Dakota Datebook

Dorothy Stickney, Actress

Monday, June 21, 2004

It was on this date in 1896 that Dorothy Hayes Stickney was born in Dickinson. She was the daughter of Victor Hugo Stickney, also known as the “cowboy doctor.”

Dorothy was the younger of two children, and before she was even 1, it appeared she was having vision problems. Her parents took her to a specialist in St. Paul, who immediately performed the first of seven operations she would have to undergo for ulcers on her corneas.

Vision problems plagued Dorothy until she was finally healed at age 18; until that time, she would have periods of time where she her eyes would have to be bandaged, and she would have to sit in darkened rooms for days or even weeks at a time. It was during these dark periods that her father read the classics to her, and the two of them formed a special bond.

After high school, Dorothy went to New York to pursue a career as an actress. During the first years, she got bit parts in second-rate Vaudeville shows and also played in summer stock in Maine. It was in Maine that a producer signed her up for a promising part in “The Nervous Wreck,” a road-company play. Unfortunately, he didn’t follow through when she came back to New York.

The following year, Stickney was back in Maine acting in a play directed by her future husband, Howard Lindsay. During this time, she happened upon a Maureen Watkins manuscript for a new play called “Chicago,” which later became the basis for the movie musical “Chicago” that won the 2002 Oscar for Best Picture. There was a character in the play named Crazy Liz, a foul-mouthed, slovenly hag who was jailed for murder. Pretty blue-eyed Dorothy Stickney wanted the part, but nobody would give her a chance. The best she could get was a promise that she could try out if the play ever went into rehearsals.

Meanwhile, Stickney was cast as a sweet young thing in the 1926 hit, “The Squall.” But when she heard that “Chicago” was in rehearsal, she used makeup and costuming to transform herself into Crazy Liz and reminded Sam Harris, the producer, about his promise. The part was already taken by that time, but when the actress playing Crazy Liz didn’t show up that day, Dorothy got her chance to try out. By the time she finished the first scene, Harris gave her a three-year contract. She was a hit.

Shortly after, Stickney learned that her father back in Dickinson had inoperable cancer, and she left the show to go home and be with him. After he died in July 1927, Dorothy went back to New York, married Howard Lindsay, and continued acting.

Although the couple could have had their pick of film projects in Hollywood by now, they opted instead to borrow money so Howard could finish writing a play called, “Life with Father.” The two of them were to play the roles of the mother and father. Unfortunately, everyone turned down the finished play, so they staged it themselves in summer stock.

Finally, on November 8th, 1939, they brought it to the Empire Theater on Broadway, where their faith in the play paid off big time. It ran for seven years – with 3,224 performances, it’s the longest running non-musical to ever play on Broadway.

Howard Lindsay died in 1968 in New York, but Dorothy lived 30 years beyond that. Although plagued by illness throughout her life, she lived to be 101 years old.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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