How Dena Hammerstein (Yes, That Hammerstein) Passes on a Theatrical Legacy | Playbill

Photo Features How Dena Hammerstein (Yes, That Hammerstein) Passes on a Theatrical Legacy With support from Broadway’s Alan Cumming, Jude Law, Jonny Lee Miller, Jennifer Hudson, and more, Only Make Believe celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Jonny Lee Miller, Dena Hammerstein, and Jude Law Bruce Glikas/Playbill

Dena Hammerstein had been bringing kids to the theatre for years—but not her own. Hammerstein (of the Rodgers and Hammerstein family) and her husband were frequent volunteers with children who were—often chronically—ill. The mechanics of bringing these kids to the theatre was always a challenge but well worth it. When Hammerstein’s husband passed suddenly in 1999, she had a new idea. What if she brought theatre to the kids? In his memory, she founded an organization to make that dream her contribution.

Now, 20 years later, her organization Only Make Believe is thriving. Professional actors visit pediatric care centers in 60 hospitals throughout New York City and Washington, D.C. Over the course of a six-week cycle, actors visit once a week to perform a new interactive show with the children. There are currently 15 original scripts in their rotation. “Collaboration between the actors and the children is the key to OMB’s continued success. The actors bring an OMB trunk filled with costumes and props made by our volunteers to dress up the kids,” says Hammerstein. “Our primary goal is to make each and every child feel special, safe and have fun.”

And, OMB has made a tangible difference in the lives of these youngsters. “The majority of the children we serve suffer from chronic diseases and physical and psychological disabilities,” Hammerstein says. “They are in hospitals and care facilities and generally have no control regarding their care, development, and day-to-day routines. OMB allows them to simply be kids playing and having fun. Each child takes an active part in creating a world of fantasy and fun that transcends the boundaries of the hospital walls.”

“OMB has provided a warm, welcoming environment for my son and his classmates to sing, dance, and express themselves,” says Marie Elena Corrao whose son, Nico, is a student at Manhattan Children’s Center. “The actors connect with each student and give them the confidence to be the star of the show regardless of their ability.”

Throughout the past two decades, stars such as Alan Cumming, Sir Ian McKellen, as well as casts of Broadway shows like The Lion King and Memphis have supported OMB’s mission. Here, we take a look back at past galas and in-hospital performances that cement Only Make Believe as a lasting part of the Hammerstein legacy:

A Look Back at Only Make Believe

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