Ebony Theater Tries to Keep Final Curtain From Coming Down
As the drawling, shuffling, dimwitted Lightnin’ on the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” television show in the early 1950s, Nick Stewart was part of a cast that officials at the NAACP’s national headquarters wanted taken off the air.
But for Stewart, Lightnin’ was a means to an end.
“I was Lightnin’ by day, but I put on serious black theater by night,” he said.
And in December, nearly 40 years after “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was canceled, the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People honored Stewart, 82, for that serious work he continues to do by night, giving him a lifetime achievement award “for positive portrayals of African-Americans and longevity in the theatre.”
Using their own money, Stewart and his wife, Edna, organized the Ebony Showcase Theater in 1950 and eventually moved it to a complex that now occupies nearly a full block on Washington Boulevard, west of La Brea Avenue. The Stewarts believe that the Ebony Showcase is the oldest black theater in the country, and its stage has been a crucible for hundreds of black actors who moved on to film and television roles.
But the theater is in its toughest fight yet for survival, after a history of struggles.
Last summer, the Stewarts lost the theater building and two adjacent buildings in a foreclosure sale. They also lost two homes they had used as collateral for a loan they took out in an effort to save the theater.
The Stewarts and their daughter Valarie are trying desperately to raise money to buy the property back. But the debt is about $800,000 and the interest is mounting by several hundred dollars a day, said Hymen L. Epstein, an attorney for Swing Loans in Covina, the new owner.
“When you put your own home on the line and lose it, that shows you really mean well,” Epstein said. The financing company “is very willing to reconvey the property,” he said. “All we want to do is get our money back and our interest.”
Councilman Joel Wachs said the City Council is exploring ways to preserve what he calls “a critical part of the cultural history of this city. I don’t know that there is a way to save the theater, but I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
Over the years, the theater has had to fight “crisis after crisis,” said Valarie Stewart, who runs the Ebony Showcase, pointing out that it has not closed as has been rumored. A production is running now, and Mimi’s restaurant, off its lobby, remains open.
“We’ve come through every one of those earlier crises--often at the eleventh hour,” she said.
“My father just got a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP at the same time that the theater is fighting for its life. The hard reality is that any day we could be history.”
The intensity in Nick Stewart’s voice rises to a crescendo as he ticks off the names of performers who have worked at the theater: “The Color Purple” co-star Margaret Avery, John Amos from the sitcom “Good Times” and the “Roots” miniseries, Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons,” Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek,” Al Freeman Jr. who played Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”
“I gave them a home,” Stewart said. “The whole industry has benefited from the people we’ve trained. This place is a monument.”
Comedian Robert Townsend shot scenes for his film “Hollywood Shuffle” at the Ebony Showcase, and Keenen Ivory Wayans used the theater in his sendup of “blaxploitation” films, “I’m Gonna Git You Suckah.”
Eddie Murphy taped a comedy special there, and recording artists from blues man B. B. King to Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan have shot music videos there, Stewart said.
“Virtually every major black star has interacted with the Ebony Showcase and knows its history,” said Tommy Ford, director of “South of Where We Live,” the theater’s current production.
“If the theater closes, the city will lose an important part of its culture,” added Ford, who appears on the Fox television network sitcom “Martin.”
Along with the training in drama, the Ebony Showcase has enabled thousands of young people to study photography, video and television production, dance or writing in classes offered at the theater, Valarie Stewart said. Although the theater faces eviction, she is organizing an after-school latchkey program and an Explorer Scout program in the dramatic arts while helping to coordinate the theater’s drug education program at Locke High School in Watts.
She remembers a man approaching her at a trade fair for black businesses and telling her the theater had turned his life around by teaching him photography.
“He said that when he came in, he was crazy,” she said. But the photography class sparked his interest, she said, and he found a focus.
Sixty-five years ago, that man could have been Nick Stewart.
“I came out of a reform school and slept on the streets of Harlem,” Stewart said.
He found the Hoofers’ Club, a group of Harlem tap dancers, and discovered direction in his life through dancing, he said. After starting as a dancer, he moved on to comedy in touring shows and in the movies.
“Theater was controlled by whites, and they created the image of what they wanted us to be,” he said, almost by way of explaining his portrayal of Lightnin’. “I worked with the legendary greats--Honi Coles, the Step Brothers, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington.
“But I came back to this community. I brought theater to the black community. I did it against all odds. And now I’m taking my case to the community and asking them to join me in this effort.”
A Cable Network News report on the theater’s plight has attracted scores of letters and small contributions. A drama student at Yale University sent $10 and apologized for not being able to send more. An African-American history club at a New Jersey High School also sent $10.
Stewart’s 82 years have not exhausted his passion . . . or his faith in his vision. He believes in miracles and is fond of reminding visitors of Moses parting the Red Sea.
“The sea opens every year for me,” he said. “The God I believe in won’t let me down. You gotta believe. I am of worth. I am of value.”