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May 30: Queen of the Off-Off Broadway Stage

May 29, 2016

7376-3729Actress Helen Hanft, who performed in some seventy-five productions between 1965 and ’75 at La Mama Experimental Theater, the Public Theater, and Greenwich Village’s Cafe Cafe Cino — “widely regarded as the birthplace of Off Off Broadway,” according to Paul Vitello in the New York Times — died at 79 on this date in 2013. Her “mastery of camp humor, surreal scenarios and roles too risqué for mainstream comfort made her the acknowledged queen of the Off Off Broadway stage during a golden age for experimental theater in New York,” writes Vitello, while she “supported herself by working in a series of odd jobs,” including “as a switchboard operator for the United Jewish Appeal, [which] was, she said, ‘good voice training for an actress.’ ” Hanft played bawdy and frustrated women and was compared by critics to Ethel Merman and Helen Hayes. She also appeared in several movies, including Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Stardust Memories (see her in a clip below), and The Purple Rose of Cairo, as well as Dudley Moore’s Arthur and Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village.

“Bette Midler... has freely admitted to having borrowed extensively from the smart-talking dame persona created by Hanft.” —Variety