A Short History of La MaMa’s Archive

2014-04-07 13.33.17 copyAccording to Ozzie Rodriguez (pictured above), the La MaMa Archives got its official start in 1987, when the Buildings Department ordered the basement theater in La MaMa’s building at 74A East 4th Street closed. “We had a cabaret [space] in the basement,” he explains; the City “decided that that was not a suitable space for audiences.” Unable to use the basement as a theater, but reluctant to let the space sit empty and unused, Ellen Stewart (La MaMa’s founder and director) asked Rodriguez what he thought should be done with the space. “I looked around and said, ‘Well, why don’t you make some room in the office upstairs by sending all the past records down here and we’ll call it The Archive’.”* It seemed like a good idea. So the basement became the archive and Ozzie Rodriguez became the archive’s director.

2014-04-07 13.35.43 copySeveral decades later, Rodriguez still directs the La MaMa Archives, but the Archives no longer lives in the basement of 74A East 4th Street. It now occupies 5000 square feet on the mezzanine level of 66 East 4th Street, a few doors down from 74A, in the building that houses the Ellen Stewart Theater. Visitors entering the space are greeted by a life-sized statue of Stewart herself, arms outstretched, welcoming them in. The rest of the space is devoted to cabinets, bookshelves, display cases, flat files, objects, and work spaces. On a typical day, the space is bustling with activity as Rodriguez leads groups on tours of the space, telling visitors stories about the collection’s objects and the theater’s history. Across the room, Archives Assistant Shigeko Suga is on the computer, logging records or preparing files.

The Archives might have had its official start in 1987, but the collection itself goes all the way back to 1962: it holds a poster from La MaMa’s very first production (an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ short story “One Arm,” directed by Andy Milligan). In all, the collection includes approximately 10,000 unique items, including: posters, programs, scripts, costumes, puppets, masks, musical instruments, correspondence, photographs, and audiovisual materials.  Among int'l-studthese are documents that shed light on the early work of a wide range of now-famous artists– original scripts by Sam Shepard, Harvey Fierstein, and Adrienne Kennedy, and production stills of Bette Midler, Al Pacino, and Diane Lane. The collection also features Ellen Stewart’s many awards (which include Tonys, Obies, and Drama Desks, an “Ordre Des Arts Et Lettres” from the Republic of France, Praemium Imperiale Arts Award, and an “Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette” from the Emperor of Japan). But tucked away alongside these treasures are other equally remarkable objects that testify to the theatrical contributions of less heralded but equally important artists– performers like Helen Hanft, Jackie Curtis, and Jimmy Wigfall; playwrights like H.M. Koutoukas and Jeff Weiss; photographers like James Gossage and Jerry Vezzuso; lighting designers like John Dodd. In this way, the Archive chronicles an important American legacy, shedding light on the artists, companies, and historic productions that found a home at La MaMa and have had a lasting influence on the performing arts landscape and cultural life of the US.

–Rachel Mattson

* Rodriguez quoted in http://nyitawards.blogspot.com/2014/04/la-mama-at-forefront.html

 

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