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Theoni V. Aldredge, one of the greatest Costume Designers of the 20th Century, Dies at 88

It is always a landmark for me when a theatre great passes on, and reading in this morning’s NY Times that costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge had died in Connecticut three days ago. struck me as one such landmark.

Aldredge won three Tony Awards for Costuming: Annie in 1977,  Barnum in 1980 and La Cage aux Folles in 1987. She was nominated for Tonys 12 other times, most recently in 2006 for the revival of Follies.

Aldredge was born Theoni Athanasiou Vashlioti in 1932 in Salonika, Greece (which, oddly enough, is where my relatives on my Father’s side come from). She acquired her last name in 1953 when she married actor Tom Aldredge, who she remained with for the rest of her life.

She often worked for Joe Papp at the Public Theater and, when Papp brought his big pieces to Broadway, like Two Gentlemen Of Verona in the 1970s, it was Theoni Aldredge who costumed the huge cast. Aldredge was known for beautiful designs that took large budgets to create… surprising since she did so much non-profit work for Papp.

In films, she won three Oscars and had five other nominations. Her films included Ghostbusters, Network, Moonstruck and Addams Family Values – indicative of the range of styles she commanded.

In 1985 she designed both costumes and environment for Akyvernites politeis, a television series in Greece.

The Woman Who Invented Off-Off-Broadway… Ellen Stewart Dies at 91.

Ellen Stewart in 2006 (NY Times Photo)

If it were not for Ellen Stewart there would probably never have been a Robert De Niro or an Al Pacino or an Olympia Dukakis or any one of a thousand successful actors, playwrights or directors. When she founded LaMaMa in 1971 in a 4th Street Basement, the Chicago-born, Southern-raised dress designer had no previous interest in theatre, but had a foster brother who had written plays and wanted to get them produced.

Stewart founded LaMaMa in the basement of her apartment building, eventually building up to a complex of four theatres, art gallery, and and rehearsal space. She continued working virtually up to the time of her death, producing an average of 70 plays a year. Her influence was worldwide. With the $300,000 MacArthur grant she bought a former monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turned it into an international theater center.

She was rarely commercial…in it for the plays but not the money. She defied Actors Equity rules about how much to pay actors (in the original few years they had no money) by calling LaMaMa a “Theater Club” and her ticket sales were “Membership Fees.” She was even known to produce some earlier short works by famous playwrights without getting permission.

Neighbors initially tried to close the theater down. They thought she was running a brothel, she said in interviews. Otherwise, why would so many white men be visiting a black woman in a basement?

“Eighty percent of what is now considered the American theater originated at La MaMa,” said Harvey Fierstein, another LaMaMa graduate.

“I can’t imagine La MaMa without her. There may be a place called La MaMa that somebody brings good avant-garde international theater to, but it will not be La MaMa. La MaMa is her,” said Director Elizabeth Swados.

Farewell, Ms. Stewart…farewell La Mama.