One of the most acclaimed actresses in America for over 50 years spent much of the first 20 years of her life in relative darkness in Dickinson, N.D.
Dorothy Stickney was unable to experience the life of a typical girl because her ulcerated eyes were very delicate and sensitive. Since her reading was limited to prevent eye strain, much of her early education was limited to the classics that were read to her by her parents and older sister.
"Her eye ailment that prevented her from preparing for college had created an intense interest in subjects which required less strain on the eyes such as elocution and dancing." It also heightened her imagination, which worked to her advantage as an actress.
Dorothy Hayes Stickney was born June 21, 1896, in Dickinson, to Dr. Victor and Margaret (Hayes) Stickney. Dr. Stickney was a country doctor who was completely devoted to his two daughters. As a doctor, he could see that something was not right with Dorothy's vision when she was still an infant. He took her to St. Paul, where the first of seven surgeries were performed on the cornea ulcers in her eyes.
As Dorothy grew older, the highlights in her life were when her parents would take her to the theater to watch the productions of traveling shows that were performed in Dickinson. Through these experiences, Dorothy was determined to become an actress.
As she got older and had more surgeries, Dorothy's vision began to improve, and she was able to proceed with her education. She first attended the LaSalle Seminary in Auburndale, Massachusetts, a two-year junior college for women. After receiving her degree, Dorothy enrolled at St. Catherine's College, most commonly called St. Kate's, in St. Paul. She then studied acting at the Northwestern Dramatic School in Minneapolis.
During her last year of college, Dorothy got together with three of her classmates and put together a routine of singing and dancing that was interspersed with dialogue. They called their routine the "Southern Belles Concert Party" and, following graduation, took their act on the road. They debuted in Minot in May of 1921 and, after achieving moderate success in the Dakotas, ventured into Montana. The group's excitement turned to profound disappointment in Whitefish. On the night of their scheduled appearance, there was also a band concert and no one showed up to see the Southern Belles.
The group disbanded, which may have worked to Dorothy's advantage. The French play Toto had wrapped up a successful run on Broadway, and the star of the show, Leo Ditrichstein, decided to take the play on the road through the upper Midwest. He needed dancers for the Follies Bergère segment, and Dorothy was hired. When the tour ended, Dorothy returned to Dickinson and was able to be with her mother when she died on Christmas Eve.
In 1922, Dorothy traveled to New York to showcase a Vaudeville act she put together and had "rehearsed for 11 weeks, but the act only lasted three days." However, she now had her foot in the door and was hired to perform an Irish singing act. She eventually quit because the routine later called for her to be on stage with some trained seals.
Dorothy wanted to be an actress, not a performer. She learned that one of the places where aspiring actors could be in plays along with seasoned veterans was summer stock in the Forsyth area of Atlanta, Georgia. She auditioned for, and was accepted as, one of the "Forsyth Players." Her acting was not polished, but her potential was noticeable because of her driving ambition.
Ernest Rogers wrote, "Among the young talent brought to Atlanta for testing with the Forsyth Players was an ingénue named Dorothy Stickney, whose work I must say in all candor was not at the time sensational. She was, however, a lovely girl who showed real promise. As the critic who covered the Forsyth Players, I even went so far as to predict great things for her in the future."
Dorothy returned to New York and paid a visit to the Lewis and Gordon booking and production agency. Albert Lewis and Max Gordon were casting for a new play that they were producing called The Nervous Wreck, which was set to debut on Broadway early in 1923. At the audition, Dorothy was named an understudy to June Walker for the role of Sally Morgan. When Walker notified the producers that she was leaving the show, Dorothy was hired by Lewis to replace Walker.
Her jubilation soon turned to heartache when Owen Davis, the play's author, refused to have her in his play. Knowing that this news would be devastating to Dorothy, Lewis asked his good friend, Howard Lindsay, to join him when he had to tell her she would not receive the role. Lindsay was an acclaimed playwright who was reputed to always know exactly what to say. After Lewis told Dorothy of the decision by Davis, Lindsay invited her to lunch and told her to give up acting and return to Dickinson. His gentle demeanor did not anger Dorothy. Instead, "she thanked him-and never followed this advice."
Dorothy traveled to Skowhegan, Maine, the site of the Lakewood Playhouse, a highly regarded summer stock theater. The founder and manager of Lakewood was Herbert L. Swett, who quickly recognized Dorothy's potential and began giving her important roles. "The locals liked her," and she became "the featured ingénue in summer stock." In 1925, Swett hired Lindsay as director at Lakewood and was told that "he could choose his own company, except for the ingénue, a role reserved for the popular Miss Stickney."
Through their working together, an admiration for each other's talent developed. This soon turned into affection, and they were married in 1927. Until Lindsay's death in 1963, they were considered one of the most admired couples of the theater.
(We will conclude the story of Dorothy Stickney next week)