Theater archives

Watering the Off-Broadway Garden


I think it was those red serpents that set the whole thing off.

In the summer of 1955, some months before a fellow named Ed Fancher called to talk with me about joining Dan Wolf and himself in starting a new newspaper in Greenwich Village—that is to say, to lure me into it—I’d read, in Commonweal magazine, a short but glowing review by that journal’s Richard Hayes of a play I’d never heard of by a playwright I’d never heard of in a place I’d never heard of. The play was called The Maids, the playwright was a French criminal named Jean Genet, and the place turned out to be a tiny hole-in-the-wall called the Tempo Playhouse, up a rickety set of iron stairs at 4 St. Marks Place in what was not yet called the East Village, though it soon would be.

As you sat down on a wooden folding chair you saw before you a sort of high-backed chaise longue or love seat, and not much else. Presently, on that hot night in the summer of ’55, one red, writhing serpent rose up, twisted up, from somewhere within the bowels of the love seat, and on the instant was joined by another, the two of them linking, unlinking, sinuous, poisonous, evil as hell. Attached to these two huge hideous worms was, as we discovered in the next moment, a human being. They were long kitchen scullery gloves—red-rubber scouring gloves—worn like condoms on her two arms.

Her name was Julie Bovasso. Her name in the play was Solange, the more dominant of two sisters who drudged in the kitchen stink for the Madame they loved and hated and pretended to be. Julie Bovasso, age 21 or 22, had walked over the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan to build herself that playhouse on St. Marks Place where she introduced Jean Genet to the United States of America with those two rubber gloves. And after Genet, Ionesco, and after Ionesco, Ghelderode. Attention must be paid to such a sensibility, such a passion. On a Monday in June of 1956 the first Village Voice Off-Broadway (“Obie”) awards came into being, and the very first such award for Best Actress went to Julie Bovasso for The Maids.

The Village Voice had got itself born in a room-and-a-half apartment one flight up at 22 Greenwich Avenue, next door to Sutter’s Bakery (no longer existent), across 10th Street from the (no longer existent) Women’s House of Detention. Everything was within walking distance, especially everything that was exciting in theater, meaning the downtown theater. At worst, you might have to take a bus to get to the Emanuel Brotherhood on 6th Street, almost at the East River, where somebody named Joseph Papp had brought together a bunch of young unknown actors, American actors—J.D. Cannon, Roscoe Lee Browne, Colleen Dewhurst, et al.—in vivid, virile stagings of scary stuff like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, in black slacks, white shirts, and for the girls, prom dresses.

From 22 Greenwich Avenue a couple of blocks down Christopher Street would take you to the Circle in the Square, meaning Sheridan Square, where three years earlier Brooks Atkinson had come down to see for himself what José Quintero and Geraldine Page had done to bring out the full beauty of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. Now Quintero was about to put the blood of life back into Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and make a star of Jason Robards Jr.

If you kept walking west on Christopher, you soon came to the Theatre de Lys, where more than a year earlier I had been jolted out of my tracks by scathing, swaggering Ben Gazzara and everybody else in Jack Garfein’s staging of Calder Willingham’s End as a Man. It seemed more real, more pungent than anything I’d seen on Broadway since Brando. On its heels at the de Lys had come The Threepenny Opera, which was still a great hit as we brought out Vol. I, No. 1 of The Village Voice—the baptismal issue, in which I wrote of the “hot hellish instant . . . when Miss [Lotte] Lenya shambles front and center to exhale the first weary, husky, terrible notes” of the Brecht-Weill song in which “Jenny the slavey, whore-to-be” dreams of blowing away with a pirate’s cannon “her whole damn civilization, and yours, and mine.”

A little farther south and west you came to the historic Cherry Lane, where Judith Malina and Julian Beck had advanced their pre-14th Street Living Theater and Judith had thrown a spear at a fireman come to examine the premises; also where Alan Schneider would one day soon be directing the American premiere of a masterpiece by Samuel Beckett called Endgame. Still farther along you got to Westbeth, where Crystal Field and George Bartenieff were on the verge of launching their Theater for the New City.

Just off Washington Square was the no less historic Provincetown Playhouse, which one day soon would house the American premiere of a play called The Zoo Story by a comer named Edward Albee. Going east again, this time on foot, you’d come to the Phoenix, where Tyrone Guthrie woke us up with Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, or to East 4th Street, where, hard across from the La MaMa of today, a Russian American bear of a man named David Ross (who would die incongruously young) had mounted superb productions of Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg and Wedekind, including the Uncle Vanya that provided those 1955-56 Obie awards with Best Actor George Voskovec, Best Supporting Actress Peggy McCay, and Best All-Around Production (no Obie at all going to the same show’s brilliant Astrov, a chap named Franchot Tone).

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.

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.