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Neighbors: Tennessee Williams impressed by U of M

A surprise visitor turned up one day for the University of Minnesota theater department’s presentation of the classic play “A Streetcar Named Desire” in Minneapolis some years ago.

It was the play’s author, Tennessee Williams.

Williams, taking in the play, was impressed by the actress playing Blanche Dubois, one of the central characters.

When the performance ended, he approached the actress and told her she should move to New York because, he said, “We need you there.”

He later wrote in the New York Times that, “I have recently seen Blanche played with great wit and pathos by a young actress named Debra Mooney at the University of Minnesota. She made me howl with laughter at my own work.”

That must have made the folks in Ellendale, N.D., proud, because that was Debra’s hometown.

Debra, a 1964 graduate of Ellendale High School, was a U of M graduate student working on her master’s degree when she appeared in Williams’ play.

She did go to New York, too, just as Williams wanted, and appeared in several on- and- off-Broadway plays. Among her co-stars were Sally Struthers, Eli Wallach and Dustin Hoffman.

She also appeared in more than 80 TV plays and movies. Her movies included “Tootsie” with Hoffman, “Dead Poets Society” with Robin Williams and “Domestic Disturbance,” in which she danced with John Travolta.

Awesome at Auburn

Information about Debra comes from Ken Schmierer, Ellendale, known as sort of the unofficial historian of the town, who went to school with Debra.

Debra was born in 1947 to Henry and Isabel Vick. She was in many of Ellendale High School’s plays, played timpani in the concert band and bass drum in the marching band and was on the twirling team.

After graduating from high school in 1964, she attended the University of North Dakota-Ellendale, and appeared in several of its plays. She then transferred to North Dakota State University, where she also was in theater and where she met her husband, Robert Mooney.

When Robert was hired at Auburn (Ala.) University, she finished work on her bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film there and won Auburn’s “best actress” award.

Today, Debra lives in

Los Angeles. Her second husband, Porter Van Zandt, a stage producer and director, died two years ago.

Debra’s daughter, Kirstin Mooney, has been on art department coordinator for several movies, including “Planet of the Apes” and “Sleepy Hollow.”

Ken says Debra has been back to Ellendale several times over the years, “especially enjoying the all-school reunion and meeting with classmates and residents of her hometown.”

Her parents have died. Her siblings are Jerry Vick, Oviedo, Cal.; Hestor Lindberg, Bonita Springs, Fla.; and David Vick, Charleston, W.Va.

And there you have some information about Debra Mooney, the pride of Ellendale and who, Ken notes, became one of the first to be inducted into Ellendale’s Walk of Fame.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email