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Broadway mourns legend Elaine Stritch

Actress Elaine Stritch poses casually in her usual attire.
By Mark Kennedy & Jane Coyle
AP (*)
Brash star was cherished for her roles in Company and Bus Stop

NEW YORK — Elaine Stritch, the brash theatre performer whose gravelly, gin-laced voice and impeccable comic timing made her a Broadway legend, has died. She was 89.

Joseph Rosenthal, Stritch’s longtime attorney, said the actress died yesterday of natural causes at her home in Birmingham, Michigan.

Although Stritch appeared in movies and on television, garnering three Emmys and finding new fans as Alec Baldwin’s unforgiving mother on 30 Rock, she was best known for her stage work, particularly in her candid one-woman memoir, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, and in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company.

A tart-tongued monument to New York show business endurance, Stritch worked well into her late 80s, most recently as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music in 2010.

In 2013, Stritch — whose signature “no pants” style was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights — retired to Michigan after 71 years in New York City and made a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel. A documentary released in February showed her final years.

Stritch’s death was felt closely on Broadway and throughout entertainment. Liza Minnelli remembered her as “a true trail blazer. Her talent and spunk will be greatly missed by so many of us.” Lena Dunham said on Twitter: “May your heaven be a booze-soaked, no-pants solo show at the Carlyle.” Broadway’s marquees are to dim in her memory today.

In At Liberty, the actress told the story of her life — with its ups, downs and in-betweens. She discussed her stage fright, missed showbiz opportunities, alcoholism, battle with diabetes and love life, all interspersed with songs. It earned her a Tony Award in 2002 and an Emmy when it was later televised on HBO.

In Company (1970), Stritch played the acerbic Joanne, delivering a lacerating version of The Ladies Who Lunch, a classic Sondheim song dissecting the modern Manhattan matron. Stritch originated the role in New York and then appeared in the London production.

Among her other notable Broadway appearances were as Grace, the owner of a small-town Kansas restaurant in William Inge’s Bus Stop (1955), and as a harried cruise-ship social director in the Noel Coward musical Sail Away (1961). She also appeared in revivals of Show Boat (1994), in which she played the cantankerous Parthy Ann Hawks, and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1996), portraying a tart-tongued, upper-crust alcoholic.

She was parodied in 2010 on an episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson attends a fancy performing arts camp. One class was on making wallets with Elaine Stritch and Andrew Lloyd Webber. “That’s worth being in the business for 150 years,” she said with a laugh.

Stritch’s films include A Farewell to Arms (1957), Out to Sea (1997), and Woody Allen’s September (1987) and Small Time Crooks (2000). She also appeared on TV, most notably a guest spot on Law & Order in 1990, which won Stritch her first Emmy. A recurring role in 30 Rock got her another in 2007.

She was also known to TV audiences in England, where she starred with Donald Sinden in the sitcom Two’s Company (1975-79), playing an American mystery writer to Sinden’s unflappable British butler. Stritch also starred in Nobody’s Perfect (1980-1982), appearing with Richard Griffiths in this British version of the American hit Maude.

She starred in the London stage productions of Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady and Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings. It was in England that Stritch met and married actor John Bay. They were married for 10 years. He died of a brain tumor in 1982.

Born February 2, 1925, in Detroit, Stritch was the daughter of a Michigan business executive. She attended a Roman Catholic girls school and came to New York to study acting in 1944.

Stritch made her Broadway debut in 1946 in Loco, a short-lived comedy. She was first noticed by the critics and audiences in the 1947 revue Angel in the Wings. In it, she sang the hit novelty song Civilization, which includes the lyrics “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.”

The actress understudied Ethel Merman in the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam (1950). Stritch never went on for Merman, but she did take over the part when the show went on the road.

Stritch then appeared in revivals of two Rodgers and Hart musicals, Pal Joey (1952), in which she stripteased her way through Zip, and On Your Toes (1954).

She became good friends with Noel Coward after appearing on Broadway and in London in Sail Away, playing that harassed cruise-ship social director. The performer brought down the house by warbling a deft Coward ditty called Why Do the Wrong People Travel?

A documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival the week before she left New York, showing a feisty Stritch as she reacted with anger, frustration and acceptance at her increasingly evident mortality. Asked what she thought of the film, she replied in typical fashion: “It’s not my cup of tea on a warm afternoon in May.”

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