Watering the Off-Broadway Garden

The founder of the 'Village Voice' Obies recalls what led to their inception 50 years ago

Why the Obies? Whence came the idea?

From and for all the above reasons, and dozens more. From boredom with Broadway of the 1950s, even in a season marked by My Fair Lady, by Waiting for Godot (an Off-Broadway play gone Broadway), by Julie Harris in The Lark. From fatigue over the ballyhoo of the Tony Awards. From the need of this struggling, aspiring, variegated Off-Broadway garden to be watered with recognition and encouragement.

Just below Sheridan Square, at 91 Seventh Avenue South, was Helen Gee's gemütlich white-walled Limelight Photography Gallery and Coffee House, a hangout for some of us from the Voice. That's where we would hold it. The judges would be Richard Hayes of Commonweal, actor Earle Hyman of Mister Johnson on Broadway, and myself.

Obie originals: Julie Bovasso, Shelley Winters, and Jason Robards Jr.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Obie originals: Julie Bovasso, Shelley Winters, and Jason Robards Jr.

For weeks in advance the women who were the Voice's secretaries of everything, Florence Ettenberg and Susan Ryan, worked like dogs compiling lists, scouring for addresses, mailing out invitations, mimeographing and mailing the releases I kept dreaming up. They, at least, were getting paid $50 a week, unlike their bosses. A poet-cum-space salesman named Harvey Jacobs supplied the name we were looking for: Obies. Obie awards.

One day the phone rang. "This is Sam Zolotow of The New York Times. What the hell does this 'Obie' stand for?" I tried to explain. "You know, Mr. Zolotow. O-B, Off-Broadway." He didn't get it. The Times didn't print a word. A year later, just before Obies No. 2, the phone rang. Zolotow again. "What the hell does this 'Obie' stand for?" A year still later, the phone again. "This is Sam Zolotow of The New York Times. . . . " That year the Times gave us four inches, if I remember right, at the bottom of a page.

When we were about to stage the first Obie awards in that June of 1956, what we needed, I thought, was a "name," an actress, a star, to present the parchments, hand them out. Shelley Winters was starring with Ben Gazzara, at the Lyceum on Broadway, in Michael V. Gazzo's A Hatful of Rain. Somehow I got her phone number, or perhaps I called the theater. In any event, when I got her on the wire and started stammering out an invite to this just-created event, she cut me off with: "Of course I'll do it. Where and when? No, you don't have to fetch me. I'll find it. I'll be there."

At the 59th second of the 59th minute in an overflowing Limelight, as the hand on the clock was hitting 2 on a beautiful blue-sky Monday afternoon in June 1956, the back door, the kitchen door, the Barrow Street door of the Limelight opened—the door that no one knew existed—and in blew Miss Shelley Winters. No sweat. The Obies, and we, were off to the races.

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