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So Long Elsie!

Remembering Elsie Robertson, a link to Buffalo's theater history, who died last week

When Elsie Robertson died last week, at the age of 94, Buffalo lost an important link to its theater history. Elsie was one of the last of a group of actors and lovers of theater who worked to transform Studio Theatre, a semi-professional community theater, into fully professional Studio Arena Theatre in the early 1960s. Together, these individuals—people like Elsie, Blossom Cohan, Bobbie Harmon, Norma Sandler, Mary Jane Abels, Betty Lutes, Bill Green, and Neal Du Brock—laid the groundwork for the vibrant theater scene we enjoy today.

She was born in Barre, Vermont to Marion and George Robertson on March 5, 1915. Her father was a stonecutter. The family moved to Buffalo when Elsie was four years old. Here, she graduated from East High School. She served in the Navy WAVES during World War II, and after the war, went to work for the New York State Unemployment Office.

Elsie’s niece, Diane Gaylord Ogasawara of Hawaii, recalls that her aunt was self-supporting, working all of her life, but that the theater was always her passion. She spent 18 years with General Motors Acceptance Corp. Following this, the Office of Child and Family Services employed her as a crisis counselor. Finally, for 15 years, she worked in the Studio Arena Theatre box office, retiring from this position when she was in her 80s.

Elsie continued to perform occasionally over the years. I recall seeing her in Edward Albee’s The American Dream at the Pfeifer Theatre, when UB’s department of theater and dance performed there. She appeared in Amy’s View at the Kavinoky, and was a member of Theatre for Change, a local social services-oriented company. Her niece recalls that she last performed with this group when she was 89 years old.

Elsie never married, and without question, the friendships that she formed through her involvement in local theater provided the anchor for her entire life. Among those friends was Blossom Cohan, the longtime publicist for Studio Arena, and an employee of that institution for more than 40 years.

Blossom’s son, Dean Cohan, recalls that Elsie was one of the first adults he met after his family moved from Indiana to Buffalo in 1960.

“When I was a seven- or eight-year-old boy,” recalls Cohan, “Elsie was like that elementary school teacher that one gets a hopeless crush on: attractive, attentive, funny but not too silly. Self-possessed; never condescending. And smart—very very smart.

“She was a member of the working group that helped put Studio Theatre in position to make the leap to a fully professional regional theater in 1964,” continues Cohan. “We hammered out addressograph plates for mailings in the old Studio Annex together; we painted scenery together; and we even appeared on stage together in The Good Woman of Setzuan, back in 1962.

Elsie (in tutu with great gams) in He Who Gets Slapped at the Albright, 1954-55 season.
Elsie Robertson, Bill Green, and Eva Gottschalk in Good Woman of Setzuan at Studio Theatre, 1962. (Photo courtesy of Bill Green.)

“‘C’mon, love,’ she would whisper back stage, and hand-in-hand we made our entrance.”

That 1962 production of Berthold Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan was directed by Stuart Vaughn, who would, just a few years later, become co-founder of New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park with Joseph Papp. Cohan recalls that the cast also featured such Studio Theatre regulars as Betty Lutes and Bob Swados. The production—an important play by an important playwright under the guidance of a major director—typifies the ambition of Studio Theatre in those days, a quality that would fall into short supply when Studio Arena began to slip into mediocrity in 1980 after founding artistic director Neal Du Brock was ousted.

Elsie’s niece recalls that her aunt’s artistic seriousness, included venturing down to Manhattan when she was in her 50s, to study acting with the great Stella Adler, one of the giants of the American Theater. Adler had created several iconic roles as a member of The Group Theatre in the 1930s, and Elsie was very proud to have studied with her.

Ironically, the successful efforts of the dedicated artists who helped establish Studio Arena Theatre would eventually result in their virtual exclusion from performing there. Building on the ambitions of these local artists, Du Brock set the bar very high, but when he was gone, the artists who help him establish the company found themselves out in the cold. Subsequent artistic directors felt absolutely no loyalty to the local theater community, even held distain for it, and tended to hire actors out of New York City almost exclusively.

“I was away for years and saw Elsie less,” says Cohan, “but when I went to work at Studio Arena in 1985, there she was, toiling in the ticket office—doing that thankless labor with characteristic cheer, wit, courtesy, and efficiency. For all her forward-looking open-mindedness, though, I’m afraid Elsie was a bit of a Luddite. As the computer age dawned in the ticket office, she chose to close that part of her theater career, but continued to volunteer at the theater in a variety of capacities. She was the last of those unique Mohicans—she, Kay Kingdon, and Blossom were truly the living links to Studio Theatre, to the days of Miss Keeler and the School [Jane Keeler founded Studio Theatre School with Lars Potter], all the way back to the Studio Club. And Blossom was in fact the junior member of that band.

“They are all gone now, with the institution itself. Memory alone remains.”

In fact, while Studio Arena itself is gone, the ambition and devotion to the art demonstrated by its pioneering members paved the way for today’s local theater scene, which boasts something in the neighborhood of 20 professional companies. Artists shut out of Studio Arena went elsewhere and became its competitors. In that regard, their efforts endure.

“As she aged,” observes Cohan, “Elsie’s remarkable qualities were highlighted even more impressively. She was perhaps the best-composed person I have ever known, in every sense of that phrase. ‘Forever 50,’ she would sometimes say, and she did her damnedest to make it stand up. She was a dedicated walker; a perpetual thinker, a wit, a bit of a poet; a wonderful, literate conversationalist; and ahead of her time, perhaps, in maintaining her mind and body in truly astonishing condition until the very end, when her body—but not her mind—finally failed her.”

Bill Green of the old Studio Theatre days maintained his friendship with Elsie too, and recalled their tight group as the self-described “Friends Who Frolic,” always embracing their mutual passion for living.

Buffalo’s most beloved television news anchor of all time, Irv Weinstein, formerly of WKBW (briefly the co-producer at “The Playhouse” on Main Street) and now retired in California recalls, “I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Elsie in a number of productions at Studio Arena and The Playhouse. Aside from being a terrific actress, her gentle humor helped to soothe the frazzled nerves of fellow actors and release some of the air from inflated egos. I’ve lost a dear friend and Buffalo theatergoers have lost a unique talent.”

Elsie’s friends extended beyond the world of theater.

“I was not a part of the theater scene in any sense,” explains her good friend, Elaine Cutting. “I knew Elsie and Blossom through the English Speaking Union, an organization that promotes better communication among English speakers. I had served as president and Blossom followed me in that role. Elsie had been on the board. Elsie and Blossom were very close, and when Blossom died, Elsie and I became very close. She and I continued to have Thanksgiving with Dean and Leslie Cohan and we were planning to do that again this year. In fact, Elsie and I spoke on the phone almost every single night for the last several years of her life.”

Interestingly, the two friends who had met in the English Speaking Union developed a kind of communicative lingo reminiscent of stage management.

“When I called, Elsie would say ‘Cue, prop pillow,’ meaning ‘Get organized and we’ll talk.’ Then at the end of the conversation, it was ‘I shall talk unto you.’ That was good-bye. We last spoke on the night before she died. We had a hilarious conversation. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I remember the laughing. Elsie never lost her sense of humor or her intellect.

“The next day, I called and the phone was disconnected, so I contacted the Lutheran Home, where she lived, to see about getting that fixed. The person who answered said, ‘Is this Miss Elaine?’

“I said ‘Yes.’

“‘She died,’ they told me.

“Well, that hit me with a whammy! I was just not prepared for this. I cried the whole day. And I’ve never done that, not even for my own family, but I began to cry and I could not stop. As ridiculous as it seems, I got mad at God. I have a friend who is a bishop’s wife in Cleveland, and I told her how I had reacted and she said, ‘I’m glad that I wasn’t God that day!’”

The themes of God, fate, and immortality seem appropriate. Diane Gaylord notes that her aunt became more spiritual towards the end of her life. “I take comfort in knowing that I will see my aunt in heaven,” she says.

Other longtime friends echo the sentiment. Tom Fontana, the famed writer and producer of such television shows as St. Elsewhere, Homicide, and Oz, had known Robertson from the days when he had been a young intern at Studio Arena.

“Elsie Robertson was a real-life sprite,” notes New York City based Fontana, “her heart full of love, her voice full of laughter, her eyes always a twinkle, her wit as sharp as Dorothy Parker’s. She and Blossom Cohan and Petie Brock are together again, wearing angel’s wings and sipping martinis.”

So long, Elsie, and thank you for the gifts of interconnected friendships and theatrical richness that are your legacy!

For more in theater, see Theaterweek for a preview of "We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!" and a review of "Fiddler on the Roof," Stagefright for news, and On The Boards for complete listings.