It was the sort of remark that might have shocked people at any other ribbon-cutting ceremony, but this was the reopening yesterday of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club’s first home, a four-story building at 74 East 4th Street constructed in 1873, and bought by the theater’s founder Ellen Stewart in the 1960s — now refurbished at a cost of $24 million.
“Ellen Stewart would be turning over in her grave if she knew we’d spent $24 million on this building,” Donald Capoccia, La MaMa’s treasurer, said to the crowd assembled outside on the street. She would think of so many other things she would want to spend the money on, he added.
Nobody blinked. I sought out Mary Fulham, the managing director of La MaMa, who started at the theater in 1986, exactly halfway through Ellen Stewart’s fifty-year reign. She smiled. “Ellen liked coffee houses,” she explained to me. “Coffee houses don’t pass inspections; they’re fire hazards; they’re unsafe.”
Still, many of the speakers claimed, convincingly, that the renovated building – which is part of La MaMa’s 90,000 square feet dedicated to artists and audiences — is a tribute to Stewart, a pioneer in the Off Off Broadway movement who died in 2011 at the age of 91.
“La MaMa is gone; but La MaMa is still here,” said Andre De Shields, who rang the bell (an Ellen Stewart tradition) and officially welcomed the public to tour the facility, which now features a new ground floor lobby, two theater spaces (aka The Club and multipurpose Community Space) , a state-of-the-art tech booth, and even an elevator. (See video below of De Shields, the Tony winning actor who performed at La MaMa for three decades and, at 77, says he’s planning to return there..)
“These spaces are imbued with the powerful energy of the past,” said artistic director Mia Yoo, “and it will allow us to connect to people and places locally and globally, opening up beyond the four walls of the building. That is our dream, this radical access.”
It is easy to argue that this was the dream not just of Ellen Stewart when she started La MaMa in 1961, but also of the building from the get-go. When it was built, it was called the Aschenbroedel Verein, says Fulham – “roughly translated from the German, that’s ‘Cinderella Club’ – as a community center for German and Irish musicians who could not get work from the prejudiced uptown orchestras. By the time Ellen Stewart bought it, the building had no roof, no flooring and no back wall. Stewart restored it; fifty years later, her successor Mia Yoo shut the building down in March 2018, Beyer, Blinder and Belle were the architects in charge of the renovation; the City of New York contributed more than $15 million to the project.
It makes sense that the ceremony for its reopening after five years featured not just a bevy of public officials, but also a larger number of downtown artists – from Henu Tarrant who sang an original song as a Native American Blessing and the Chinese-American Lion Dancers who unfolded a welcome sign, to Truth Future Bachman, whose musical “Luna and the Starbodies” will be performed at La MaMa later this year, and was among the performers stationed inside the building, “half hanging out and half performing.”
Commissioner Laurie Cumbo of the New York City Department of Cultural Affair read from a proclamation by Mayor Eric Adams : “I just want to read one part that stands out from our mayor: ‘Whereas La MaMa now has four theaters, several resident companies, seven floors of rehearsal space, a gallery, a historic archive and an outpost in Umbria, Italy’ – Wow, y’all got space in Italy?’ — more than 50 productions per year and engages diverse people with free or affordable tickets and programs. The organization’s longevity is a testament to its excellence, and its gifted alumni have gone on to win countless awards and share the history of the arts in the five boroughs and beyond. Following a major renovation that includes a restored facade and a large lobby, complete ADA accessibility’ — and I say that again: complete accessibility’ — a dedicated community space and open air roof terrace, a building-wide data network and two flexible acoustically separated performance venues, La MaMa’s flagship is poised to better serve its mission to showcase bold and inventive artists of all backgrounds. I look forward to the many ways this influential community hub will continue to inspire creative New Yorkers, as we unite to hashtag #GetStuffDone, a more inclusive and equitable future for all, Now therefore, I Eric Adams, Mayor of the City of New York, do hereby proclaim Thursday February 9 2023 In the City of New York as La MaMa Experimental Theater Club Day.