Fighting for a Legacy
Nick Stewart, who played Lightnin’ on the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” television show in the 1950s, is battling to keep the theater he started that spawned the career of many African American actors.
Stewart and his family were ousted from their Ebony Showcase Theatre in July when a loan company boarded up the building after the family failed to pay most of its rent on the property for four years. Now the Community Redevelopment Agency is poised to buy and save the theater on West Washington Boulevard just blocks east of La Brea Avenue.
Yet Stewart, 86, resents the city’s move to take over the place he turned into a mecca for young African American artists who had few places to go in the years when Hollywood looked past the black community for its talent and whose careers his theater spawned.
“I’m the only black who took his own money and built this theater,” he noted proudly. “Now they [the CRA] want to steal my legacy and put me on the streets.”
But many in the community believe it is time for the octogenarian to move on and retire. They say that for years he mismanaged the theater financially, leaving it stagnant and opening the door for someone else to come in.
“I think the Stewarts have done a great job, but the Stewarts are getting up in age,” said Stanley Bennett Clay, an actor, director, producer and playwright who used to sweep the theater’s floors as a teenager just to be around the swirl of creative activity there. “But there is a need to bring someone in to run the theater.”
Stewart and his wife, Edna, will be the first to admit that money hasn’t been abundant. When they opened the Ebony in 1950, they scraped together enough money to rent a space for what has become one of the oldest continuously running African American theaters in the country.
Now the theater is boarded up as well as a block of buildings next door that housed the family’s restaurant, print shop, theater annex and thrift store. The CRA last Thursday approved a $3.1 million plan to buy and renovate the theater and its surrounding buildings as part of its Mid-City Recovery Redevelopment Project so that it will not be lost to the community.
The decision does not sit well with Stewart, who is determined to win back what he built up. On Tuesday, the Stewarts filed a lawsuit against the CRA and the company that loaned the Stewarts money for improvements, claiming that both took the theater away from them by fraud and misrepresentation.
But local theater people say that the Stewarts lacked the know-how to get grants and support for their nonprofit theater. “It isn’t that they didn’t run it well,” said Erwin Washington, executive director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, also a family-run arts group. “They couldn’t raise the money to get out of their situation.”
Valarie Knight Stewart, who manages the Ebony Showcase for her father, said the theater has been on the edge of financial disaster since 1990, when they borrowed $332,000 from Swing Loans in Covina to comply with city-mandated earthquake retrofitting laws.
Soon the family got behind in payments. There were several fund-raising events to help them out. Eartha Kitt gave a concert in 1991 that netted $7,500. Quincy Jones donated $25,000 and Time Warner contributed $10,000. But that wasn’t enough to ward off a foreclosure sale in 1992. The Stewarts also lost two homes they used as collateral.
Martin Mayerfeld, president of Swing Loans and Repo Properties in Covina and the new owner of the theater, let the Stewarts remain in their buildings after the 1992 foreclosure sale as long as they paid the $12,605 monthly rent for the block of buildings while trying to buy back the places, court documents show. But nearly four years later, the Stewarts owed $427,170 in back rent. Mayerfeld had the place boarded up July 31. Mayerfeld declined to comment.
“My father has won a number of awards, but unfortunately the awards don’t pay the bills,” Valarie Stewart said, noting her father has gotten a lifetime achievement award from the National Advancement of Colored People and a living legend award at the National Black Theatre Festival last year in North Carolina.
Over the years, the Ebony Showcase has helped thousands of young people study photography, dance, writing and video and television production. Mimi’s Restaurant, run by Edna Stewart, 75, provided a venue where blues and jazz musicians played.
“Any black actor who has become anything has gone through the Ebony Showcase Theatre,” said Stanley Bennett Clay, who wrote “Ritual,” produced at the 300-seat Ebony. “I remember taking dance lessons from Eartha Kitt. . . . It was a wonderful place for young people.”
The actors who have worked at the theater reads like a Who’s Who in African American drama: Margaret Avery, co-star in “The Color Purple,” Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons” and Al Freeman Jr., who played Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”
Nick and Edna Stewart organized the Ebony Showcase Theatre in 1950, moving from spot to spot until they purchased a block of buildings in 1971 on Washington. The Stewarts presented plays that depicted positive images of African Americans.
The Stewarts don’t have much time to win back their theater. The CRA proposal to buy the block of buildings goes before the City Council in mid-October. If purchased, the city’s Cultural Affairs Department will select a community-based nonprofit organization to manage the day-to-day operations.
“There is a tremendous desire in the community to reserve [the theater] as an African American historical and cultural monument,” said Roy Willis, the CRA’s deputy administrator for community development. “We’re looking at renaming it [the theater] in honor of Nick Stewart. . . . He’s a national treasure and we want to commemorate that, but sometimes life causes you to move on.”