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NPR Arts & Life

Creator Of Theatre On Film And Tape Archive Dies At 98

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One joy of live theater is that no two performances are ever the same. But Betty Corwin wanted to preserve important performances so anyone could experience "A Chorus Line's" first run or Meryl Streep's turn in "Taming Of The Shrew." That's why she created the Theater on Film and Tape Archive, which is part of the New York Public Library. Corwin died earlier this month at the age of 98. Reporter Jeff Lunden has this remembrance.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Over 8,000 Broadway and off-Broadway shows, as well as artist interviews, are currently contained in the archive. And it all came about because of Betty Corwin, who was honored with a special Tony Award in 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETTY CORWIN: I want to thank Marlon Brando, Laurette Taylor and the Barrymores, whose magical performances were lost forever the moment the final curtain fell. They instilled in me a passion to preserve the theater of the great artists of today.

PATRICK HOFFMAN: She revolutionized theater research because until the Theater on Film and Tape Archive was created by her, there was no moving image record of these productions.

LUNDEN: Patrick Hoffman was Betty Corwin's assistant. Now he's the director and curator of the archive, known by its acronym TOFT - TOFT.

HOFFMAN: It really was a complete game-changer because now you no longer have to just read about it or look at old black-and-white still photographs. You can come here and see the original production of "Equus" on Broadway, the original production of "A Chorus Line" before it ever moved to Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE (REHEARSAL)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) One singular sensation, every little step she takes.

LUNDEN: Corwin had worked for a theatre producer in the 1940s but gave it up to raise a family in Connecticut. When her kids reached adolescence, she approached the Lincoln Center Library with the idea for a video archive, says her son Tom Corwin.

TOM CORWIN: The library said, OK, we'll give you a desk, three months, no money to start this project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company.

LUNDEN: That's music from the cast album of "Company." You can see a video of the show in the archive, but because of the agreements Betty Corwin signed with theatrical unions, we can't use audio from the archive in this story.

CORWIN: The terms that she was able to get all the unions to agree to was that the videos would be viewable only onsite at Lincoln Center by appointment. And that protected the work from being commercially taken advantage of.

LUNDEN: So if you want to see top-notch multicamera videos of James Earl Jones in "Fences" or Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Death Of A Salesman," you have to go to Lincoln Center. NYU and Juilliard theater professor Carol Rocamora takes her classes to TOFT every semester. When she teaches Samuel Beckett, she shows her students a specific production.

CAROL ROCAMORA: The famous Robin Williams-Steve Martin production. That's the one for me that I'll always remember. So I'm able to go back in time and history and make these incredible performance alive for our students.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WAITING FOR GODOT")

STEVE MARTIN: (As Vladimir) Cretin.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Estragon) Critic.

(LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: Curator Patrick Hoffman says he and Betty Corwin worked hard to raise money so that they could provide this service to anyone who wants it.

HOFFMAN: All you need is a New York Public Library card, which is free of charge at all times.

LUNDEN: Corwin stepped down from TOFT in 2000 but went on to create the Oral History Project for the League of Professional Theatre Women. She retired from that endeavor last year at the age of 97.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEASONS OF LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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