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“People are snotty. It’s like actresses who say, `I won’t do commercials.’ I’m like, `Fine, you’d rather be a bartender? Fine.’ There’s nothing wrong with that but don’t criticize me.”

Russell, 57, bought old seats for $5 a pop from a theater that was being demolished and helped haul them up the stairs, much to the astonishment of her contractors. “They would see me carrying Sheetrock with my little high heels. I think I got grudging respect for me that I wasn’t a princess.”

She soon added a second theater and persuaded producers of “The Fantasticks” to let her run it. She has even relieved an ill box office staffer and sells tickets until 5 minutes before she needs to be onstage herself. She’s also producing “Piggy Nation: The Musical” in the space for parents looking for a little fun with the kids over the weekend.

She has embraced all sorts of methods to get people through the doors _ daily online deals, social media updates, listings at the TKTS booths, casting celebrities (singer Aaron Carter was recently in “The Fantasticks”), even backstage tours and a chance to have a mug shot.

“A lot of people say that commercial off-Broadway isn’t really viable and I disagree. I think it is. But I think to a certain extent that we need a new model,” she says. “So I’m constantly reinventing the way that we sell tickets.”

Besides the two 199-seat theaters in The Snapple Center, Russell also carved out two rehearsal studios that help her financial bottom line. The likes of Al Pacino, Woody Harrelson, Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd have recently practiced their plays there.

She wants to build more such theater complexes, convinced there’s a need for off-Broadway stages in the Broadway area offering an alternative to high Broadway prices. She promises a small but steady profit.

“Anytime there’s any space in Times Square, my real estate agent calls me and I run and look at it,” she says. “I believe in off-Broadway. My whole life has been here.”

Peter Breger, an entertainment attorney and president of the Off Broadway Alliance, points to Russell as one of the bright lights of the New York theater scene. “Cathy and off-Broadway kind of have the same attitude: a combination of grit and energy and flexibility,” he says. “She embodies the spirit of off-Broadway.”


Russell plays psychiatrist and potential cold-blooded killer Margaret Thorne Brent in “Perfect Crime,” which has become the longest-running play in the history of New York theater. One thing she’s definitely killed: the record books.

Next year, she’ll mark 11,000 performances in the role. She takes no vacations and has never called out sick. The last time she was absent was to attend a brother’s wedding in 1995.

“I’ve always been really healthy,” she says. “I don’t smoke or drink, but I live on Snickers bars and coffee. Lots of coffee.”

She lives a few blocks from the theater and kept its doors open not only when Superstorm Sandy hit last year but also during the city’s 2005 subway strike, picking up the actors and crew in her car.

“They were scared to say they wouldn’t come in,” she says, laughing. “They were scared of me.”

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