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April 21: Elaine May

April 21, 2013

elaine-may-01The improvisational comedy pioneer Elaine May was born to theater professionals Jack and Ida Berlin in Philadelphia on this date in 1932. She performed in her father’s traveling Yiddish theater troupe from the age of 3, and spent time in 50 different elementary schools by the time she was 10. A high-school dropout, she studied acting with Maria Ouspenskaya, married three times (the second time to Sheldon Harnick, lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof), and found her stride as an improvisational actor with The Compass Players, a group she founded in Chicago, which was soon joined by Mike Nichols. Nichols and May formed an improv comedy duo in 1957 and had a meteoric rise to become stars of Broadway, radio, television, and nightclubs. “When we came to New York, we were practically barefoot,” May told Newsweek in 1960. “And I still can’t get used to walking in high heels.” After only four years of national renown, however, they went their separate ways, and would not work together again until 1996, when Nichols directed and May wrote the film The Birdcage, a reworking of the French gay comedy, La Cage aux Folles. May made her own directing debut in 1971 with A New Leaf, starring her and Walter Matthau, which was followed by The Heartbreak Kid, based on a screenplay by Neil Simon. To see Nichols and May performing, see below.

“Elaine would go on forever if you let her. She is insanely creative.” —Jack Rollins

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