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Obituaries

Dorothy Loudon, 70; Stage Actress Was 'Miss Hannigan'

November 17, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Dorothy Loudon, a veteran stage actress who earned a Tony for the Broadway role she created as the rancorous orphanage headmistress in "Annie," has died. She was 70.

Loudon died Saturday of cancer in a New York City hospital. Her deteriorating health last year had forced her to withdraw from a Broadway revival of "Dinner at Eight."

The versatile entertainer gained experience as a singer and comedian in nightclubs from New York's Blue Angel to Las Vegas' Flamingo to Los Angeles' Crescendo on the Sunset Strip. She appeared on television in shows including "The Garry Moore Show" and her own sitcom, and in a handful of films such as the 1984 "Garbo Talks" and the 1997 "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

But her greatest joy -- and success -- was reserved for the Broadway stage. Reviewers raved about her performances, even when the shows were bombs.

"I never really wanted to do anything but theater," she told The Times in 1981, when she was appearing with Katharine Hepburn at the Ahmanson Theater in "West Side Waltz."

Cast in the 1977 "Annie" by producer Mike Nichols, an old friend from club days, Loudon was at first reluctant to take on the role of harridan Aggie Hannigan. "There's an old saying, 'Never be in a show with kids, dogs or an Irish tenor,' and this show had all three," she told the New York Times.

Also worried that headmistress Hannigan was humorless, Loudon partially rewrote the part, adding sympathy and laughs, and turning Miss Hannigan into what one reviewer described as "a manic descendant of Cinderella's stepmother."

Loudon earned not only the Tony for "Annie," but also a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics' Circle Award for best performance in a musical. Her show-stopping performance earned her a leading role in the ill-fated 1990 sequel, "Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge," which closed at Washington's Kennedy Center, never reaching Broadway.

To her great disappointment, Loudon, who had followed Carol Burnett onto "The Garry Moore Show" to rave reviews in 1962, lost the Hannigan role to Burnett in the motion picture version of "Annie."

Loudon was nominated for two other Tony Awards -- in 1969 for her performance in "The Fig Leaves Are Falling," which closed after only four performances, and a decade later for "Ballroom," which folded after four months. The 1969 show, in which New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes wrote that she "is both lovable and vulnerable, so much so that I feel personally affronted at the way this show wastes her," also earned Loudon a Drama Desk Award.

Another Drama Desk Award came to her for her work in the 1969 revival of "Three Men on a Horse," which closed after 100 performances.

In addition to "Annie," Loudon found top stage success when she succeeded Angela Lansbury in "Sweeney Todd" in 1980, opposite her idol Hepburn in "West Side Waltz" in 1981 and in the slapstick British farce "Noises Off" in 1983.

Loudon appeared at the Ahmanson, not only in "West Side Waltz," but also in "Noises Off," earning praise in both from former Times drama critic Dan Sullivan. Although Loudon suffered two bruised ribs, two broken toes and a sprained ankle during her tenure with "Noises Off," her performance was judged "wonderful" and "bang-on" by Sullivan.

Born in Boston and reared in Indianapolis and in Claremont, N.H., Loudon was taught to sing by her mother, a department store pianist. She took piano and dance lessons and, with her work in high school productions, earned a drama scholarship to Syracuse University. Without graduating, she moved on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Loudon began singing in clubs, and in 1954 the owner of the Ruban Bleu, recognizing her comedic talent, suggested she satirize the chanteuse style instead of merely singing torch songs. The act quickly caught on, as she caricatured singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Shirley Temple. A major recording, "Dorothy Loudon at the Blue Angel" followed, along with several guest appearances on musical variety television shows.

When she was hired for Garry Moore, a New York Post columnist applauded: "Dorothy Loudon arrived like a doctor's prescription with all the essential ingredients -- a sweet and saucy flair for humor, a versatile vocal style, an ability to 'move around' without stepping on the dancers and a fine fast-draw, slow-take sense of sketch comedy."

In 1962, Loudon made her Broadway debut in the musical "Nowhere to Go But Up," which folded in two weeks. Nevertheless, her performance opposite Martin Balsam earned her Theatre World's selection as the season's most promising newcomer.

Always active on the summer theater and national tour circuit, Loudon found many new opportunities after her successful run in "Annie." One was her own CBS television show, "Dorothy," in the summer of 1979, featuring her as a divorced showgirl teaching at a girls school.

"In the scripts I get to do the things I enjoy most -- playing comedy and singing. I love my work so much that sometimes I feel guilty being paid for it," she told The Times when she was shooting the episodes. Nevertheless, the series was quickly scuttled.

Loudon was married to the Emmy Award-winning composer Norman Paris from 1971 until his death in 1977. She is survived by his two children.

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