La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, the oldest surviving Off-Off-Broadway theater in New York City, is today widely considered the most influential and has been called the most prolific of all the Off-Off-Broadway stages, having produced thousands of plays in New York City and around the world. La MaMa has received many Obie Awards (including a Special Obie for its 20th anniversary in 1981), as well as many Drama Desk, Bessie, and Villager Awards. It was founded in 1961 as Cafe La MaMa by Ellen Stewart (1919-2011), a pioneering African-American theater impresario. By 1967, the New York Times called her “the most active producer in New York City,” with a new American play every two weeks and an abiding philosophy that La MaMa was “dedicated to the playwright and all forms of theater.”
La Mama received Ford and Rockefeller Foundations grants in 1967 that allowed for the purchase and renovation of this building, which was then in ruins. This location opened in March 1969, with repertory and ensemble theaters on the first and second stories, rehearsal space on the third story, and Stewart’s apartment on the top story. One of the first productions inaugurating the theaters was the musical Caution: A Love Story, by Tom Eyen and Bruce Kirle, based on the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
La MaMa has had continuous associations with LGBT playwrights, directors, and performers over the years. Though commercial theater has never been its focus, a number of La MaMa plays achieved success on Broadway, including: Godspell, by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak; Harvey Fierstein’s The International Stud (1978), Fugue in a Nursery (1979), and Widows and Children First! (1979), directed by Eric Concklin, and later combined as Torch Song Trilogy; and its resident director, Tom O’Horgan, later produced the influential hit Hair. Notable LGBT playwrights associated with La Mama have included Jean-Claude van Itallie, Paul Foster, Tom Eyen, David Starkweather, Lanford Wilson, William M. Hoffman, Charles Ludlam, and Terrence McNally. Eminent directors have included Joseph Chaikin, Wilford Leach, John Vacarro, Marshall W. Mason, and Meredith Monk, and performers of note have included Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver of Split Britches. Many of these individuals were also associated with the other pioneering Off-Off-Broadway venue Caffe Cino.
The La Mama building was constructed in 1873 for the Aschenbroedel Verein, a German-American professional orchestral musicians’ social and benevolent association. The main façade was altered in 1892 for the Gesangverein Schillerbund, one of the city’s oldest leading German singing societies.