Chase Mishkin, Tony-winning producer of 'Dame Edna,' dies at 85

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Chase Mishkin, Tony-winning producer of 'Dame Edna,' dies at 85
From left, Steven M. Levy, Peter Crane, Leonard Soloway, and Chase Mishkin inside the Gramercy Theater in New York on Sept. 12, 1997. ..Mishkin, a prolific theatrical producer who received two Tony Awards, one for bringing the uninhibited Australian character Dame Edna Everage to Broadway, and who was something of flamboyant figure herself, chauffeured around town in her London taxicab, died on July 24, 2022 at her home in Manhattan. She was 85. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Chase Mishkin, a prolific theatrical producer who received two Tony Awards, one for bringing the uninhibited Australian character Dame Edna Everage to Broadway, and who was something of flamboyant figure herself, chauffeured around town in her London taxicab, died July 24 at her home in the New York City borough of Manhattan. She was 85.

Her sister Julie Kahle confirmed the death, adding that Mishkin had dementia. She had also had two strokes.

After her husband died, Mishkin arrived on Broadway in 1996 with her first play, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall . . . ,” which she had produced in Los Angeles. Over the next two decades, she became one of the most prominent female producers on Broadway, with a hand, and her money, in 29 more shows.

“She had a real commitment to be a Kermit Bloomgarden” — who produced “Death of a Salesman” and “The Music Man” in the 1940s and ’50s — said Joe Brancato, a friend who is founding artistic director of the Penguin Rep Theater in Stony Point, New York, in Rockland County. “She had a real dedication to each show.”

Working with other producers, her hits included the musical “Memphis,” for which she shared the Tony for best musical in 2010; Martin McDonagh’s Irish drama “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (which opened in 1998); Claudia Shear’s Tony-nominated play “Dirty Blonde” (2000), and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (2005), a musical adaptation of the Frank Oz film with Steve Martin and Michael Caine as con men.

“Dame Edna: The Royal Tour” was one of Mishkin’s most conspicuous successes. It starred Australian actor Barry Humphries as a former housewife-turned-self-appointed “gigastar” who, dressed in an elaborate evening gown, mauve wig and wild eyeglasses, held court with the audience, whom she called “possums.”

It was a profitable hit during its run, from 1999 to 2000, and earned Mishkin, along with her frequent producing partner Leonard Soloway and two other producers, a special Tony for live theatrical presentation. But when Humphries went on tour two years later, he stunned his producers by leaving them behind.

Mishkin said she felt betrayed. Asked if she would work with Humphries again, she told Michael Riedel, who was then the theater columnist for The New York Post, “I am in the enviable position of being able to say that once you lose me, you lose me forever.”

She was born Mary Margaret Hahn on Jan. 22, 1937, in Vanduser, Missouri, and grew up in Sparta, Illinois, and Dexter, Missouri. Her mother, Violet (Phegley) Hahn, was a homemaker. Her father, Harold Hahn, was not a part of her life. She attended Washington University in St. Louis for a semester in 1955.

Little is known about her next decade or so, other than that she was a dancer in Las Vegas who met her future husband, Ralph Mishkin, while modeling for an advertisement for his carpet manufacturing company. By then she had changed her given name to Chase.

They married in 1970 and lived for a while in an estate they had bought from singer and actress Cher in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. She became known as a hostess and philanthropist, but she turned to theater after her husband’s death in 1993.

In 1996 she staged Trish Vradenburg’s “The Apple Doesn’t Fall … ” — about a woman’s relationship with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease — at a small theater in Los Angeles before taking it the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, with her friend Leonard Nimoy directing.

It flopped, but Mishkin moved on, becoming increasingly familiar on Broadway for her flaming red hair and mink coats and her arrivals at premieres — and at Sardi’s, the theater district gathering spot — in her black London cab, which she had reupholstered in Burberry plaid.

“She came on the scene in a bold way,” said Riedel, the author of “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway” (2016) and a co-host of a morning radio show on WOR-AM in New York. “She was part of a new breed of female producers who said, ‘If I’m going to give you $500,000, I won’t be a passive investor — I want to be involved in every aspect of the show.’”

Daryl Roth, another woman who started to find success as a theatrical producer in the late 1980s, wrote in an email about Mishkin, “My impression of her is one of being a ‘dame’ in the best possible way; she was outspoken but always gracious; she had a great attitude about enjoying life.”

Mishkin endured failures like “Prymate,” about the battle for control over an aging gorilla between an anthropologist and geneticist, and “Urban Cowboy,” a 2003 a musical adaptation of the 1980 film about a Texas honky-tonk.

In 2003, Mishkin and other producers decided that “Urban Cowboy” — devastated by bad reviews, a four-day musicians’ strike, the start of the war in Iraq and dismal ticket sales — would close after its fourth performance. But as Lonny Price, who directed the musical, walked to the stage to say goodbye to the audience, he encountered Mishkin backstage.

“She said, ‘We’re not closing,’ and I said, ‘What did you say?’ ” he recalled in a phone interview. “She said, ‘I’ve decided not to close the show,’ and I said, ‘May I say that?’ And she said, ‘Go ahead.’ And she funded the show for the rest of its run.”

The musical stayed alive — it got two Tony nominations — but closed after 60 performances.

“When business didn’t pick up, she reluctantly closed the show,” Price said.

She was just as persistent with Mark Medoff’s 2004 play, “Prymate.” At its center was a Black actor, André De Shields, as Graham, a 350-pound gorilla. Wearing a baggy T-shirt and shorts, De Shields grunted, screeched and scooted about onstage and, in one notorious scene, was masturbated by a sign-language interpreter.

Faced with poor reviews and ticket sales, Mishkin bought an advertisement in The New York Times that urged theatergoers to see the play, which also starred Phyllis Frelich, James Naughton and Heather Tom. “Come Be Engrossed!” she wrote. But it closed after five performances.

“I don’t try to defend that one,” she told New York magazine in 2009. “But I don’t throw rocks at it, either.”

Mishkin also produced off-Broadway shows and earned an Emmy Award as executive producer of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street In Concert,” which Price directed on PBS in 2001. Her final Broadway show, “Doctor. Zhivago” (2015), closed after 23 performances.

In addition to her sister Julie, she is survived by another sister, Dixie May; a stepson, Steve Mishkin; and five step-grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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