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Obituaries

Nick Stewart; Co-Founded Ebony Theater to Help Black Actors

December 21, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nick Stewart, the comic actor who played Lightnin' on "Amos 'n' Andy" and the voice of Br'er Bear in Disney's animated "Song of the South" and its Splash Mountain ride and who founded Los Angeles' Ebony Showcase Theater, has died. He was 90.

Stewart died Monday at the home of his son Christopher, his family said. Christopher and his sister, Valarie, said their father lost his will to live after his beloved Ebony theater was foreclosed in 1996 and razed in 1998.

Only last week, Stewart, accompanied by Christopher, appeared in his wheelchair to protest the groundbreaking for the new Washington Boulevard Performing Arts Center on the site of his theater. Holding a sign proclaiming, "Ebony Rip-Off," Stewart sat to the rear of the stage built for speeches by an enthusiastic Mayor Richard Riordan, City Councilman Nate Holden and officials of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is heading the new city development.

The CRA planned the new center to house theater and performing arts classes fostered by Stewart and the Ebony since 1950. But Stewart, his wife, Edna, who co-founded the theater, and three children, Christopher, Valarie and Roger, have been so angered by the situation that they prevented the city from using the name Ebony Showcase Theater for the new center.

After the Stewarts lost the Ebony building and two adjacent buildings, saying they fell into debt because of efforts to comply with city seismic codes in 1992, they tried to raise money to buy back the property. But they were unable to surmount the $800,000 debt. The CRA bought the property from its new owner in an eminent domain proceeding for $475,000.

Stewart, who clearly considered the Ebony his greatest achievement, helped break the servant and buffoon mold into which black performers had been traditionally cast. The veteran actor knew the limits placed on blacks by the entertainment industry. He had been there.

Born March 10, 1910, across from New York Harlem's fabled Cotton Club, Stewart grew up poor and landed in reform school. But he later discovered Harlem's Hoofers' Club, and tap dancing gave him direction. He became a chorus boy at New York's old Lincoln theater and then went on to do stand-up comedy and acting, eventually working the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and '30s. And he performed in his neighborhood Cotton Club, on the same bill with such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.

Stewart first performed in Los Angeles in 1932, when he was touring with a Fanchon & Marco vaudeville troupe, and returned with Calloway in 1937. He moved to Los Angeles in 1941.

Billed variously as Nicodemus, Nick O'Demus, Horace Stewart and Nicodemus Stewart, the actor also began performing in motion pictures, making his debut in the 1936 "Go West Young Man." He was characteristically cast as a waiter, a porter, a redcap, an elevator boy and an African in jungle films.

Stewart was memorable in Disney's "Song of the South" in 1946, voicing Br'er Bear of the "Uncle Remus"' stories, and then repeating the character's voicing for Disneyland's Splash Mountain ride in 1988.

When radio's enormously popular "Amos 'n' Andy" series was slated to segue into the new medium of television in 1950, producers had to recast the show, which was purportedly about blacks but was voiced by white actors. Stewart was hired as Lightnin', the shuffling, drawling, dimwitted janitor. The show ran on CBS from 1951 to 1953.

Although Stewart's character portrayed blacks in an unfavorable light, Stewart used his earnings from the television series to create his Ebony Showcase Theater.

"I was Lightnin' by day, but I put on serious black theater by night," Stewart told The Times in 1993, a few months after the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People gave him its lifetime achievement award "for positive portrayals of African Americans and longevity in the theater."

Among the performers who got their start at Ebony were John Amos of television's "Good Times" and "Roots," Isabel Sanford of "The Jeffersons," Nichelle Nichols of "Star Trek," Margaret Avery of the film "The Color Purple," and Al Freeman Jr. of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."

Among the decades of popular shows staged at the Ebony was Ossie Davis' 1966 "Purlie Victorious," satirizing black stereotypes. One play, "Norman, Is That You?" ran for seven years, and another, "Once in a Wifetime," closed in 1982 after four years.

"The Ebony Showcase Theater has allowed black actors, directors and writers to perform their own material without having to play those stereotypical roles," Stewart said in 1996, when he was added to Philadelphia's Bushfire Theater walk of fame for black actors.

Comedian Robert Townsend shot scenes for his 1987 film "Hollywood Shuffle" at the Ebony Showcase, and Keenen Ivory Wayans used the theater in his 1988 sendup of "blaxploitation" films, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka."

Eddie Murphy taped a comedy special there, and recording artists including blues man B.B. King, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan have shot music videos there, Stewart said.

"I gave them a home. The whole industry has benefited from the people we've trained," Stewart told The Times in 1993.

After the Watts riots in 1965, Stewart also worked to make the Ebony a home for neighborhood youth, with classes in the entertainment arts--photography, video and television production, dance and writing.

In addition to his wife and three children, Stewart is survived by three grandchildren.

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