Betty Corwin just turned 97.
It’s about time she got some recognition.
Thanks to Observer.com, she has. The site just ran a long story on the Westporter’s many contributions to the arts.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the whole Justice League would be advised to make a place in their number for an authentic hero of the arts. She may look like a mild-mannered, little-old-lady librarian, but, underneath, she’s really Betty Corwin.
Corwin spent 31 years running the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TAFT) at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. It was her idea, in fact, and, for that singular vision, The League of Professional Theatre Women filled Sardi’s Eugenia Room recently to toast the trailblazing Betty and give her a Tiffany bowl for lifetime achievement. Indeed, achievement is the word for it.
A star-studded audience heard Corwin talk about parents who exposed her at an early age to entertainers like Ethel Merman; her marriage to a doctor, raising 3 children here, and “a perfectly contented life as a Broadway-loving civilian.”
But she got an opportunity to do something everyone talked about, but no one had done: film theater.
She put an ad in the paper for a cameraman, and hired the cheapest one. They headed to Sheridan Square Playhouse to tape “The Golden Bat.”
Betty recalls, “he sat there in front of his equipment, totally stoned, a haze of smoke over his head. But we got our first show.”
Broadway was more resistant than off-Broadway. The Dramatist Guild and directors and choreographers’ unions came around — after 2 years of wrangling — but stagehands and musicians still refused.
Finally, Betty walked in to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees office. She says:
It was like a scene from “On the Waterfront.” There was this guy with his feet up on the desk, leaning back against the wall, smoking a big cigar. He never asked who I was or what I wanted. He just said, “Yeah?” I said, “I’d like to talk to Dick Nimmo.” I heard him on the intercom say, “Hey, Dick, there’s a pretty lady here to see you,” and Dick Nimmo answered, “Send her right in.” I went in his office and said, “I’m Betty Corwin.”
“He turned purple. Then, I sat down and didn’t get up for over an hour. I told him all the other unions had agreed. I told him all the conditions that were agreed to. I told him we’d never show the tapes to anybody but students, theater professionals and researchers. And the archive wouldn’t be open to the general public. I went on and on until he finally [threw up his hands and] went, “Enough! You’ve convinced me.’”
The last holdout — the musicians’ union — soon folded.
Betty went on to a 3-decade career recording live performances of Broadway productions.
Of course, she couldn’t do it all alone. Early on, she hired a 26-year-old secretary. The woman went on to make her own name: Paula Vogel.
Happy birthday, Betty! And thank you for helping preserve so much Broadway history and lore.
(Click here for the full Observer story. Hat tip: David Grant)