In real-life drama, grandson saved theater icon, 96

At Edith O’Hara’s 96th birthday party, from left, Michael Adams, historian for state Senator Bill Perkins, who gave O’Hara a lifetime achievement award; Jenny O’Hara; Edith O’Hara; and John O’Hara.  Photo by Gideon Manasseh

At Edith O’Hara’s 96th birthday party, from left, Michael Adams, historian for state Senator Bill Perkins, who gave O’Hara a lifetime achievement award; Jenny O’Hara; Edith O’Hara; and John O’Hara. Photo by Gideon Manasseh

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  If his grandmother could for 40 years save her theater, the tiny 13th Street Rep, against all wolves domestic or foreign, why then, John O’Hara, Jr., could save his grandmother when he couldn’t reach her on the telephone.

On the second day after Hurricane Sandy he walked over the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan and found the then 95-year-old Edith O’Hara alive and well but with no food, light, heat, electricity, running water or any means to reach the outside world.

The next day John Jr. somehow corralled a taxicab and took his grandmother by ferry over to Staten Island, where his parents — musicians Jack and Annie O’Hara — had a house high enough on a hilltop to escape the reach of the disaster.

That was October 31 of last year. Since then, guitarist and actor John Jr., who also works as a compere at the storied Blue Note jazz club, on West Third Street, has attained the ripe old age of 29, while Grandma Edith — born on a farm in northern Idaho in 1917 — reached the ever-young age of 96 on February 16 of this year.

The birthday party was a week later in and around the 50-seat playhouse that has been Edith’s place of work, residence and resistance to would-be legal and corporate invaders since 1972. That was the year stage-minded Edith’s eyes had fallen on an ad in a local newspaper offering for sale or rent a pint-sized, centuries-old, three-story townhouse that “contains a small theater” on West 13th Street — “and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Well, not quite yet.

“Gettin’ up there,” the daughter of Idaho logger Oscar Hopkins remarks dryly to a journalist who has offered birthday congratulations.

Edith, the journalist inquires, what would you have said if I’d told you 75 years ago that you were going to live to be 95-plus? That you were part of history?

“I’d probably have said, ‘O.K.’ — but I never thought about it.”

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?

“Starting a summer theater in Warren. Pennsylvania, before all this,” she says. “And then bringing that show, a musical called ‘Touch,’ to New York and the East Village, where it ran two years and made everything else possible.”

Edith O’Hara’s living quarters are two flights up over the tiny theater and even tinier box office and what passes for a lobby. Two flights, no elevator.

“Handrails on both sides,” says Edith helpfully. “Mom goes up and down there three or four times every day,” says Jenny O’Hara, studying her iPad but listening in. Jenny O’Hara and Jill O’Hara, actresses both, are Edith’s beautiful and sprightly daughters, who, at one time or another, in one Broadway or Off Broadway show or another, have, separately, held this town in thrall.

At the moment Jenny is one of the stars of “Luck of the Irish,” a play about race, real estate, and 1950s “ghost buying,” at Lincoln Center, while Jenny’s husband, Nick Ullett, is the Lady Bracknell of an “Importance of Being Earnest” in Naples, Florida.

“Mom fell and broke her hip a couple of years ago,” Jenny informs the press.

Her mother’s face registers disapproval. She starts to protest, but Jenny overrides her: “You fell on stage, moving a trunk. It fell on top of you.”

“I cracked a hip,” Edith O’Hara says tartly.

A couple of years ago Edith O’Hara finally won her long-running battle to keep herself and her theater going on, right where they are, till the end of her life.

Had Jenny — who, like sister Jill, fought like a tiger on behalf of their mother — ever now felt that Mom was actually out of peril?

“I did. She is a tough cookie — with a soft heart — and they couldn’t take her down.”

Listening in — while waiting to say Happy Birthday to Edith — was an actor named Daniel Crane. He now chipped in: “They mistook her kindness for weakness.”

Several young people ran through and out of the lobby, chirping a “Goodnight, Edith!” as they ran.

“Edith has given us a home here for the past 25 years,” said Wendy Tomkin, director of the 13th Street Children’s Theater. “What that woman has done!”

A beauty under a halo of light brown hair came up and introduced herself to Jenny O’Hara: “Are you Edith O’Hara’s daughter?” the young woman said. “I’m Melodie Bryant. I made a documentary film about your mother. Everywhere I go, I come across actors saying: ‘Edith O’Hara gave me my first part.’ She is in history.”

Speaking of history, a hiding place underneath one of the ancient dressing rooms of the theater at 50 West 13th Street was once a way station on the Underground Railroad of runaway slaves fleeing from South to North before and during the Civil War.

One of the many messages now addressed to the 96-year-old birthday girl — on the heels of last year’s salute from Barack and Michelle Obama — was a Harriet Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award, for Black History Month, from Harlem-based state Senator Bill Perkins, Harriet Tubman being one of the most forceful and famous of all runaway slaves, male or female. A poem about her by the Spoken Word Group’s Abiodun accompanies the citation to Ms. O’Hara.

Speaking of presidents, had Edith O’Hara voted for anyone this time around?

“No,” she murmured. “I don’t travel much. But I would have voted for Obama.”

Rushing up now to throw a bear hug around Edith was a large, amiable, enthusiastic person of rotating gender — male, then female, then male again — named Brian (Tish) Belovitch. His “Boys Don’t Wear Lipstick” was done at the Players Theater, MacDougal Street, back in 2000.

He has, he said, just finished a screenplay of that saga — “and Edith is in the screenplay as somebody who gave me a huge boost, saved my life.”

Edith O’Hara seems to have had a way of saving people’s lives, especially people who were taking stabs first at this career, then that career.

One such is Sandra Nordgren, who turned up at 50 West 13th Street as a refugee from Hollywood 17 years ago.

“Didn’t like film, wanted to get back in theater,” says the Sandra Nordgren who today is the producing artistic director of that same 50 West 13th Street Rep.

On the 13th Street’s current or near-future docket are:

“The Accidental Pervert,” a one-man piece by Andrew Goffman, directed by Charles Messina, that opened here in July 2011 and will run “to the end of June anyway,” says Ms. Nordgren.

“Line,” by famed Greenwich Village neighbor Israel Horovitz, a wry, dry playlet about one-upmanship, now in the 39th year — yes! — of an unbroken run that has given birth almost to more stage-and-screen luminaries-to-be than there are stars in the summer sky.

“The Barbecue,” a political farce by Buddy Parmer, directed by Robert Nunkele.

“One Night With Fannie Brice,” a story, song, and tap-dance venture by jazz critic Chip Defaa.

“What I’m Failing to Learn,” a musical of “inspired adolescent confusion,” by 13-year-old Schuyler Iona Press, who at age 3 was on her way to preschool when the first plane hit the first tower.

Another refugee who received succor from Edith is 13th Street Rep publicist Dell Long, who fled Katrina-smashed New Orleans eight years ago and, like so many others, now says: “Edith gave me a home.”

Bang! Bang! Bang! Brrrrrrrr-rrrrrr-rrrrrr! On the pint-sized 13th Street stage, actor turned jazz drummer JoJo Novellino and his sidemen are opening the delivery of birthday greetings from around the world to 96-year-old Edith Hopkins O’Hara. Sitting quietly, stage right, in gray gym clothes, taking it all in, is the 29-year-old who walked over that bridge under a stormy sky, last October, to keep the show headed toward 97.

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