described as an extended illness. She was 91.
Stewart, who began her career as one of the few African-American fashion designers, provided a creative home for artists as diverse as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Andre Serban, Tom O'Horgan and Blue Man Group. She was a pioneer of multiculturalism and performance art before we had names to describe them, and introduced New York to countless major avant-garde directors.
"As anyone with any knowledge of the theater knows, she changed the world," Fierstein said. "I began my career at Ellen's theater in 1971. She always treated me like family. And she was always like a mother to me. I am heartbroken by the loss."
A striking, statuesque woman with flowing hair and flamboyant taste in clothes, Stewart was legendary for the welcoming speech she gave before every performance for almost 50 years. After summoning audiences with what looked like a cowbell, she would say: "We are dedicated to the playwrights and all aspects of the theater." And she meant all.
She began her first theater in 1961 in a tiny basement on East Ninth Street, years before the area became identified as the artistic center called the East Village. When her theaters kept getting raided by the police for lack of a license, she would simply move to another, larger one.
In 1969, she settled into the current space and, five years later, expanded down the street to The Annex. In November 2009, for her 90th birthday, it was renamed the Ellen Stewart Theater.
Little is known about Stewart's early life. She was born in Alexandria, La., and worked as a riveter in a Chicago defense plant during World War II. When she moved to New York in 1950, she supported herself as an elevator operator at Saks Fifth Avenue. When the clothes she wore caught the attention of store managers, she was made a designer.
She was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1985 and, in 1993, became the first off-off-Broadway producer to be inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame. As she liked to say, she did it all because, "I just wanted to help artists put on a show."
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. In lieu of flowers, donations to La MaMa ETC can be sent to 74A E. Fourth St. or at lamama.org.