OBITUARY: Dorothy Dickson

David Shipman
Tuesday 26 September 1995 23:02

It was Charles B. Cochran who brought Dorothy Dickson and her husband Carl Hyson to Britain, introducing them late in the run of a revue, London, Paris and New York (1921), at his showcase, the London Pavilion. It was a memorable night for J.C. Trewin, who recalled "the drift of thistledown that was London's first sight of Dorothy Dickson". A couple of months later, Trewin said, "it was clear that she could be equal to any musical- comedy heroine": this was at the Winter Garden in Jerome Kern's Sally, cast against Kern's will for the role - played in New York by Marilyn Miller - because he didn't know whether Dickson could carry the songs. She and Hyson had been in two of his Broadway shows, Oh Boy! (1917) and Rock-a-Bye Baby (1918), but only as dancers.

Dickson and Hyson were slipped into the first of these because the craze for ballroom dancing was sweeping the US, notably making Broadway stars of Irene and Vernon Castle. The Hysons also appeared in two editions of the Ziegfeld Follies - the second in 1918. They had not long started their own school in New York - the Palais Royal Dance Club - when the Cochran offer was made.

Kern did not speak to Dickson during the rehearsals of Sally, but on the first night he went to her dressing-room to point to a tear on his cheek. "She had accomplished", said Kern's biographer, Gerald Bordman, "something Marilyn Miller never had: she had made Sally a truly believable, heart-breaking waif". When Sally closed, the same management and team put on two more Kern shows at the Winter Garden, The Cabaret Girl (1922) and The Beauty Prize (1923), created with Dickson in mind - and confirmation that she was now a star in her own right. She and Hyson were divorced in 1936 - by which time their daughter Dorothy was also winning audiences' hearts.

Dickson made her "straight" acting debut under Gerald du Maurier's management in one of the longest-running plays of the period, The Ringer. That was between two Peter Pans, in 1925 and 1926, and in 1931 she was Principal Boy in Dick Whittington at the Garrick. She replaced Gertrude Lawrence in the 1925 Charlot's Revue, when Lawrence left to conquer Broadway. Dickson continued to have London at her feet, in a series of revues and musicals, including two of Ivor Novello's, Careless Rapture (1936) and Crest of the Wave (1937) and she appeared opposite him again, as Princess Katharine, when he played Henry V at Drury Lane (1938).

Her career took a different turn when she appeared in Herbert Farjeon's intimate revues Diversion (1940) and Diversion No 2 (1941). Joyce Grenfell, who was also in the cast, was apprehensive about the No 1 dressing-room at Wyndham's (one of the first theatres to re-open during the Blitz), which Dickson shared with Edith Evans, and was surprised that it worked. "Dorothy advised Edith about make-up and clothes, Edith talked to Dorothy about books and poetry, and they complemented each other in a friendly way."

The Second World War curtailed Dickson's London appearances, and in 1943 she toured Gibraltar and North Africa entertaining the troops, in a revue directed by John Gielgud and also featuring Beatrice Lillie, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Henson. Along with another American star dancer from the 1920s, Adele Astaire, she was active in the service of the Stage Door Canteen, in London. Dorothy Hyson was an enchanting Lady Windermere in the famous Gielgud production at the Haymarket in 1945, but as the wife of Anthony Quayle there was other work to be done in Stratford after he began to build the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company into world class from 1948 onwards.

Dickson herself also went into semi-retirement after appearing as Jack Buchanan's wife in As Long as They're Happy (1953). The show, a "satire" on rock singers, seemed to be a first-night disaster till Buchanan imitated Johnny Ray singing "Cry". Because of that, it managed a fair run, but Dickson was replaced by Brenda da Banzie in the film version. She herself made only a handful of movies, of which the best may be Channel Crossing (1933), in which she, Constance Cummings and Max Miller were among those at the mercy of a mad Dutch financier, played by Matheson Lang.

She is thought to have been the Queen Mother's oldest friend; they met in the early Twenties after a performance of Dickson's in The Cabaret Girl. Her last stage appearance was a special matinee at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1980, to celebrate 75 years of Peter Pan.

Dorothy Dickson, actress: born Kansas City 26 July 1896; married Carl Hyson (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1936); died London 26 September 1995.

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