Helen Hanft


"Helen Hanft [was] an actress whose mastery of camp humor, surreal scenarios and roles too risqué for mainstream comfort made her the acknowledged queen of the Off Off Broadway stage during a golden age for experimental theater in New York...made her mark in the 1960s and ’70s on Off Off Broadway stages like La MaMa Experimental Theater Club and Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in the East Village, as well as Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, widely regarded as the birthplace of Off Off Broadway. She appeared in early plays by Tom Eyen, who later wrote the book and lyrics for “Dreamgirls,” including “Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down,” about a woman, a man and a fun-house air vent, and “Women Behind Bars,” a sendup of the B-movie genre of the title. She was also in “In the Boom Boom Room,” David Rabe’s play about go-go dancers and their lovers of both sexes, none of them suitable partners. Her performances earned unusual accolades. Phrases like “wonderfully grotesque” and “energetically seedy” appeared in rave reviews. Critics referred to her variously as the Helen Hayes and the Ethel Merman of Off Off Broadway. (Bette Midler, who also acted in Mr. Eyen’s early plays, has told interviewers that in creating her persona as the gleefully campy Divine Miss M, she borrowed liberally from the raunchy dames Ms. Hanft created.) Between 1965 and 1975 Ms. Hanft appeared in 75 productions, most of which paid her little if they paid at all. She supported herself by working in a series of odd jobs, she said in a 1975 interview with The New York Times. The most enduring of those, as a switchboard operator for the United Jewish Appeal, was, she said, “good voice training for an actress.” She later had small roles in a string of movies, including Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (1979), “Stardust Memories” (1980) and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985); Dudley Moore’s 1981 hit, “Arthur”; and Paul Mazursky’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976) and “Willie & Phil” (1980). Helen Hanft was born in the Bronx on April 3, 1934, the eldest of Benjamin and Esther Hanft’s three children. Her father was a prominent public relations executive for a number of national Jewish organizations."

Paul Vitello, "Helen Hanft, Master of Camp Way Off Broadway, Dies at 79" (New York Times). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/theater/helen-hanft-master-of-camp-way-off-broadway-dies-at-79.html?
1934 – 2013
Hanft, Helen