Edith O’Hara—A Personal Remembrance

At the 13th Street Repertory Theater: L to R: Michael J. C. Anderson, Mark William, Al Roths, Amanda Andrews, Benjamin Grier, Edith O’Hara, Michael Knowles, Chip Deffaa. | Photo by Deb Deffaa

BY CHIP DEFFAA | I’ve never known anyone quite like veteran theater-owner/producer Edith O’Hara—longtime manager/artistic director of the 13th Street Repertory Theater (and mother of actresses Jenny O’Hara and Jill O’Hara)—who has just died at the age of 103. And she died exactly the way she wanted to: At home, not in a hospital, in her apartment above her beloved 13th Street Theater (50 W. 13th St., NYC). For much of her life, that vibrant little theater was her home. She spent decades nurturing young playwrights, performers, directors, and designers.

There were few women in positions of authority when she started in theater. But as she once told me, “If I wanted to do something, I just went ahead and did it.” She blazed a trail for others to follow. And she was proud of the fact that many notables had worked at the 13th Street Theater, at one time or another (often when they were just getting started), including Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Chazz Palminteri, Amy Stiller, Jamie DeRoy, Christopher Meloni, Armelia McQueen, Charles Ludlam, Austin Pendleton, Barnard Hughes, Richard Dreyfuss, and many others. For 17 years, the unique, dark monologist Brother Theodore—a Greenwich Village icon, whose wonderfully theatrical late-night rants enthralled fans—made the 13th Street Repertory Theater his base. Her production of Israel Horovitz’s Line ran at her theater for some 45 years, becoming the longest-running theatrical production in New York. She liked to have things happening at her theater, day and night.

As one who benefitted greatly from her vision, generosity, and tenacity, I’d like to offer a personal reminiscence. I’ve written 20 published plays. I’ve produced 30 albums. Edith’s theater has long been my base, and most of the shows I’ve written and albums I’ve produced have their roots in her unique space. She told me years ago: “You have carte blanche to develop whatever work you like here.” And—as countless people who’ve worked with her could affirm—her word was her bond. She gave me—and many others—freedom to pursue my interests.  I gratefully dedicated one album I produced, Irving Berlin Rediscovered, to Edith O’Hara. This was the photo we used for the dedication.

When I decided to run a theater festival in midtown, in 2002—eventually presenting more than two dozen shows on 42nd Street in a period of six weeks—I asked Edith if she had any advice for me. And the advice she gave me was the most valuable advice anyone offered me in that period. She said, “You have spaces to work with. Don’t just think of presenting one show in prime time. Make maximum use of you space, round the clock.” She considered that to be a secret of her own success. Instead of just presenting one show in her theater at say, 8pm, she might present one play at 6pm, another at 8pm, and another at 10pm. She could present family-friendly afternoon kids’ shows (developed by the likes off June Rachelson-Ospa and Wendy Tokens). In “free times,” new shows could be rehearsing on stage, in a rehearsal-room upstairs, and in the lobby. (I even did some rehearsals on the roof!)

There were “down times,” when nothing was on the schedule, but you’d still find the theater buzzing with life. People might be sewing costumes or painting sets. There was a period when she had gals working on typewriters in the lobby—providing freelanced secretarial services for customers. O’Hara took seriously the idea of maximum use of the space. I learned from her.

* * *

O’Hara had a gift for sizing up people quickly and decisively. If she liked you and believed in you, she extended complete trust. And her commitment was total. The first time she presented one of my plays, she told that as long as she was living and had the theater, I should consider it my home; she’d present anything I wrote. (She actually gave me the key to the building, so I could come in, any time.)

And she’s been true to her word. I’ve workshopped and presented assorted shows there, including Irving Berlin’s America, One Night with Fanny Brice, Irving Berlin: In Person, Theater Boys, The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue, and Mad About the Boy. The next play of mine to be published, Say it With Music (published and licensed by Stage Rights) will note it had its first reading at the 13th Street Theater. We’d be doing a production of it there now, were it not for the pandemic.

I’ve praised Edith O’Hara as an innovation theater pioneer in lectures I’ve given everywhere from Idaho (where she was born, just before the U.S. entered the First World War) to Korea (in a lecture tour sponsored by the US State Department). She always believed theater should be fun; she believed it should be a place where writers and actors could explore and create with freedom. And she gladly gave people freedom. For many years, she ran the theater by herself, or with one trusted right-hand associate, Sandra Nordgren. No committees or boards making decision. She trusted her instincts. And she attracted all sorts of people. In recent years, as her health declined, Artistic Director Joe Battista has continued to run and maintain the theater well in the O’Hara tradition. And I’m sure he’ll continue to do so with gusto for years to come.

When Edith O’Hara presented one of Tennessee Williams’ plays at her theater, he proclaimed from her stage that future of theater in America was not in big Broadway theaters, but in small, independent houses like her 13th Street Rep. It meant a lot to her that Williams–about as great a playwright as America had ever produced–had graced her stage. (She could show you, proudly, exactly where he’d stood, downstage right.) After his death, she gave his play Pieces of Paradise its New York premiere.

The award-winning playwright Israel Horovitz’s play Line (which has now been produced in more than 120 countries) ran at O’Hara’s 13th Street Rep for a record-setting 45 years (It would probably be playing now, were it not for the pandemic, which has shut everything down.) Originally directed at the theater by O’Hara herself, it became the longest-running production in New York City. Oh, there have been a few “time-out” gaps in those 45 years, when cast members left and new cast members were being rehearsed. But the gaps were not significant. The play was basically a rolling concern, presented once or twice a week on that little stage, for some 45 years. She once asked me if I’d consider directing a new production of it at the theater—curious to see how another director might approach it. But I told her: “It isn’t broke; it doesn’t need fixing.”

When one of Horovitz’s sons was six, the boy asked Edith O’Hara if she would present at her theater a play that he’d just written. O’Hara, who was always a great believer in encouraging young talent, did just that! He was, I’m sure, the only six-year-old with a show professionally presented on a New York stage. But she saw her mission in life as nourishing the talents of others.

O’Hara has helped many careers over the years, and has produced hundreds of plays. O’Hara helped develop the musical Touch, which ran for two years in New York; its cast album received a Grammy nomination. Charles Ludlam won a devoted following at her theater, presenting his Bluebeard and Camille. Edith presented New York’s first hit gay musical, Bill Solly’s Boy Meets Boy (1974) at her 13th Street Repertory Theater, then moved the show to larger theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for successful year-long commercial runs.

Although Solly had had other, more conventional shows of his produced successfully before Boy Meets Boy, he could not find any producers, in New York, London, or anywhere else, willing to gamble on a gay musical, until he met O’Hara. She took a chance on him. And he felt right at home-even helping make repairs at the theater.

O’Hara has always had a knack for getting people to help out in all sorts of ways. And she attracted people who love the theater as deeply as she does. She gave them room to thrive.

And O’Hara has also given encouragement to young talents via awards to rising young artists-watch, such as Emily Bordonaro, Rayna Hirt, Michael Czyz, Benjamin Grier, winners in recent years of the theater’s Betty Buckley Award, George M. Cohan Award, and Matthew Nardozzi Award.

Edith O’Hara always did her own thing. As a youth in Idaho, she formed and led an all-girls band. She fell in love with theater when, in her youth-due to a shortage of local boys interested in acting-she was cast to star as George Washington in a school play. .

O’Hara believed in hard work. And she did not make excuses; she did not let health issues (including epileptic seizures) stop her from doing what she wanted to do in life. (She also told me that climbing the stairs from the theater lobby to her apartment upstairs, year after year, kept her “as strong as a mountain goat.”) She always had a strong work ethic and sought to surround herself with those who were likeminded. And she was always extraordinarily kind to strangers, people who’d walk in off the street, somehow drawn to her curious little theater. She would turn seemingly no one away.

When one homeless man, Tom Harlan, asked he if he could help in any way, she found odd jobs for him to do. When she discovered he was highly artistic, she made Harlan the theater’s resident set designer/costume designer, and gave him a place to live in the building. I don’t know of any other theater in New York where that could have happened. And it was wholly characteristic of her. Her loyalty to people was admirable, and people stayed connected to her and the theater. Wendy Tonken, for example, has run the theater’s children’s program for more than 30 years O’Hara always was a great believer in children’s theater, no less than theater for adults. Tonken’s after-school program helped lots of kids—some of whom went on to professional careers. And Tonken’s children’s programs also brought a reliable stream of income to the theater, and helped keep the doors open. Presenting the world-premiere of a Tennessee Williams play was meaningful to Edith O’Hara. But she knew that there were no guarantees that any drama might fill the house. Whereas, children’s shows always seemed to draw.

* * *

Theater, I might add, seems to be in the blood of Edith O’Hara’s family. And I’ve enjoyed seeing her famed daughters on stage. Edith’s daughter, Jill O’Hara, made her mark on Broadway in the original casts of Promises, Promises! and George M!” Edith’s daughter, Jenny O’Hara, among many other credits, did Promises, Promises! and The Iceman Cometh on Broadway, and in more recent years had a recurring role on the sitcom King of Queens. Edith’s granddaughter Sophie Ullett, is an actress. And Edith’s son, Jack O’Hara, is a singer/songwriter.

* * *

In recent years, age and health issues forced Edith O’Hara to curtail her activities. But she established a theater with its own traditions. And it’s continued to thrive. She told me more than 30 years ago that running a theater in New York was a constantly challenging job, and it’s always touch-and-go. Simply surviving from year to year is not easy. She vowed to me, she’d keep that theater going for as long as she lived. (She also told me that someday I’d be running it; I appreciated that expression of confidence, but running a theater is not my thing and it’s in very capable hands.) For nearly five decades, Edith O’Hara kept that theater hopping. And in recent years, under Joe Battista’s wise management, it has been attractively refurbished, and the stage has been rebuilt. I hope Edith’s venerable theater will continue to thrive. (And I’m confident that Joe Battista, working with Edith’s family, can continue to make that possible.) A lot of magic has been created in that building. I’m grateful—as are many others—to her for the theatrical space she created.


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