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Dolly Beechman Schnall, champion of Philadelphia theater, dies at 96

Dolly Beechman Schnall, who was part of the Philadelphia theater community for decades, as a writer, director, teacher and philanthropist, died Thursday Oct. 29 at 96.

Marillyn "Dolly" Beechman Schnall, who was involved in the Philadelphia theater community as an actor, playwright, director, teacher, and philanthropist for several decades, died Oct. 29, 2020 at age 96.
Marillyn "Dolly" Beechman Schnall, who was involved in the Philadelphia theater community as an actor, playwright, director, teacher, and philanthropist for several decades, died Oct. 29, 2020 at age 96.Read moreCourtesy: the Schnall Family

Dolly Beechman Schnall, 96, who devoted nearly eight decades of her life to the theater, died Thursday, Oct. 29, from complications of a stroke at Sunrise Assisted Living in Abington.

In addition to being an actor, playwright, director, teacher, and philanthropist, Mrs. Schnall served on the boards of several Philadelphia theaters, including the Walnut Street Theatre, the Wilma, 1812 Productions, and Ambler’s Act II Playhouse.

She taught theater arts at Pennsylvania State University in Abington, and was director of the Masque Theater at Rutgers University in Camden as well as a member of Actors’ Equity and the Edwin Forrest Society.

In 2008, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia presented her with the Barrymore Award for Lifetime Achievement. That same year, 1812 Productions named her “Woman of the Year."

“Dolly was an extraordinarily integral part of the Walnut,” said Bernard Havard, the Walnut’s president and artistic director.

“She was right in front of all of the growth that we had," Havard said. "She loved everything we did … She was such a booster and such an advocate.”

Mrs. Schnall had been a 40-year resident of Wyndmoor before a stroke prompted her move to Sunrise seven years ago.

Marillyn “Dolly” Lush was born in Philadelphia in 1924 to S. Beryl Lush and Rosalie Lush. She was the youngest of three children and grew up in Germantown and Mount Airy.

Her father was involved in the textile industry and the arts. He founded the Suburban Opera Company, which after merging with Lyric Opera of Philadelphia became Opera Philadelphia.

He also knew Eugene Ormandy, the longtime Philadelphia Orchestra conductor, and took courses with Albert C. Barnes, who established the Barnes Foundation.

Mrs. Schnall’s mother graduated from Philadelphia Business College in 1910, and was a painter, violinist, hostess, and patron of the arts.

“The arts were really stressed at their house,” Claudia Beechman Cohen, one of Mrs. Schnall’s daughters, said.

Her mother had memories of standing at the top of the stairs in their home on Meehan Street and looking down as her parents hosted soirees.

"Someone would be playing a harp, and then someone else was reciting poetry.”

Because Beryl Lush traveled frequently on business, and her sister and brother were away at college, Cohen said it was often just her grandmother and young Dolly taking in shows together.

At 11, she began acting classes at the Germantown Theatre Guild. By 16, she was a summer stock apprentice at the Cape May Playhouse, painting scenery and cleaning the floors before she was able to get on stage.

There, she met actors Gloria Swanson and Alfred Drake, Cohen said.

After graduating first in her class at Germantown High, Mrs. Schnall won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor’s degree in Romance languages in 1944. She was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Years later, she earned a master’s of fine arts in directing from Temple University.

In 1948, she married Eugene Beechman, who later owned and operated a show-tunes and opera-themed restaurant, Gino’s, on Walnut Street. He often sang opera for his customers. The couple had three daughters, Claudia, Laurie, and Jane, but their marriage ended in divorce in 1965.

Mrs. Schnall reared her daughters in Westmont, N.J., while also directing award-winning plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players theater.

There was a theater in the basement of their home, where she taught acting to children and adults.

“She was the best mother,” Cohen said. "She spent a lot of time going to rehearsals, teaching — she used to drive to the Germantown Theater Guild when we were living in New Jersey. But she was always there for us.

“Her favorite saying was ‘Noli timere,’ a Latin phrase which means, ‘fear nothing,’ or ‘do not be afraid,’ " Cohen said.

Jane Segal recalled her mother was a life coach before anyone used the term.

“In my childhood images of her, she was beautiful, wearing artistic clothes, and there were peals of laughter as she was on the phone constantly giving advice to her acting friends,” Segal said.

“The energy in that house was amazing.”

At a dinner for Temple University Alumni donors in 1979, Mrs. Schnall reconnected with Dr. Nathan Schnall, whom she had dated when they met as teenagers in Wildwood some 40 years earlier.

He had also been divorced for several years. But he telephoned her the following day. They married in 1984.

Dr. Schnall, a retired obstetrician, said of his wife: “She was always smiling, always positive, always gracious. She was just full of life.”

Mrs. Schnall took a break from theater in 1998 when her middle daughter, Laurie Hope Beechman, a Broadway actor, died of ovarian cancer at age 44.

Laurie Beechman made her Broadway debut in the original cast of Annie, and received a Tony Award nomination for her role as the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She also starred as Grizabella in Cats and, in 1990, made her debut as Fantine in Les Misérables.

As a playwright, Mrs. Schnall focused on historical subjects. One of her best known works was Sojourner, about Sojourner Truth, the African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

After a 1979 premiere at the Germantown Theater Guild, it later had a two-week run at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Dr. Schnall said donations may be made in his wife’s memory to either the Laurie Beechman Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of the Arts, or to any of the nonprofit theaters in Philadelphia.

In addition to her husband and two daughters, Mrs. Schnall is survived by six grandchildren; two stepdaughters, Ilene and Rona Schnall; a nephew, and other relatives and friends.

A private graveside service was held Nov. 1. The family hopes to have a memorial when it is safer to gather.