Betty Corwin receives Lifetime Achievement Award for archiving thousands of NYC theater productions

Betty Corwin receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award at Sardi’s Restaurant in NYC on November 8, 2017. (Photo/Ellis Gaskell)

Betty Corwin is going to turn 97 this month, but she says she still feels like a baby.

“If you feel young, you are young,” says the native New Yorker, enthusiastically.

This month was an extra special one for Corwin. She received the Special Lifetime Achievement Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW) for founding the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) in 1969. In 2001, she also received a TONY Award for her dedicated work.

It was because of Corwin’s vision, and untiring effort, that TOFT has been filming and archiving video recordings of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater productions for nearly 50 years. The archive is located at New York City’s Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts and is open to the public.

“There are over 8,000 titles now – shows, interviews, dialogues, and over 4,000 are theater productions, and it continues to grow,” says Corwin, proudly. “It’s considered the largest archive of its kind.”

What’s perhaps most impressive about her extraordinary feat is that she only began this immense project when she was 50.

“I got married in 1944, and my husband [a doctor] decided to practice in the country – so we moved to Connecticut,” says Corwin.

She says it took her forever to get used to life in the country, but she did eventually. It’s there that she had, and raised, her three children.

After they were grown, Corwin started to commute to NYC to volunteer in a psychiatric emergency room of a hospital. It was while filling out an application for a scholarship that she realized her true life’s calling.

“I had to write a brief autobiography, and I found myself saying the most exciting time in my life was when I worked in the theater,” recalls Corwin, vividly. “When I was 20, I wasn’t married…I was a production assistant at the theater and script reader for three years.”

Because of this revelation, the next morning, she went straight to Lincoln Center and told the head of the drama department her plan to make an archive of all theater productions.

He asked, “What makes you think you can do this?”

Corwin answered, “I can try.”

He said, “I’ll give you a desk and a telephone and see if you can get it off the ground.”

So, straight away, the unstoppable Corwin started calling foundations in order to get the money to fund her vision.

“It was two and a half years just to get through the unions — I had to tackle them one at a time,” says Corwin, as if it were only yesterday. “I was persistent. I worked hard for it. Even when it was difficult getting union clearances, I pushed ahead.”

Betty Corwin with the video tape recorders in Lincoln Center in 1998. (Courtesy Betty Corwin)

She remembered literally walking into the offices of executives, after not getting callbacks, in order to get contracts signed. Sometimes it’d take up to an hour of convincing why the archive was necessary, but she says she wouldn’t leave until she got the signatures she needed.

“Musicians have a lot of privacy rights. They didn’t trust anyone, or me,” says Corwin. “We finally had all the unions to be able to tape on Broadway, and I had also been raising money throughout…I did that for 31 years – getting up at 5:30am to catch the 7:31 train, and I loved what I was doing. I really did love what I did.”

Corwin’s love for the theater began as a young girl. Her parents would take her to see shows on Broadway. It was then that the seed was planted, and she began feeling someone had to preserve these shows. Little did she know that person would be her.

“I was always a spectator. I never acted,” says Corwin. “When you go to the theater, you’re lost in another world.”

She says she also loves theater, because it can shed light on controversial topics happening in the world, like “The Normal Heart” – about the AIDS epidemic – which TOFT got to tape in 1985.

Her favorite memory of her career was being able to watch a special finale of one of her favorite plays, “A Chorus Line” – which she says is also the longest running Broadway show.

“The actors emerged from all over the theater,” says Corwin. “The orchestra and audience were in evening clothes. It was thrilling.”

What thrills Corwin nowadays is seeing her beloved archive continue at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center.

“We have viewers coming from around the world,” she says. “I continue to work for the library, and I’m also on the jury for the Outer Critics Circle…I feel good.”

What is her most important piece of life advice that she’d tell her 20-year-old self?

“Just enjoy life and keep doing what you love. That’s the most important thing – to just keep going.”