A dramatic victory for Village theater doyenne, 94

By JERRY TALLMER

The birthday greetings from Barack and Michelle Obama were nice, but the more detailed citation from Andrew Cuomo was even nicer. And the revelation that Edith could stay right where she was and had been for almost 40 years — that she and her legendary 50-seat theater could stay right there in operation and residence at 50 W. 13th St. — was sweetest of all.

Edith is Edith O’Hara, who hit — no, touched — age 94 on Monday of last week Feb. 15, 2011.

“Dear Ms. O’Hara,” the note on White House stationery begins, “We are pleased to join your family and friends in wishing you all the best on your birthday… . Your story is an important part of the American narrative…” and so on and so forth… .

“Whereas” — the inscribed citation from Albany reads, in part — “Whereas, from children’s shows to actors’ workshops, from new works to New York City’s longest running play, ‘Line,’ Ms. O’Hara’s Thirteenth Street productions have enriched the lives of community members and visitors for nearly forty years, and

“Whereas, over the decades, Ms. O’Hara has fostered a unique home for creativity, expression, and growth at the Thirteenth Street Repertory, helping actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians develop their craft and expand their potential as contributors to New York’s diverse cultural tapestry…” and so on and so forth… .

“Touch,” as it happens, is the name of the latest thread in that tapestry. It is a revival, now in previews at 50 W. 13th St., of the youthful Woodstock-era antiwar hit musical (words by Ken Long, music by Jim Crozier) that had been the first show Edith ever produced in New York, a couple of years before she saw a 1972 newspaper ad: “BUILDING FOR LEASE. CONTAINS A SMALL THEATER” — “and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she recalled.

That the basement of the little old, three-story, brick-fronted townhouse had been a Greenwich Village way station on the Underground Railroad of the pre-Civil War era was an unexpected, extra added attraction. Edith moved in.

“I’ve known Edith for 30 years,” said Claude Brickell, director of today’s “Touch” redux. “I know where all the bodies are buried.”

What Brickell — and scores of other celebrants packed into Edith’s tiny living room cum lobby the night of her birthday — what he and they may or may not have known is that Edith and her theater no longer face the threat of being ousted from Thirteenth Street altogether.

The matter of Loewentheil v. O’Hara was quietly dropped in New York State Supreme Court a few months ago, according to an attorney familiar with the case. Loewentheil is Stephen Loewentheil, a Baltimore dealer in rare books and documents, who with his wife, Beth, has since 2008 been seeking to oust Edith from the first floor — the theater floor — of 50 W. 13th St.

“The case is over,” I was told last week. “Edith remains in the building for life.”

No more looming high-rise condominiums on that precise site! Not while Edith is alive, anyway.

One by one, two Mondays ago, old friends and, so to speak, graduates of Thirteenth Street came over to kiss and schmooze with the birthday girl;

There was Israel Horovitz, whose very first play, “Line,” had opened at La MaMa in 1967 when La MaMa was still on Second Ave., and then went to the Theatre de Lys, on Christopher St., and then came here, to Thirteenth Street, and stayed here, where through all the years a succession of famous actors before they were famous, Chazz Palminteri for one, have had their beginnings.

There was Albert Poland, the producer and/or general manager of as many shows as Edith O’Hara now has years, many of them works of high sensitivity and imagination.

“I first met Edith at Phoebe’s restaurant on Second Ave., back when she had this big Off Broadway hit, ‘Touch,’ before she was here,” Poland recalled. “She said: ‘I’m doing a little musical down the street.’ I fell in love with her and her adventurous spirit.”

There was Dell Long, Edith’s publicist friend, who, as she put it, “When I first heard the wrecking ball coming, I said: ‘No way” — and had then gone to work, with results including those helpful words from Washington and Albany.

There was Stephen Morrow, who a few years ago had directed, at this theater, to raise money toward the salvation of this theater, a bill of four short, piercing one-act plays by Tennessee Williams that had been found in an archive in Austin, Texas.

There was Melodie Bryant, whose just-completed, 36-minute documentary, “A Home in the Theater,” all about Edith and the Thirteenth Street Theater and the ever-increasing disappearance of small theaters — “We lost three just while I was making this film,” she noted — was a highlight of the entertainment also sparked by Israel Horovitz and Albert Poland doing a twofer about “Line.”

But the last word here comes from that attorney who knows what’s what on 13th St.

“I think the happy ending to your story,” he said, “is a wonderful thing. Edith O’Hara can stay where she is for the rest of her life.”

Amen.

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