In 1926 Nick Stewart landed his first professional job as a chorus boy at the Lincoln Theatre in New York. Later he joined the chorus of the Cotton Club where he started experimenting with his own style of specialty dancing. However, fearing that he was not handsome enough to continue in the chorus, Stewart began to develop comedy specialties.
Before long, Stewart began to pursue a career as a comedian. He became part of an act called "Sawdust and Sam" and performed at theatres where black people had to enter through the side doors. About this time, he also performed at the Apollo Theatre. Stewart later worked with a man named Danny Smalls who dubbed Stewart with the personal nickname "Nicodemus." Stewart would function as a stooge for Smalls. They played some of the biggest vaudeville venues including the Palace Theatre in New York where they would appear on the same bill with Burns and Allen.
In 1933 Nick Stewart worked the Franchon and Marco vaudeville circuit and opened at the Lowes State Theatre in Los Angeles. Stewart would later work with a brash young vaudevillian named Milton Berle. Berle and Stewart appeared on stage at the Palace Theatre in New York where Stewart would once again play the stooge. In fact Berle and Stewart would do many of the same routines that Stewart had done with Danny Smalls.
In 1936 Stewart was the featured comedian with Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Later he opened at the Chicago Theatre on the same bill with vaudeville legend Sally Rand (the famous fan dancer). He satirized her act with fans and was a great hit. Later he appeared on the bill with Gypsy Rose Lee. He performed at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles where he was seen by Mae West who was so impressed with Stewart that she put him into his first feature film role in the 1936 movie "Go West Young Man," with Mae West and Randolph Scott in the leading roles. He was then picked up for representation by the William Morris Agency. After working with Calloway, Stewart toured as a featured comedian with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He proudly said that they broke the segregation barrier in the Deep South.
As for radio, Stewart auditioned for the part of Rochester on the Jack Benny radio show. The part ultimately went to Eddie Anderson. However Stewart worked on the radio with other big names such as Eddie Cantor, Frank Morgan, Rudy Vallee and Alan Young.
In 1939 he appeared on Broadway in the hit play "Louisiana Purchase" with Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Vera Zorrina. Walter Winchell, the noted columnist said "Among the good things in 'Louisiana Purchase" was Nicodemus." He met and later married his wife, Edna in 1941.
When "Louisiana Purchase" was sold to Hollywood for a movie starring Bob Hope he decided to come back to Hollywood and try out for the movie but the part went to Willie Best. Later Nick was successful in securing Earl Kramer, brother of Stanley Kramer as an agent. His movies are too numerous to mention. Among the most notable was Walt Disney's "Song of the South," he was the voice of Brer Bear. He appeared as an Air Force lieutenant in "Follow the Boys," a World War II film made by Universal Studios in 1944. The all-star cast included Marlene Dietrich, George Raft, Orsen Wells, W.C. Fields, the Andrews Sisters and Sophie Tucker. He was also in "Dakota," a Republic feature film with John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Ward Bond. During World War II he headed his own USO troupe of entertainers that toured the Aleutian Islands and entertained the soldiers.
In 1948 movie jobs were scarce so Stewart decided to return to New York. Vaudeville was on its way out and television was arriving. Milton Berle ruled with his "Texaco Star Theatre" on TV. People stayed home in droves. It was obvious that TV was here to stay.
Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, creators of "Amos 'n" Andy" tried to bring their radio show to television in black face. They tried and it didn't work. They then realized that they were going to have to cast the TV show with real black actors!
Meanwhile Nick and his family were stuck in New York. It was then that he wrote the musical "Chris Columbus Brown." With the help of friends at NBC in New York he got the play mounted at the Henry Street Playhouse early in 1949. He received a call from Gosden and Correll to come back to Hollywood and audition for the part of Calhoun, the lawyer on their new Amos 'n" Andy TV show. Nick refused the role, saying that he was tired of playing stereotyped roles. Edna went along with his decision even though she thought it was crazy because they were stuck in New York without anything with two children and one on the way. They had to move in with an aunt in Jamaica, Long Island, New York. Nick would manage to get to Manhattan to look for gigs and get stranded without having the subway fare to get back to Long Island.
Soon another call came from Gosden and Correll asking him to come back to Los Angeles to play the part of "Lightnin'. He told them to give him a chance to think about it. Stewart wanted to use his social consciousness to elevate the black actor. Meanwhile he consulted his practitioner (Nick was an avid Christian Scientist). He thought long and hard about it. He thought if he took the part he could use the money that he earned to build a legitimate theatre showcasing black actors in parts other than maids and butlers -- parts that were not afforded at that time in the industry. He accepted the job.
The family had to return to Los Angeles but found that they didn't have enough money for tickets on the train for everybody. Edna was pregnant with their son Christopher. She decided that she would carry their six-year-old Roger in her arms to board the train. He was small enough to pass for five. After the train got on its way and the tickets were taken she let him down and he was the life of the party in the coach on the journey home.
When the family returned to Los Angeles, Nick went directly to work on the Alan Young Show in radio and later on TV. Nick and Edna produced shows at the Las Palmas Theatre and the Civic Playhouse before finding a permanent home. They began looking for buildings. They found an ideal garage at Western and Washington that could easily be converted into a performing arts space.
At the same time, CBS was in the midst of constructing Television City in Los Angeles. Nick went to the head of the construction company and asked if he could have the used lumber that they were hauling to the dumps. When he told them what he was going to do with it they gladly gave it to him. He had it hauled away on a daily basis until the construction of the little theatre was complete. Nick was an accomplished playwright, a composer. He wrote the hit musical "Carnival Island." He became an icon. He often stated that he is the only black star that gave the community something monumental in the form of an institution, the oldest and longest existing black-founded legitimate theater in the United States.
In 1953 Nick hosted his own variety TV show on Channel 11 called "Ebony Showcase Presents" where the original Platters singing group was discovered. He and Edna also developed the first children's theatre in southwest Los Angeles.
In the summer of 1965 when the Watts Riots shocked and awakened our city, the Ebony Showcase Theatre and Cultural Arts Center was selected by the L.A. Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers to sponsor a youth performing arts training program (an anti-poverty project) funded by the OEO in Washington D.C. through the Economic Youth Opportunity Agency of greater Los Angeles. They went full speed ahead for this new vital venture. Classes for teenagers were inaugurated in drama, speech, dance, creative writing, stagecraft, photography, cinematography and more.
The summer of 1965 was a tremendous success -- 450 youth who could have been roaming the streets were involved in a program of cultural awareness while learning technical skills. Many of them participated in the Ebony's touring dramatic and musical productions. The shows played from Marymount School in Bel Aire to Markham Junior High in Watts and Ralph Bunche Junior High in Compton and in many churches, Teen Posts throughout the Black and Latino communities, and in probation department centers.
The youth program was such a huge success that in the summer of 1967, Ebony Showcase was selected as its own delegate agency to sponsor another program the "Performing Arts Youth Training Youth Services." The youth programs were the brainchild of Nick Stewart. The Ebony Showcase has traditionally operated youth programs since that time.
Nick always said that the "Ebony Showcase is a vital, living force that gives the community a reflection of itself." Contrary to the opinion of many, Ebony Showcase itself seldom received government subsidies or government grants except for youth projects and for two or three projects where they were reimbursed for money already spent on the project. Nick and Edna kept the theatre alive through their ability to earn. Nick did it by doing the voice of "Brer Bear" and the part of Lightnin" on the Amos 'n" Andy TV show and the TV series "Ramar of the Jungle" where he played the African guide "Willie-Willie." The irony of it all is that after one season of the Amos 'n" Andy" show he was fired. The producers of the show gave him a choice. They told him that he was diverting his energies in too many directions. He had to choose between Ebony Showcase Theatre and playing the part of "Lightnin'. He chose the theatre -- the rest is history."
After 50 years of producing quality theatre --second to none," Edna says "Ebony Showcase made a world-wide impact because we refused to do the typical 'colored" plays that were prevalent at that time. We did it before it became fashionable."
When they presented the production of Jean Paul Sartre's "no Exit (1953) starring the late great James Edwards, Juanita Moore and Madie Norman, The Hollywood Citizens News stated "As staged here with impressive, incisive skill is proof positive if needed, that intelligence, artistry and integrity are emphatically not solely a matter of pigmentation."
In the early days they had difficulty with play leasing houses in securing rights to produce plays that were not listed under the category "Negro plays." They would go directly to the authors or to their agents -- In this way they were able to present Tennessee William's "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Seven Year Itch", by George Axelrod, "The Moon Is Blue" (Otto Preminger for F Hugh Herbert), "the Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd," (Anthony Newly/Leslie Bricuse) and "Lost of the Stars," the author, Maxwell Anderson, visited their production in 1955. Boris Sagal who later directed the movie, "Shogun", directed it. Al Freeman, Jr., and William Shallert (actor and former president of SAG) were also in the production.
Edna says, "We left no stone unturned. In 1970 we had to do the same thing to secure the rights of 'Norman Is That You" by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. It had flopped over night on Broadway. Nick gave it a new twist -- Norman the main character was black and his live-in boyfriend, Garson was white -- after much convincing the authors agreed if it was publicized only in news papers in the immediate community." Edna said O.K., right, anything to get the rights -- knowing that all of the critics would come. It was The Ebony Showcase Theatre's most successful play, running for a record-breaking 7 years.
In the early nineties Nick, Edna, and the Ebony Showcase Theatre ran into extreme financial difficulties after complying with the first phase of a new city seismic ordinance and because of several disasters -- the civil unrest, Northridge Earthquake, and floods. They then received some financial help from Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Barbara Walters, Universal Studios, Time Warner Corporation, Walt Disney Studios and Eartha Kitt. That was then -- we will always be eternally grateful to them -- But now we must deal with the current catastrophe -- we must call on everyone world-wide, big and small to help us in continuing our work with the youth of the community at large. Our motto is still "Dedicated to education through entertainment" as Mark Twain so aptly stated -- "News of my untimely demise (caused in this case by the eminent domain lawsuits filed by the CRA against Nick and Edna Stewart after they had been evicted, and the subsequent demolition of all four of the green-tagged Ebony Showcase Theatre buildings by the CRA) has been greatly exaggerated." As Nick stated in all of their souvenir programs, "A theatre is more than a building..."
In 1966 they received the L.A. Critics Circle Award for tenaciously serving the community and nearly thirty years later, in 1995, they received the prestigious Living Legend award from the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina for their theatre and for their humanitarian work.
During the same time period their City Councilman Nate Holden and the CRA became their competitors. In 1995, it was the responsibility of the CRA to announce the availability of Commercial Industrial Earthquake Loans (CIERLP/ HUD loans) to give business operators in the community an opportunity to purchase the property where the businesses were located. But after a meeting of CRA's and City Councilman Nate Holden's staff members, with a representative of the Mayor, at Nate Holden's office, a new organization was formed called Ebony Showcase Cultural Center which has an address in Century City.
Although HUD loans must be announced to the public, Nate Holden was quoted in both the Wave Newspaper and in the Los Angeles Sentinel that "it would constitute a gift of public funds. We couldn't give him the money to buy the theater back." But staff members of the CRA met with the new organization on several occasions and taught them what was needed to apply for a CIELP loan meant for EXISTING businesses in the community. According to minutes at a meeting of the new organization; Ed Saulet of the CRA told them that they had $3 million. According to the City Council files, in January 1996 two Ps/2 computers were given from Nate Holden's office to the new organization for $1. CRA records show that federal money meant for local businesses was retained for an entity called "Ebony Showcase Theatre," where 25 jobs were saved Neither the real Ebony Showcase Theatre nor neighboring businesses were informed about the availability of CIERLP loans and the CRA became both lender and borrower in this instance.
Nick called the Ebony Showcase Theatre "I." When Nick would proudly say, "I'm older than the Music Center," he was talking about himself as the Ebony Showcase Theatre, not about himself as a person. Nick's health would fail dramatically after each action that Nate Holden and the CRA took against the building and the Ebony Showcase institution: As part of the eminent domain proceedings, the CRA got restraining orders against the entire family that said that Nick, Edna, nor members of their family could walk within 100 feet of the Ebony Showcase Theatre but because the theater's mail was now going to the barber shop across the street, the judge changed the limit to 50 feet.
Nick's health took a severe decline when he watched from across the street and saw everything that he had ever worked for hacked up and thrown into large walk-in dumpsters by the clearing/salvage company that the CRA gave the contents of the theatre to. He became ill as he watched the computers for his precious youth program being thrown out of the second story windows and smashed; and as he watched the Ebony's copiers were stripped of their metal for salvage.
As part of the process the CRA stripped the theatre of its historic designation. Official CRA reports say that the theatre had no integrity of setting, and that Nick did not live or work in the community although he lived just 4 blocks away. The theatre was listed with empty lots rather than with historic buildings and the theatre's historic status was changed by consensus from 4S (may become eligible for the national register as a separate property) to 6 (no historic status). Nick knew that a demolition was impending. The CRA had hired a company to draw up demolition plans in 1997. During a period of 4 years Nick would stand outside and watch as the theatre buildings were ravaged by vandalism, gutting, tearing out the seats, destruction of his restaurant and confiscation of his equipment, demolition of 4 buildings at separate times, false earthquake-damage reports, a so-called roof- cave-in after a contrived tornado that hit only the Ebony Showcase buildings, and finally a ground-breaking on November 11, 2000. Nick passed away exactly one week after the groundbreaking.
Nick has been inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Science's Archive of American Television to save his work as a television pioneer for future generations.
Nick is survived by his wife, Edna, daughter Valarie, sons Roger and Christopher, grandchildren Shelley, Maya, Daniel, great granddaughters Jade and Tai Simone, and extended grandchildren Lisa, Jason, and Pier and to extended family... You know who you are.
The real Ebony Showcase still exists as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to providing quality entertainment and training. The organization is currently raising the money for a new home. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Ebony Showcase, 1285 S. La Brea Ave., Suite 203, Los Angeles, CA 90019.