Robert Dahdah, Early Figure in Off-Off-Broadway Scene, Dies at 89

Obituaries   Robert Dahdah, Early Figure in Off-Off-Broadway Scene, Dies at 89
His production of Dames at Sea launched the career of Bernadette Peters.
<i>Dames at Sea</i>
Dames at Sea

Robert Dahdah, a frequent director at Caffé Cino, the tiny Greenwich Village theatre that was considered one of the cradles of the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s, died February 6 at Calvary Hospital in The Bronx, The Villager reported. He was 89.

Mr. Dahdah directed several hits at Caffé Cino, the Cornelia Street hole in the wall where the likes of Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard got their starts. But none was as big, or is as well-remembered, as Dames at Sea, the Busby Berkeley musical spoof that went on to a longer life at other downtown theatres and launched the career of Bernadette Peters.

Peters was doing summer stock theatre in Pennsylvania when she was introduced to Dahdah by a choreographer who knew them both. She was 18 at the time. The show was a mere 40 minutes at Caffe Cino (Mr. Dahdah has found the script in the trash), but audiences loved it and it ran for three months. It became Caffe Cino’s biggest hit. When it was moved to another theater, Mr. Dahdah was replaced as director.

Mr. Dahdah again turned to parodying an earlier, more innocent style of entertainment when he directed, produced and wrote (with Mary Boylan) Curley McDimple, a satire of the sunny Shirley Temple movies of the 1930s. The musical contained rumba numbers, riffs on Astaire and Rogers and Cab Calloway, and plenty of tap dancing. Peter again starred, and the show was a whopping hit at the Bert Wheeler Theater in West 43rd Street, running more than two years.

In 1978, he was again mining the past for material with Boylan, presenting the “1920s romance with music,” Clara Bow Loves Gary Cooper, at Theatre for the New City. In 1980 came Alias Jimmy Valentine, “a ragtime musical,” again with Boylan.

Robert Dahdah was born March 8, 1926, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His parents were of Lebanese descent. When still a child, his family moved to Manhattan. He served in World War II.

In 1953, he was the head of The Empathy Group and presented Christopher Fry’s The Boy With a Cart at the Seaman’s Church in lower Manhattan. He also directed plays at Washington Square Theater.

During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Mr. Dahdah occasionally took work as an extra in films. His choices were lucky ones. He was a face in the crowd in Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Way We Were, Death Wish and The Godfather. He was one of the theatregoers left aghast by the fake musical Springtime for Hitler in the movie The Producers. One of his few credited roles was as a Santa Claus in Three Days of the Condor.

He is survived by a nephew, Robert Dahdah, a niece, Rea McKay.

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