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Mary Ellen Ashley

If ever there was a singer suited to the role of Dolly Levi, it is Mary Ellen Ashley. She took the audience by storm earning a standing ovation for her sparkling performance, her outstanding voice, and her zestful interpretation.

"Not only did she sing beautifully, but she brought such conviction to the part of Dolly. Mary Ellen Ashley as Dolly sings her heart out and deserves the standing ovation she receives every night."
- Buffalo Standard

Mary Ellen Ashley has done between 11 and 13 productions of Hello, Dolly! Since she always seems to be working, she hasn’t really taken the time to count the number. We sat down earlier this week to talk, and I will say this, I’m sorry I never saw her do it. She embodies all of the qualities that we all desire to see in Dolly Levi. If some upcoming production of Dolly is in the works, I hope that all that see this will seriously consider her. It was great to talk with Mary Ellen about all things Dolly!

She knows for sure she has done eleven productions of Dolly. Out of all the places that she has performed Dolly, she holds a special place for Artpark in beautiful Lewiston, New York. She says it was extraordinary.

They had a 27 piece orchestra, 2,000 seats, plus another thousand on the lawn. Lewiston is a town that celebrates the arts and Mary Ellen says it is absolutely glorious there. She goes on to say they had a wonderful company. Her Horace Vandergelder in Artpark was Merwin Goldsmith. Merwin has done Law and Order many times and has a very impressive resume.She says he was wonderful to play opposite. The tunes, the setting, the lighting…it was an actress’ dream come true.

She only did it there once. She also played Dolly at the Allenberry Theatre with Avery Schreiber (as Horace Vandergelder) and Westchester Broadway Theatre in the early 90s.

Her worst experience playing Dolly was at the now defunct Coachlight Dinner Theatre. She had done roles there prior: Mama Rose in Gypsy, and Funny Girl. She had become known as the Dolly person.

They had a very small, relatively speaking, company for Hello, Dolly! The dancing boys doubled and tripled. There was practically no budget on the production. She says Coachlight Dinner Theatre was a decent fairly sized theatre in the round. As mentioned, it was a dinner theatre and there were tables all around.

There was a bug going around and the boys started dropping like flies. The skinniest guy, the one you thought would get sick, continued to thrive as the heartiest beefiest healthiest guys were just going down one by one.

The skinny chorus guy was Norb Joerder.

He was the ONLY one who didn’t get sick. He has gone on to a successful directing career. He kept replacing all the guys that were sick. He was doubling, tripling, covering several people. He kept popping up as different characters. She’s singing, “Hello, Harry, Well, Hello, Louie”…He kept popping up in the number as more than one person! Wherever Mary Ellen went, there was Norb!

One other guy who didn’t get sick was Gary Mendelson. He played BOTH ENDS of the horse! Her memories of that production are that it wasn’t a fully realized production. They were there for three months.

She went on to also do several tours of Dolly around the country. Avery Schreiber was probably the most well known of her Horace’s. Although, there is also Ed Herlihy. He used to do the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour on NBC. He had a very powerful voice. Just as Mary Ellen had done several performances as Dolly, he had done several productions as Horace. She really loved appearing opposite him, although he was really up there in age! She was in her late twenties/early thirties at the time.
Just as has been the running theme with MOST of the Dollys, Mary Ellen usually did not have to audition for the part. Her reputation preceded her.

Most of the time, she got the call. There were a couple of companies that did not know her. Her first Dolly was at Allenberry Theatre in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania,  directed by Ed Aldredge, who went on to work with Kander and Ebb. Aldredge spent his summers at The Allenberry Theatre directing. Ellen said from about fifteen to twenty, she played Meg Brockie in Brigadoon. As she got older, it became Dolly Levi.

with Stephan deGhelder

She just kept getting hired. Lehman Engel was one of her conductors.

Mary Ellen had from the very beginning the core of what Dolly Levi is all about. Therefore, her approach to Dolly never wavered. She knows that Dolly is an enterprising woman. It is built right into the character.

Carol Channing says that Hello, Dolly! is the American Hamlet for women. It’s this iconic role that is such a part of our American Broadway musical heritage. For Mary Ellen it is just a joyous character to play. She (both Dolly and Mary Ellen) LOVE to have FUN. They both love to do for people. That’s their nature.

Out of all the Dolly productions, the longest stint was a tour in which she did it for fifteen weeks. There was a time where she went from one Dolly production to another interspersed with Mama Rose's and Mame's. Dolly is the shown for which she is most known for.

The Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre production of Dolly is memorable to Mary Ellen. Burt was very present at the theatre at the time. It was just extraordinary from start to finish. He treated everyone with the utmost respect. He treated everybody like stars. He came to the first rehearsal and welcomed everyone. AND they were on the beach in Jupiter, Florida! How bad is that? As you walked in, he had a spread from one end of the room to another of food. It was a dinner theatre, but it was high end quality. Again, a joyous experience!

Florida Burt Reynolds’s Theatre:
"Ashley is a consummate actress and her charismatic persona is so captivating that she kept the old play moving with freshness not often seen. She breathes new life into Dolly."

One thing that Mary Ellen has learned from Dolly that has led her through both her professional and personal life is to “never let down”. That constant quest of being present, being in the moment. Partaking of the world. As Dolly says, “I want to rejoin the human race. Ephraim, let me go…”

Unfortunately, Jerry Herman never saw her do it. She feels that Jerry is the quintessential Broadway writer. Look at what he wrote! Very simple in his approach to “grab these women”. He knows how to write for the female voice. “That is a very essential thing. There are many writers who don’t. Today, we have different types of singing. When I first started out, we didn’t have mikes. We just got out there and sang.”

When Mary Ellen worked with Stephan deGhelder and Dennis Grimaldi when they worked at Maine State Theatre, they recreated Gower Champion’s choreography. Most of the productions that Mary Ellen appeared in TRIED to recreate Gower’s work. However, in most cases, there were limitations. Grimaldi had a huge theatre in which to do it. They also had the financial backing the production needed. She once did it with Jack Craig who was one of Gower’s assistants.

The first time Mary Ellen heard the score was when she saw Carol Channing do it. In addition to Carol, Mary Ellen also saw Pearl Bailey do it. Mary Ellen also covered for Dorothy Collins.

Mary Ellen even worked with Carol Channing once. She was 16 at the time.  Monte Proser, Ramrod Productions, booked her. She was doing the revival of Finian’s Rainbow here in New York as Sharon. She was hired to open at The Tropicana Hotel in Vegas which was THE quintessential hotel and the most expensive.

Now, you have Steve Wynn, and The Bellagio, and so many others. At that time, however, The Tropicana was IT! She went out to open for the headliner…Carol Channing! She spent 4 weeks with her. The main star of the show would change every four weeks,  Eddie Fisher, Dorothy Kierston. Mary Ellen did an original musical written by Gordon Jenkins.  She auditioned for Gordon. She sang five bars. He took a chomp on his cigar and said, “She’s the one!”  He smoked, drank like a fish, and played roulette. Monte Proser brought Mary Ellen to him. Mary Ellen ended up becoming a headliner and her name ended up on the marquee underneath all the stars that were brought in.

Mary Ellen has been in this business since she was 4 years old. She paid her dues and etched out a career not like today where we put out “instant stars” like on American Idol. She says she learned a lot from Carol Channing. Mary Ellen says she was a “funny duck”. Very in your face…in a good way! Carol once said to Mary Ellen, “You’re a little star, but you’re going to be a BIG star!”

Mary Ellen, You ARE a STAR!

Stephan deGhelder sent me the following statement:

"The one thing I would add is that we were doing the show with Mary Ellen in summer stock. There were a lot of “newbies” in the chorus in addition to some people who had seen or done DOLLY before but none had done the show with Gower’s work, and a lot of the Newbies were unfamiliar with the show. It was just an “old show” to them. Dennis Grimaldi directed and choreographed and I assisted. Toward the end of our rehearsal period, the staff and visiting artists then performing in the current running show got to sit in and watch a run through in the studio. No costumes or lights, and just a piano. Mary Ellen and Bernard (Wurchter? I’ll check with Dennis for his last name) were so beautiful and so touching in the final scene, there were several in the invited audience in tears. Several kids remarked to me later they had no idea the show was so good. It reminded me of a little speech at the first get together of the cast in Birmingham with Carole Cook. It was a meet and greet and someone raised their hand and asked what the show was about. Carole and I looked at each other and she answered: It’s about love."