by Anthony Chase
The death of Blossom Cohan on Wednesday, March 22, 2006 marks the undeniable end of an era in Buffalo theater. Born Blossom Felder in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on February 6, 1922, Blossom first aspired to become an actress, but would earn her greatest success and the enduring adoration of an entire community working behind the scenes as the publicist for Studio Arena Theatre.
Blossom, whose father had operated burlesque and movie theaters, developed an early interest in the entertainment industry. As a child, she amused relatives and neighbors with impersonations of film personalities. She performed at a number of Cleveland area theaters, and after graduating from Shaker Heights High School, went to study at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City under the tutelage of the great Sanford Meisner at the age of 18.
She returned to Ohio in 1942, met Mitchell (“Mike”) Cohan at an audition in 1943 and married him in California that same year. The couple lived on the West Coast while Mitchell completed his military service, and then returned to Cleveland where they began a foray into night club management, acquiring Chin’s Golden Dragon. Their only child, Dean, was born in 1954. Mitchell landed a job as a children’s television personality in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the family lived for four and half years. Blossom found the town so oppressive that she dubbed it “Terrible Haute,” so when Mitchell was offered a job with an advertising firm in Buffalo, New York, the Cohans seized their chance to escape. They would remain Buffalonians for the rest of their lives. Mitchell Cohan died in 1978.
With their arrival in 1960, the Cohans immediately became involved in local theater, alternating in productions so one parent could be home with six-year-old Dean.
“I had heard of Studio Theatre even in Terre Haute,” Cohan remembered. “When I got here, I was warned that it was a ‘closed shop,’ but I auditioned anyway. The show was Auntie Mame, and, in fact, it was mostly pre-cast. Still, I got the dual role of Beau’s tyrannical southern mother and the mother of Patrick’s odious debutante fiancée.”
Having developed into an actress of considerable talent and accomplishment, Cohan ultimately played Mama Rose in the Studio Theatre production of Gypsy, and was coached by Gypsy Rose Lee herself.
“Frankly,” Cohan recalled of the experience, “Gypsy’s feelings about her mother had softened a great deal over the years, and her comments only served to confuse me!”
During this period, Studio Theatre was a community theater and school beginning its transition toward becoming a fully professional Equity theater under the artistic direction of Neal Du Brock. Blossom wore many hats: actress, stage manager, teacher and volunteer in such areas as subscription sales and playbill editing. Gypsy would, in fact, mark the end of her acting career, and Blossom Cohan would make her greatest contributions with her skills as a publicist. In 1963, she became the theatre’s public relations director, and in 1965, she became part of the team that transformed Studio Theatre into a professional Equity theatre called Studio Arena Theatre. Under this new organization, the institution quickly took its place among the nation’s pioneering resident theaters.
Through her partnership with Studio Arena Theatre’s artistic directors, Blossom actually helped invent the resident regional theater movement, for Studio Arena Theatre was, during these years, incontestably a trailblazer. Among Cohan’s proudest recollections was the night she hosted critics from every major New York newspaper, every major national news magazine and journalists from throughout Europe for the 1968 world premiere of Edward Albee’s Box Mao Box, his first script after his landmark play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. For one night, Buffalo, New York was the center of the entire theater world. By coaxing the world press to Buffalo’s door, Blossom proved that the goals of the regional theater movement were not illusory.
Soon other regional theaters would imitate her techniques. She was the first person anywhere to publicize an event on a local weather broadcast when the cast of Dames at Sea appeared in their yellow slickers behind WKBW-TV Channel 7 weather man Tom Jolls in 1970.
Blossom also played a critical role in the effort to develop a sophisticated audience for Studio Arena Theatre. During the 1968-1969 season, the local press reacted to a production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming with hostility. They did not object to the quality of the production; they were upset because the script lacked commercial entertainment value. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Studio Arena and for the resident theater movement. While the board of directors and artistic director decided how to react, Blossom recognized her responsibility, as publicist, to appeal to the public directly. Using the theater’s next production, the intentionally frivolous Star-Spangled Girl as contrast, she urged the audience to decide what kind of plays a not-for-profit professional regional theater should produce. Challenging contemporary drama remains an important part of the regional theater agenda throughout the nation.
Blossom joined Studio Theatre when it was located in a converted church at Lafayette and Hoyt, followed it to the Town Casino at 681 Main Street, and to its current site in the former Palace Burlesque at 710 Main. She served all three of its artistic directors, trained multiple successors and oversaw dozens of interns —including television producer Tom Fontana and her eventual daughter-in-law Leslie Cohan. Kathleen Gaffney, the newly appointed Studio Arena artistic director, will be the first never to work with Blossom.
Blossom’s loyalty to Studio Arena Theatre was matched by the institution’s loyalty to her. After stepping down as publicity director, she moved into the development area, taking charge of special projects, including annual theater trips and oversight of the Studio Arena archives, which bear her name. Though plagued by ailments and injuries, which prevented her from going to the office in recent years, she never actually retired from the institution. Studio Arena staff consistently kept Blossom informed of developments and regularly visited her during her recovery.
Adored by journalists for her persistence, her accuracy, her affability, her reliability, and her spectacular memory, Blossom was fueled by a true passion for theater and for the institution she served. She was known for tirelessly promoting her theater without ever pushing too hard or being less than genuine. She was a beacon of goodwill for Studio Arena Theatre and an unfaltering believer in its future. Her death is felt throughout the Buffalo theater community as a profound and irreplaceable loss.
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