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Blossom Cohan, grande dame of Buffalo theater Feb. 6, 1922 -- March 22, 2006

In 1960, a year after arriving in Buffalo, Blossom Cohan landed the role of Mama Rose in "Gypsy," the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, in Studio Arena Theatre.

Though she gave up acting three years later, and did not return to the stage until 2000 in Buffalo United Artists' "The House of Bernarda Alba," Ms. Cohan became a legend behind the scenes as Studio Arena's public relations whiz and unofficial historian.

In an interview on the eve of "Bravo for Blossom," a 2000 tribute to her 40 years in Buffalo theater, she credited the career shift to Neal Du Brock, the late Studio Arena executive director who cast her in "Gypsy."

"I was so fabulous as Mama Rose, Neil asked me to come and do public relations. I'm still trying to figure that one out," quipped Cohan, who died unexpectedly Wednesday in Millard Fillmore Hospital. She was 84.

Though her health had slipped in recent years, the grande dame of Buffalo theater never retired. She remained an invaluable source of information about the history of live theater in the city and Studio Arena in particular, said Executive Director Ken Neufeld.

"Her memory was amazing. She remembered which actors were in shows 30 years ago," he added. "She'd say, yes, this one had that role. He drank a lot, but he was OK."

Ms. Cohan, who loved a well-shaken martini or two, befriended many actors who played Studio Arena on the ascent to stardom on Broadway and in film, among them Celeste Holm, John Voight, Christopher Walken, Kelsey Grammer, Kathy Bates, Bonnie Franklin, John Goodman, Tammy Grimes and Glenn Close.

She developed friendships with playwrights as well, including Edward Albee, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Howard Sackler.

"It was quite a list," said her son, Dean of Tomah, Wis. "You'd find Van Johnson sitting in your living room in his red socks over New Year's weekend, holding forth."

It was Ms. Cohan's almost regal -- and persistent -- presence in newsrooms over the years that impressed local journalists.

"Blossom was a bulldog. When she promoted a show, she always came to us with three or four ideas," Irv Weinstein, the retired Channel 7 anchorman and community theater actor, recalled in 2000, before returning from California for "Bravo for Blossom."

One of her brainstorms played out famously on the 11 o'clock news, when Ms. Cohan talked Channel 7 weatherman Tom Jolls into letting three cast members from "Dames at Sea," dressed in rain slickers, sing the weather forecast.

"She never let you ignore her," said Buffalo News critic Jeff Simon.

"She knows more ways into this building than the mice," Douglas Turner, former executive editor of the Buffalo Courier-Express and current News Washington Bureau chief, once said.

Born Blossom Felder in Cleveland, she realized early on that show biz was in her genes. Her father had studied comedy and musical acts as a boy in New York City. Film actress Debra Winger was her second cousin, and another cousin, Patricia Bright, acted on Broadway and television. Two more cousins from Schenectady grew up to be professional dancers.

After graduating from Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland, she enrolled at Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, a year behind Gregory Peck. After performing professionally for the first time at Stage Cleveland, where she met director Mitchell "Mike" Cohan, she won a fellowship at the Cleveland Playhouse. She and Cohan married in 1943 and later opened a dinner-theater club.

The couple lived in Terre Haute, Ind., before his career brought them to Buffalo, where she soon joined Studio Arena.

Ms. Cohan handled Studio Arena public relations for 27 years -- a span that covered the theater's move to the former Town Casino premises on Main Street and then across the street to the former Palace burlesque house, its emergence as one of the nation's premier regional stages, the 1978 death of her husband, three different artistic directors and numerous administrative changes -- before moving to the development office 11 years ago.

As special projects coordinator and historian, she arranged annual theater trips for Studio Arena patrons, guided the Tennessee Williams Festival and Symposium and oversaw the theater archives, which bear her name. In 1982, she helped pioneer "Curtain Up!," the annual fall gala that opens the local theater season. She was honorary chairwoman in 1999.

In 1994, she was honored by the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County for her contributions to Buffalo theater -- one of many awards that came her way over the years.

Surviving, besides her son, is a sister, Harriette Mandle of Cleveland.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Amigone Funeral Home, 1132 Delaware Ave. Inurnment will be in Forest Lawn.

-- Tom Buckham

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