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84 East 4th Street: La Mama E.T.C.

  • William B. Harris - Walking Tour

Beginning in the 1840s, the Lower East Side was home to a German-American immigrant community. Among the signs of its rich social and cultural life was the Aschenbroedel Verein, a musicians’ organization founded in 1860, and the building the society erected at 74 East 4th Street in 1873. In 1892, the Aschenbroedel Verein moved out and another cultural institution, a singing society named the Gesangverein Schillerbund, moved in. However, the German neighborhood was relocating to Yorkville, and the Gesangverein Schillerbund sold the building in 1896. Thereafter, the tenants were typical of the neighborhood: small manufacturers, entertainment venues, social-work agencies. Meanwhile, in 1961, Ellen Stewart, an African American department-store dress designer who wanted to help her foster brother stage his plays, opened La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, naming it after her own nickname; “Mama.” In 1969 Stewart used grants she had won to purchase 74 East 4th and renovate the much-used building as a theatre. Thus Stewart helped to preserve an historic building, which became a New York City Landmark in 1992. By then, the building was famous not only for what it was but for what it hosted. Stewart made it into a leading off-off Broadway venue. William Harris published reviews of a wide range of La MaMa productions: plays by Peter Brooks of the Impact experimental theatre; Nobel laureate Albert Camus; early twentieth-century Irish playwright Sean O’Casey; contemporary American writer Tom O’Horgan, and the founder of the off-off-Broadway Theater of the Ridiculous John Vaccaro. Unfortunately, it is not clear what Harris wrote that occasioned Stewart’s warmly appreciative letter.