An Experimental Theatre Company
1968 - 1987
Corner Theatre was an experimental playhouse located at 891 North Howard Street in Baltimore, dedicated to the production and performance of original plays and the ultilization of unconventional theatrical techniques.
By Steve Yeager
Originally published in "Performance" Baltimore's Weekly Newspaper on July 13, 1972 (Vol I, #5)
The Corner Theatre, for the uninitiated, is not on the corner; but it's getting close! It used to be in the middle of Antique Row on Howard Street. Now the theatre has moved towards the northern end of the 800 block of Howard, 891 N. Howard street to be exact; a first floor storefront walk-in. The theatre is dedicated, as it has been for its four and a half years of existence, to the playwright; the one theatre locally that produces only original works. That means one will never see "Under The Yum-Yum Tree" or "Little Mary Sunshine" bounding across its boards. It does mean, however, that unknown, untried, prospective Ibsens, Genets, and Albees can sift their way through the local sands and have their works performed (in most cases) before an audience. Experimentaion is extended to directors, actors, and technicians as well. Because that's what Corner Theatre is all about: groping on all theatrical levels, exploring new forms and content. Sometime the experiments work, sometimes the do not; that's the nature of the beast. But the Corner fare is never boring - unless your desert happens to be that of Alexandro Jodorowsky.
The Corner Theatre Cafe Experimental Theatre Club got its start, more or less, in the summer of 1967 after many negotiations with Ellen Stewart. Miss Stewart is the noted founder of the legendary Cafe La MaMa in New York. She appeared at a Monday evening Center Stage lecture on off-off-Broadway and threw out a challenge to her Baltimore audience and Center Stage hosts to start a branch of her type of ensemble, experimental theatre in Baltimore. Leslie Paul Irons, local producer/director/actor and "drunkard", was in attendance and accepted the challenge. He got Miss Stewart's OK and gratis use of all of the Cafe LaMaMa's repertoire of plays. In order to obtain some working capital and generate interest, Irons produced two plays "Two For The See Saw" and "Hail, Straw-Dyke" at Emanuel Church Hall, both under the new Corner Theatre Cafe ETC label. Then came the windfall, the second floor of the Cooper Dental Lab at 853 North Howard Street. Dave Cooper, proprietor and theatre buff, rented Irons the "slightly" dilapidated area for the exorbitant fee of $1 per year. So, in February 1968, the Corner Theatre Cafe ETC presented its opening bill, New York playwright Leonard Melfi's "Birdbath" and Baltimore playwright C. Richard Gillespie's "The Burial." Although opening night festivities were devoid of Miss Stewart's presence, she did send a token task force of playwrights Melfi and Landford Wilson and an obscure director named Tom O'Horgan. In the year or so that followed, Les Irons assumed most of the producing and directing chores, which was no small undertaking since the maiden theatre only allowed each set of plays to run two weeks, successful or not. And there were some lean moments; quality was dramatically inconsistent ranging from almost brilliant productions to embarrassingly inept ones. But in that drafty second floor loft, with what seemed like Century's original proto-type of a lighting board, ten or twelve coffee can fixtures, unplastered walls, peeling linoleum stage floor, rickety coffee house tables, and oleo-margerine tins for ashtrays, a Baltimore oasis was born.
In those early days, sets and props were superminimal, costumes non-existent, make up unheard of, and coffee cups scarce. The most abundant commodity was enthusiasm, and that ran pretty high. Everyone involved seemed dedicated to a common cause: present Baltimore with a theatrical alternative. The first year saw a lot of Gordon Porterfield in a lot of Leonard Malfi. Porterfield is an electrifying local actor whose intense energy permeated his performances in Malfi's "Birdbath", "The Shirt," and "Halloween." One of the most memorable performances in those early months was Albie Cauffman's portrayal in the title role in "The Madness Of Lady Bright" by Lanford Wilson.
Irons introduced another LaMaMa hand-me-down to Baltimore: a theatrical event called "Changes." The audience experienced this event one at a time in a twenty minute excursion into the black light world of super-sensory awareness. In that early important period of introduction to the Baltimore audiences, the local press, with few exceptions, avoided the theatre en masse. One of the exceptions was a biting, defacing Sun magazine article by John Dempsey depicting the burgeoning theatre as a tacky, sordid hangout for local homosexual and thesbian misfits; an article catering to a white, suburban Colony Apartments mentality, reinforcing the prevarication that downtown, night time Baltimore is unsafe. Some publicity can be bad publicity. The article helped turn off many who might have been otherwise interested.
In May of that first year, actor-turned-playwright Gordon Porterfield had his first two plays, "Authors" and "The Earth Is Dead," produced under the collective heading of "Ratsfeet." The first of these two one act plays was looked upon by many, Baltimore Sun's R. H. Gardner included, as an exercise in a proposed desensitization and subsequent acceptance of a certain four letter English language euphemism, namely, F-U-C-K. It seems as though Porterfield was ahead of his time. One can hardly go to a "straight" play or movie nowadays without hearing "fuck" every ten minutes. It's the now word thanks to the establishment's new permissiveness.
One of the most consistent actors in those premature times was Gerard, the feline member of the company. Gerard was on stage almost as much as Irons or Porterfield. He had an uncanny ability to perceive curtain times. If you were able to locate and detain Gerard before the opening of the evening, then at least you felt you were off to a good start.
"In everyone's life, there's a summer of '69" and for the Corner Theatre Cafe ETC it saw mentor Irons and a few of his die-hard hopefuls move to Aspen, Los Angeles, and points unknown. Enter Larry Lewman on his Fairbanksian magic carpet to the tune of Mario Lanza singing "The Desert Song" followed closely behind by three henchman, Louis Mills, Richard Marie, and Charles Vanderpool on camelback. Baltimore's answer to the "Thief Of Baghdad" brought with him fresh palm air and some much needed professionalism. In less time, than it takes to say, "abra-ca-dabra", Lewman, a professional stage, TV, and film actor, had installed an honest-to-goodness sound and light booth. What a luxury! Corner Theatre (Lewman shortened the tag) had finally arrived! No more running lights from the sink of a converted kitchen!
Lewman's magical appearance at that particular moment in the Corner's fledgling life cannot be minimized. Without his professionalism and guidance, the oasis would surely have dried up. As important as Irons was in perceiving the need, Lewman was in carrying the torch. Lewman succeeded in bringing in John Bruce Johnson, long time friend of Baltimore theatrical endeavors, to produce Gordon Porterfield's full length play "UNIVERSAL NIGGER.""Universal" was a mixed media (slides) theatrical tour de force about a black Christ figure prodding through the stations of the cross. Without a doubt, one of the Corner's most impressive productions, and unquestionably its most popular to date, it played a two month regular run, then continued one a Wednesday night basis for two more months. Much credit has to be given, not only to Johnson's careful direction, but to Lewman's cognizant selection. It took quite a bit of courage to produce a play where Christ has his prodigious black cock severed, blessed and served to the audience on a sterling silver platter as the body of the Lord. "Universal Nigger" was the first and probably still the foremost example for local audiences of "total" or "audience participation" theatre. One memorable night, a patron who was asked to hold the hammer to be used to nail Christ to his cross, failed to participate. The hammer was never found and the theatre was out 10% of its workable tools! The theatre still needs the hammer, and assures amnesty for the malefactor if he returns it.
The following January, Brooklyn's Chelsea Theatre produced "Universal Nigger," making it the first Corner theatre original to go to New York. Theatre patrons still ask when "Universal Nigger" will be revived - perhaps with a little coaxing the playwright and management can be persuaded.
One of the most professional plays ever presented by the off-off-off Broadway haunt was New Yorker Kit Jones' "Watchpit." Michael Makarovich, one of Baltimore's most talented directors and one of the Corner Theatre's most prolific, staged an exciting piece of theatre on, in, and under an exciting Charles Vanderpool set. The play featured Paul Hjelmervik as unforgettable masturbating, nose-picking "Toady." Hjelmervik, now primarily a dinner theatre director, has worked often at the Corner Theatre. He successfully staged two Gordon Porterfield vehicles, "The Catcher Was A Fag" and "I And Silence Some Strange Race," as well as an original teleplay entitled "Tigers." From time to time, almost every known Baltimore actor has appeared on the corner theatre stage; Anne Helm Irons, Al Strappelli, J. R. Lyston, Arthur Laupus, and Doris Crane are a few.
Whenever the works are available, the theatre is firmly committed to the local creator. Besides Porterfield, Corner's more or less playwright-in-residence and sometimes in-absentia, the theatre likes to call as its own local playwright C. Richard Gillespie of Towson State College, Antioch's Grace Cavalieri ("Birds That Call Before The Rain", "Late And Blooming Early Branch" and "Eleventh Hour") and Baltimorean Wallace Hamilton ("Waiting," "Orpheus," and "Tegaroon"). Miss Cavalieri's "Late And Blooming Early Branch" recently won top awards in a Washington D.C. one-act playwrighting competition.
Whatever can be said about Gordon Porterfield's writing, it's at least humorous. The loquacious playwright has a wry, provocative sense of humor that often borders on the absurd; that often is the absurd. "whatisoneholycatholic-apostalicbrownandstinksuptheuniverse" - that's it, all lower case, devoid of spacing, is his funniest full length play. The local harbinger sees God as a bellowing, middle American honky; a sadistic, murderous, charlatan shitting on humanity and making scatologically pornographic eight millimeter home movies. The story line for "whatisoneholy..." reads vaguely like that of Victor Flemings "Wizard Of Oz." Dorothy, Schwartz in this case, (Vatsa nice Jewish girl doink with these schmucks on dis yellow road anyway" is searching desperately for the Oz-God. The dramatist personae alone has one in stitches. Dorothy's companions include, would you believe, SUPER PECKER (complete with a hand painted erection encased in a Warner Brothers shield on his chest) who, disguised as Sammy Tannenbaum, the walking penis, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and a little piece of ass. Dorothy also befriends Labia Major, the transcendental twat; Princess Nellyfaggot; Stringbean; and Wildnigger. Some cast! The finale has God (Larry Lewman) showing the "greatest movie ever made," eight silly millimeters of shit heaving, scatological buffoonery which director J. Bruce Johnson could supervise but not bear to witness the filming of. God is then dissolved "wicked witch-like" after being doused with warm piss from Stringbean's uncle Irving's skull. Alas, poor Irving!
In June, 1970, fate befell Corner Theatre in the form of an insurance inspector and Lewman resigned as artistic director due to pressing professional and family responsibilities. The shifting, whispering (and gossiping) sands had finally claimed the Corner Oasis at 853 North Howard Street.
But look off in the distance, distorted by blistering heat waves; it's, it's, it's, yes, it is....nine men on camel back. It's a mirage! No, it's for real! Appearing miraculously out of the sun drenched desert expanse, like Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia", Maurice Jarre's music slowly but effectively building, and David Lean, bull horn in hand, yelling "Go, go, go....yes, yes, it's Academy Award stuff" appears J. Bruce Johnson, Richard Flax and seven others plodding toward the camera. Cut to an ECU of Johnson's handsome, youthful for his age, face as his parched lips open and a barely audible, raspy voice says "Tegaroon."
"Cut!" yells Lean as he ambles over to his super-star. "What the fuck was that?" he says.
After a much needed slug of Old Fitz from his canvass covered, olive drab canteen, Johnson says, "The play, the play, we're reopening!" Fade to black. Fade up on 891 North Howard Street several months later. The scene: the new Corner Theatre. Led by Johnson and Flax, a local actor and insurance person, a committee of nine took over the management of the theatre. Out of the ashes of 853, the new theatre rose phoenix like a half block down the street and in September, 1970 presented another world premiere of a Wallace Hamilton play, this one called "Tegaroon."
The first year at 891 was the worst aesthetically in the theatre's four and a half year history. The theatre stayed open, however, despite dismal crowds. That transitional period can be said to be more one of logistic and administrative adjustment rather than one lacking in creative fruition.
The past twelve months has seen the theatre produce four very successful, original plays. Meagan Terry's celebrated "Viet Rock," a topical musical with an ensemble cast expertly handled by Michael Makarovich, played to SRO audiences last May after first appearing at the Cafe LaMaMa. In November, Cary Gilliam presented Michael DeGhelderoede's "Escurial," with a fantastic atmosphere set designed by Charles Vanderpool. The entire theatre was decorated as macabre fifteenth century castle antiroom. Unfortunately the play, poorly cast and poorly directed, did not do justice to its devised surroundings (the set alone however, was worth the price of admission). In January 1972, the most professional production since "Watchpit" was staged - Lee Dorsey's "Pigeons," an ornithological play about a pigeon freak, was presented also in an atmospheric setting. The entire theatre was designed as a pigeon coop. Annapolis' playwright Dorsey's work, almost too conventional by Corner Theatre standards, was designed by Scott Colder and directed by Steve Yeager.
This past June, Corner Theatre presented a set of thirteen short one act plays collectively called "Gnomes." The program was significant in that it marked the return of the theatre's prodigal son, Gordon Porterfield, following a year and a half absence. Porterfield personifies Corner Theatre and its artistic struggles over the years. He is its best known product and he writes its most exciting theatre.
Throughout its travails, the Corner Theatre has produced over 100 plays, half of which have been world premieres, all of which have marked a first for Baltimore audiences. This summer, three more young local playwrights will have their works produced for the first time. In July, Jim Secor's five one-act plays will premiere. In September, Jim Turner and actor/playwright Joe Harris' musical adaptation of the Hitler-Eva Braun affair, "Eva," will hopefully hit a high note.
In the fall, "HERE" (a rearrangement of the original "Changes" written and directed by Dick Flax) will open it's fourth season; Monday nights only. Every Wednesday night, Chris Buchman presents vintage silents and talkies as part of his Corner Theatre Cinema Club. The theatre, in the past, has entertained two different film societies, one with midnight showings and another with Baltimore experiemental films, including John Waters' "underground" epics.
" Why doesn't Corner Theatre so more black plays?" asked a recent patron. "We don't receive more black plays for production," was Corner Theatre president Dick Flax's answer. Flax confirmed the fact that he would love to do more black plays. He feels that the theatre would present an ideal environment for blacks to work and feel comfortable, free from socio-economic pressures. He would like to see an increase in the theatre's 10-15% black attendance and not leave the Arena Playhouse, presently the exclusive outlet for black playwrights in Baltimore.
Corner Theatre has, very recently and due to the tireless efforts of Dick Flax, pulled off what is no doubt the biggest coup in its history. While in London, Flax and his wife read an interesting review of a play being performed there called "An Othello." The couple literallu crashed the theatre, witnessed a thoroughly fascinating production and then coerced the playwright, Charles Marowitz, into allowing Corner Theatre to do it as an American premiere. So "An Othello," with Iago and Othello representing Malcolm X's "field and house niggers," respectively, will open here in October (the British play is scheduled for a November production at the Chelsea Theatre in New York).
Corner Theatre artistic director John Bruce Johnson has stated that he is a bit concerned at times by the lack of enthusiasm shown the theatre by the Baltimore community. Friends and relatives often become last-minute substitutes when actors and technicians are not available. For a year after its move to the new location, Corner had a sort of work/study arrangement with Phillip Arnoult's theatre department of Antioch College in Baltimore, which supplied the Howard Street playhouse with new blood and able manpower. Arnoult has since moved his own troupe to the Theatre Project on Preston Street. Mr. Johnson feels that if Corner Theatre is to survive, a strong alliance with a college or colleges is necessary. "Since theatre people are by nature transcients," he said, "there is a constant turnover of personnel; therefore an affiliation with a college would supply Corner with the needed influx of talent and energy and at the same time provise the students with an outlet for ideas that would not ordinarily fit into the formal college schedule."
Is the Corner Theatre, then, a cultural oasis? I think it is. It is continually trying to establish a workable dialogue with the Baltimore community. It is continually striving to meet the needs of those it serves. Many local playwrights, directors, technicians (myself included), have had their pleas heard and their interests and energies whetted, thanks to Corner Theatre. Without it, many would never have had the opportunity of exposure needed for artistic, psychological and emotional growth. As Wallace Hamilton once remarked, "the Corner is the cutting edge of Baltimore Theatre," and I might perhaps add, the toothing ring of the American stage. Let's hope it remains so for a long time to come.
See Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corner_Theatre_ETC