Dorothy Appleby was born on Jan. 6, 1906, in Portland. Her family lived at 385 St. John St. in Portland. Her father, George, owned and operated a diner at 265 St. John St., listed in Portland Directories simply as “George F. Appleby restaurant.” This was located right across the street from Union Station so the diner was frequented by travelers and railroad employees.

From roughly 1925 to 1927, George also operated a diner at 7 Rigby Road in South Portland with Dorothy’s brother, James. That diner was adjacent to Rigby Yard, so it was also frequented by railroad men.

Dorothy Appleby, an early stage and film actress, was originally from Portland. South Portland Historical Society photo

In 1923, Dorothy entered the Valentino Mineralava Beauty Contest. During this contest sponsored by the Mineralava Co. (manufacturers of beauty products), the famous silent film actor Rudolph Valentino and his wife embarked on a tour across North America, visiting 88 cities and selecting the winners who would then go to New York for the national competition.

Dorothy was only 17 years old when she was judged by Valentino to represent the state of Maine; the competition paid for her trip to New York.

It was not beauty pageants that Dorothy was interested in, however, rather she aspired to become an actress. She had done a bit of local theater, but had no formal training. She landed her first appearance in a stage production in New York in the musical “Helen of Troy” in 1923, singing in the chorus. She and her mother Nora went to see the musical “Mary Jane McKane” at the Imperial Theatre in New York and Dorothy very ambitiously sought out the producer Arthur Hammerstein after the show to ask for a job – she let him know that she thought she could do the lead part as well as the actress who was doing it.

Hammerstein was impressed and ended up making her the understudy to the lead actress. When that actress subsequently became ill, Dorothy took over the lead role through the remainder of the show’s run in 1924.

As Dorothy made her way into the business, her mother, Nora, made it possible by moving with her to wherever the parts led them. Some of her stage credits include: “Princess April” (1924, Ambassador Theatre, New York); the musical revue “Puzzles of 1925” (1925, Fulton Theatre, New York); the musical comedy “When You Smile” (1925, Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia); the comedy “Square Crooks” (1926, Maxine Elliott Theater, New York); and the comedy “Young Sinners” (1930, Brighton Theatre, Brighton Beach, New York, Morosco Theatre, New York, and in the 1933 revival at the Ambassador Theatre, New York).

While she was working as a stage actress, Dorothy also tried her hand at composing. According to a 1930 article in the Times Union (a Brooklyn paper), Dorothy was a talented pianist and wrote the music and lyrics for a song, “My Arms About You,” that “was published in California and sold 20,000 copies, an enormous amount for a new writer.”

Dorothy started making her way in screen acting in the late 1920s with some bit parts in a few films.

In 1928, she had a small role in the silent film “Square Crooks.” In 1929, she signed a contract with Pathe Films and was supposed to star in an upcoming talking picture, but the film never got past the planning stages. In March of 1930, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM). Around 1931, Dorothy and her mother moved to Los Angeles as her Hollywood career was about to start. Appleby was noticed in a small part in the Warner Brothers’ 1931 comedy, “Under Eighteen.” Her film credits are numerous as she became a steady film actress throughout the next decade, known primarily for her roles in short films.

The two most limiting factors for her film career appear to be that she was a woman in a man’s world and that her small stature (she was just over 5 feet tall) made it difficult for her to find leading roles. With many leading men being rather tall, Hollywood did not like the appearance of such a disparity in height on the screen. Dorothy became a lead actress opposite Buster Keaton in several short films (Keaton was just 5-feet, 5-inches tall). Some of the films that she appeared in with Buster Keaton include: “Nothing But Pleasure” (1940); “Pardon My Berth Marks” (1940); The Taming of the Snood” (1940); “The Spook Speaks” (1940); “His Ex Marks the Spot” (1940); “General Nuisance” (1941); and “She’s Oil Mine” (1941).

While not large film roles, Dorothy Appleby will perhaps be best remembered by her frequent appearances in the short films of the Three Stooges. She played supporting roles in many of their film shorts, including “From Nurse to Worse,” “Cookoo Cavaliers” and “What’s the Matador.” A natural in slapstick comedy, Dorothy took her fair share of cream pies in the face in the episode “In the Sweet Pie and Pie.” You can still find the Three Stooges airing on ME-TV here in the Greater Portland area.

A huge thanks to my friend and research partner, Jackie Dunham, who discovered that Dorothy Appleby was buried here in South Portland in Forest City Cemetery. It’s a sad fact that when Dorothy died in Hicksville, New York, in 1990, her body was brought here and interred in the family burial plot with her father, but no stone was ever put on the site for her.

Ornaments on sale: As you are looking into ways to buy local for your holiday gift giving, please consider the South Portland Historical Society’s ornament fundraiser. All seven of the ornaments, including this year’s Engine 6 ornament, are available at Drillen Hardware, Broadway Variety, and Embers Stoves & Fireplaces.

Please plan to use cash or check for your ornament purchase as these businesses are very generously selling the ornaments on our behalf – all proceeds go directly to the historical society. If you’d like to use a credit card, if you’d like to make a purchase of a large number of ornaments, or if you’d like to have an ornament shipped (for an additional $5), please call the society directly at 207-767-7299. Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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