NEW YORK (AP) - A late winter blizzard was recently clobbering New York but Catherine Russell watched the flakes fall without a worry.
Was Russell going to keep the doors open to her off-Broadway theater complex in the face of this massive storm?
“Are you kidding me? Absolutely,” she said.
You see, Catherine Russell is a force of nature, too.
She’s general manager of The Snapple Theater Center, which houses two theaters in the heart of Times Square. In one, she co-produces “The Fantasticks,” the longest-running musical in the world.
In the other, she acts eight times each week in “Perfect Crime,” showing such dedication that she is the Guinness World Records holder for the most performances by a theater actor in the same role. She has missed just four performances since 1987.
In her spare time, she teaches English and acting, and is always on the hunt for new raw space nearby to convert into theaters. She’s also producing a new musical that opens March 24 based on a “Piggy Nation” children’s book.
There’s more: She sells tickets at the box office, takes out the garbage and will work on the roof or boiler if needed. The night before the storm hit, she was busy repairing the bathroom.
“After 25 years of working off-Broadway, I can fix a toilet,” she says with a laugh. “You can wait for someone to fix it, or you can say, `OK, nobody is going to come right now. Let me see what I can do.’”
The woman who has been called the “Cal Ripken of Broadway” is a petite, stunning woman with a lightning-quick mind who started as an actress and turned into an entrepreneur.
Russell, who was raised in Connecticut and has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a master’s from New York University, was in the 1987 opening cast of “Perfect Crime” and followed it as it hopscotched the city nine times.
In one temporary theater, a rat ran over her foot during a show. In another, “Perfect Crime” was housed one floor above a gay male burlesque show. “For 12 years, I heard `Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,’” she says, laughing.
The show was homeless again in 2005 and Russell found its current 20,000-square-foot space in an abandoned beauty school at 50th Street and Broadway. She contacted the beverage company Snapple and landed the first corporate-sponsored deal for an off-Broadway theater in history.
“People made fun of me at the time. I was like, `I don’t care. They’re giving me money. They’re a great sponsor. They trust my taste.’ There’s nothing wrong with that,” she says.
“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.”
CANDY AND COFFEE
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.”
She has lived with her boyfriend for 18 years, a restaurant owner who wooed her with flowers for a year. She was well into her acting streak by then and he recognized that being with Russell would mean some sacrifices.
“He knew what the deal was,” she says. “I think we’re not married because I don’t think I have time for a honeymoon.”
Russell says she enjoys the challenge of making the part fresh each time and has found herself bringing more to it as she grows older. She doesn’t see any of it ending soon.
“I want to work in the theater until I’m 100 years old and I want to keep performing,” she says. “I love getting onstage every night because it’s two hours for myself and my cellphone doesn’t ring.”
The secret to Russell’s success is simple: She’s happy.
“When I teach students, I say to them, `When you’re riding the subway in the morning, look around and see who looks happy to go to work. How many look happy?’ They say, `Not that many.’ I say, `If you want to be happy, you have to find work that you love to do.’”
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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