Theater Mainstay Dolly Beechman Schnall Dies at 96

Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter presented Marillyn “Dolly” Beechman Schnall with the Barrymore Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. Courtesy of the Beechman Schnall family.

Marillyn “Dolly” Beechman Schnall dedicated her life to supporting local theater.

The actor, playwright, director, teacher and philanthropist served on the boards of the Walnut Street Theatre, the Wilma Theater, 1812 Productions and Act II Playhouse. In 2008, 1812 Productions named her “Woman of the Year.” That same year, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia presented her with the Barrymore Award for Lifetime Achievement.

She died of long-term complications from a stroke at Sunrise Senior Living in Abington on Oct. 29. She was 96.

Beechman Schnall was born on April 9, 1924 to S. Beryl and Rosalie Lush. She grew up in Germantown and Mt. Airy in a household that prized the arts. Her father founded the Suburban Opera Co., which later became Opera Philadelphia, and her mother was a painter, violinist and patron.

She displayed an early love for the stage and began taking acting classes at the Germantown Theatre Guild when she was 11. At 16, she got her first paid job in theater as a summer stock apprentice at the Cape Theater in Cape May, New Jersey.

She graduated first in her class at Germantown High School and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 1944. In 1970, she went back to school and earned a master’s of fine arts in theater from Temple University.

Dolly Beechman Schnall. Courtesy of the Beechman Schnall family.

As an actor, Beechman Schnall performed at the Philadelphia Theatre Co. and the Keswick Theatre. She was a member of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Actors’ Equity Association.

In addition to her acting work, she directed local productions, coached acting independently and taught theater at Rutgers University-Camden and Penn State Abington. She penned historical plays like “Sojourner,” a biographical play about abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth, and “Without the Sainted Father,” a play about President Abraham Lincoln’s family after his assassination.

Beechman Schnall married Eugene Beechman in 1948. The couple had three daughters before they divorced in 1965. Schnall raised her daughters in Westmont, New Jersey, an area with few Jews at the time. Although she was not religious, Beechman Schnall was always proud of her Jewish heritage and culture.

Her daughters described her as a strict but warm mother who always dressed beautifully and loved to laugh.

“We benefited from her wit and her love and her intelligence, and just her sheer joy of being,” her daughter Jane Beechman Segal said.

In New Jersey, she directed award-winning plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She also taught acting in the theater her brother helped her build in her basement. Beechman Segal said her mother kept their suburban home filled with art and creative people.

“That was an amazing way of growing up,” she said.

No matter what her children aspired to, Beechman Schnall was behind them 100%. When her daughter Claudia Beechman Cohen wanted to move to Paris after graduating college to pursue acting, Beechman Schnall fully supported her.

“She always encouraged me to be an artist and to be the best person that I could be,” Beechman Cohen said.

She married Nathan Schnall, an obstetrician she had dated decades earlier, in 1984. He was drawn to her sunny disposition and generosity.

“She really was very upbeat, always positive, always smiling,” he said. “She had a great personality. One of her favorite sayings was the Latin phrase ‘Noli timere,’ fear nothing. She also had a ring, which we bought, that said ‘Carpe diem,’ seize the day.”

Her middle daughter, Laurie Beechman, died of ovarian cancer at age 44. Beechman was a Broadway actor who received a Tony Award nomination for her role as the Narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and starred as Grizabella in “Cats.” Beechman Cohen said her mother grieved privately and decided to establish a scholarship at the University of the Arts in Beechman’s name.

“I always thought of that as such a wonderful gesture, taking that energy and using it to create something wonderful like the scholarship,” she said.

Beechman Schnall lived in Wyndmoor for four decades. After her 2013 stroke, she moved into Sunrise Senior Living, where she lived until her death.

Even in her later years, she remained active in the nonprofit theater world and continued to play character roles and pursue her love of learning. In her 70s, she told Schnall that she wanted to improve her understanding of Romance languages by studying Latin for a year.

“She was a scholar,” Schnall said.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here