The Only Woman in New York Theatre Who Fixes the Boiler, Takes Your Ticket, and Then Hops Onstage

Backstage Look   The Only Woman in New York Theatre Who Fixes the Boiler, Takes Your Ticket, and Then Hops Onstage
 
Catherine Russell, Off-Broadway’s maid-of-all-work, has learned to drive a truck, tar a roof, and put audiences at the edge of their seats in her record-setting 30 years at Perfect Crime.
Catherine Russell
Catherine Russell

It’s not exactly performance art, but there is a one-woman show going on at Off-Broadway’s The Theatre Center that’s not on the marquee.

The star is Catherine Russell, who acts as general manager, house manager, box-office salesperson—and co-star—of the long-running Off-Broadway hit Perfect Crime, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last month. She’s like Frank Morgan, the actor who plays the title role—and a half dozen other characters—in The Wizard of Oz: Every time you turn around, there she is.

Russell plays psychiatrist Margaret Thorne Brent, who is accused of murdering her husband, in Warren Manzi's whodunit. “As an actress,”she said, “I’ve learned a tremendous amount from doing a play eight times a week for 30 years. I’ve only missed four performances,” all for family weddings; not one for a vacation or even a sick day. She's played the role 12,317 times as of April 23, 2017—recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as “Most Theatre Performances–Same Role (Female).”

For tickets to Perfect Crime, click here.

After coming to New York in the late 1970s she played several other roles in Off-Broadway shows, but she found her life’s work in Perfect Crime, which opened as an Equity Showcase production in 1987. It is now the longest-running non-musical play in the history of New York theatre.

Has she improved over that time? “I hope I’ve gotten better in the role—doing something 12,317 times should make you improve!”

Here are some of the things she’s learned: “I’ve learned how to hold for a laugh, concentrate despite loud cell phones or talkers, deal with misplaced props (it’s hard to shoot someone without my gun).”

She’s also learned how to deal with broken set pieces, ripped costumes, forgetful fellow actors, a projectile vomiter in the second row, her own dog running onstage, and a host of other unforeseen events.

The economics of Off-Broadway have taught her some additional lessons. Perfect Crime has changed theatres ten times in its 30 years, often because the building was sold or another show was booked to come in. So as the show’s general manager, she has developed a number of valuable theatre business skills, as well.

“I can drive a very big truck,” she said, ”re-tar a leaking roof, do emergency surgery on boilers and air conditioning units until repair people eventually show up, snake a toilet and/or a roof drain, chase Three-Card Monte guys (remember them?) away from our Times Square door with a baseball bat, remove angry drunks from our theatre, and remove a dead rat without fainting.”

She’s also met a lot of interesting new friends. ”At the Jerry Orbach Theater [one of two performing spaces in The Theatre Center] we have a semi-regular visitor—a friendly homeless man who likes to jump behind the bar when no one is around, take his pants off and enjoy a beer. It takes some maneuvering to get him to put his pants back on and have him leave, but I can now do it in 90 seconds.”

Russell was instrumental in helping Perfect Crime make its most recent move, from its longtime home at the former Duffy Theatre on West 46th Street. In 2005 the building that housed the Duffy Theatre, which she and her partners converted in 1994 from a seedy strip joint—the Whirly Girl Paris Burlesque—was sold for $110 million. A building housing the American Eagle store was built on the site, and Perfect Crime had to get a new home quickly. She found 20,000 square feet of raw space—a former beauty school—four blocks north at 50th Street and Broadway and set about transforming it into two theatres.

“I got a terrific education in general contracting,” she says. “I carried the sheetrock in, ripped out seats from an old theatre to install in ours, did expediting at the Buildings Department, and learned a lot about plumbing, electricity, and public assembly permits. Building the Anne L. Bernstein Theater (home to Perfect Crime) and the Jerry Orbach Theater (home to The Fantasticks) is the most fun I’ve ever had offstage.”

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