February 16, 2008

DOROTHY McKEGG, 1928 – 2008  

The following is a transcript of the eulogy given by Dame Kate Harcourt at the funeral of Dorothy Anne Wenk (Dotty McKegg) at St Mary’s Anglican Church, Kaori on February 16th 2008.  

I feel immensely privileged to have been asked to speak about my friend, Dotty…  Dorothy Wenk – Dotty McKegg as she is known, familiarly, by everyone she met.

Dotty was a one-off.  In the firmament of the New Zealand performing arts – she was a star. And one whose light shines bright and steady.

I have been lucky enough to talk to a number of her friends and fellow performers over the last few days and all of them have said how much she was loved and what a consummate performer she was. Dotty had the ability to draw the eye.  When she was on stage she shone –  but she didn’t hog the lime-light. She couldn’t help but be the luminous centre of attention but she was generosity itself to her fellows. 

She was a great mentor for younger actors. She was encouraging and enthusiastic- always ready with advice – when it was asked for.  She was the possessor of a beautiful speaking voice with a great range of accents and variations – and she had the most wonderful laugh.  Infectious and joyous.

Dotty’s life was extraordinary.  She grew up in Palmerston North in the bosom of a large and loving family. She was educated by the nuns- whom she loved – I’m sure it was mutual –  and then she was catapulted into a life of sophistication and glamour in the UK.

Those of us lucky enough to have been regaled with Dotty’s stories about that time of her life will know how riveting they were.

And then back to New Zealand where she returned to study with the iconic Maria Dronke.  Dotty’s career took off and she was more or less constantly employed by the Mercury Theatre in Auckland.  Back in Wellington she met and married the delightful Hans Wenk and once her family were around she made sure that they had the same experience of idyllic childhood that she had had.

Now I should like to quote some of the comments made to me by her friends.

Peter Vere-Jones or PVJ – was one of the closest.  He worked with Dotty in innumerable radio shows and plays.  He knew and loved her well.  When she was confined to a hospital bed he gave her a Teddy – the Teddy Bear which became her constant companion.  In fact she said to one of her visitors, "Oh dear – PVJ has got lost in the bed again!" That took a bit of explaining.  PVJ – as the Teddy was known – housed her remote control, or the bell.  That too, caused a few problems – but PVJ was an inspired gift and much loved. 

Sunny Amey is deeply regretful that she can’t be here.  Her message reads:

"I am with you in spirit today to embrace and pay respect to a much loved woman.

Dotty was a delightful and astute woman and an absolute trouper in the theatre profession.  I loved working with her many years ago at Downstage in Joe Musaphia’s play OBSTACLES. She played a ghastly harridan – the total opposite of her own perceptive, caring- for- others person.  I so respect her huge contribution to theatre in NZ ."

Susan Wilson remembers back to the days of the Star Boating Club where Downstage Theatre was temporarily housed.  In THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Dotty was naturally cast as Lady Bracknell and Sue was Gwendolyn. Sue remembers with great clarity how kind and supportive Dotty was to a nervous ingénue.  Then in later years Sue directed Dotty in several plays at Circa –  notably  the Robert Lord play classic JOYFUL AND TRIUMPHANT which was a huge success and travelled as far as London and Adelaide as well as touring right round New Zealand.

Judi Douglas remembers that production very fondly.  She and Dotty travelled together on all those expeditions.  She also remembers how kind Dotty was when she came to live in Wellington with few friends or contacts.

Sue’s was the production of Uncle Vanya at Circa Theatre which was the last play Dotty rehearsed. [It was then, in April 2007, that Dotty suffered a major stroke, and Kate who took over the role of Marina – ed.]

And again at Circa, Dotty was the first to play the role of Elizabeth in Roger Hall’s classic MIDDLE AGE SPREAD, a role she repeated on screen in a brilliant partnership with Grant Tilly, in John Reid’s film of the same name. My daughter Miranda says: "Get it out on DVD and watch it again, it is an absolute object lesson in acting. A treat."

Fenn Gordon – who now lives in Sydney, emailed this message:
"Dotty was an extraordinary person in every sense of the word. I worked with her on both the Australian and the New Zealand tours of JOYFUL AND TRIUMPHANT with producer Wendy Blacklock – who joins with me in sending love and sympathy to her family. Wendy very much enjoyed working with Dotty…"  Fenn goes on to say that the stories Dotty told her about her life were the highlight of their tours together. " I’m so sorry not to be there", she continues and sends best wishes  to all those who are celebrating Dotty’s  life.

Fenn remembers with affection the eccentricities that Dotty displayed when asked to travel economy.  She wasn’t exactly geared for economy travel.  On tour with JOYFUL and TRIUMPHANT the departure of the plane  to Blenheim was delayed for some time when Dotty  refused to put her hand luggage in the overhead locker-  "No dear" she said to the stewardess-  "I’ve never had to do that before.  I like it beside me – where I can see it". Beside her meant – in the aisle. The plane eventually took off when that difficulty was resolved.  And then there was a certain amount of consternation when the huge quantity of baggage Dotty insisted on bringing  with her had to be stowed in the rather small boot of a fellow cast-member’s car. And she didn’t  approve of the motel she was asked to share. "Oh no dear – it smells of cheap cleaning fluid"— as says Fenn – it did! So Dotty took herself off to a more salubrious resting place.  But she was never rude or difficult – just – very firm.

Whenever Dotty was cast in a play- on entering the rehearsal room for the first time she would claim a particular chair to sit in – not necessarily the best – but, nevertheless – hers – for the duration. And heaven help anyone who tried to muscle in on it…   

Kevin Baddeley remembers her Mumma Morton in a Mercury production of CHICAGO.  He said it was the best interpretation of the part that he’s ever seen – and that her legs were second only to Cyd Charisse.

Michael Woolf made the same sort of comment – she was the ultimate Pantomime Principal Boy with laughing eyes and legs up to there.  Everyone always loved Dotty, he said.  What a sense of fun she had. An outrageous giggler.  She told Michael once about her audition for British television.  She stood up and carelessly allowed her mink coat to drop to the floor   (the coat had been borrowed, of course) – and she got the job as  presenter on an early TV show.

Superbly self-aware, says Michael, dear Dotty always seemed to know when she was creating an effect and she’d laugh at herself… just a little like the Judy Holliday character in BELLS ARE RINGING.   This was no dumb blonde though – but a very sharp lady indeed.

Michael had the pleasure (and he says it was always a pleasure) of working with her in theatre and television, in countless radio plays and a long series of radio cigarette commercials. Her voice was marvellous for radio, he says.  Although she was a versatile performer and could adapt vocally to many roles, her natural speaking voice with its warm, sexy quality and ready chuckle was perfect for the medium.  One of the good people, says Michael. We are richer for having known and loved her, and poorer by her loss.

Next door neighbour for the last few years, Barbara Murison, knew Dotty as few have known her.  She had an intimate relationship with Dotty’s many garden pots — all of which had to be watered if she went away.  And Barbara’s wayward creepers were sternly warned off if they had the temerity to appear over the top of the communal fence. 

Barbara’s other vivid memory is Dotty’s passion for sport and particularly Rugby. At the top of her landing, overlooking Barbara’s house, is a window with a long blind.  If the blind was ever still down at 9 in the morning (Dotty was a very, very early riser) Barbara was to investigate and make sure she was all right.  But first she had to be certain that there hadn’t been a late game the night before – a fact not always easy to find. Dotty was fiercely independent but there were the occasional vulnerabilities and the resulting need for a little help…

A message from Pat Evison – Dotty’s long time friend and colleague.

"Dearest Dotty – we go back a very long way. Back to the production of the first New Zealand play to be performed in Wellington by Unity Theatre – Campbell Caldwell’s play AFTER THE WEDDING. You were my daughter (I was much too young, of course) and your baby daughter, Lisa, was my grand-daughter. I had to bottle feed her on stage – we had lines to cover whatever occurred in that process.  It was a great team effort.  What a wonderful cast of characters you have performed in your life-time and I have loved the reality of all of them. But most of all I have loved the reality of you, dear Dotty – and I look forward to much laughter and chatter in the real hereafter. 
Thank you! Pat."

Colin McColl – Artistic director of the Auckland Theatre Company has this to say: 
"When I remember Dorothy I think of that beautiful voice- like liquid glass. Those great legs, that sexy, throaty laugh and that colourful past. I first worked with Dorothy in radio and still recall her vividly in those great days of Radio Drama – playing Cleopatra in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA – fervently kissing her own hand in an on-mike love scene.  Early in my acting career I played a pretty wet, ineffectual Oswald to her feisty Mrs Alving in GHOSTS – and enjoyed seeing her in many productions in the 1960s – including Downstage Theatre’s record- breaking production of OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR at the Paramount Theatre. 

She worked here at the ATC on several occasions – always totally professional, always on the note. On behalf of the Auckland Theatre Company and the senior theatre practitioners here in Auckland who knew and loved Dotty- my sincere condolences to her family and loved ones."  
Thank you Colin.

And from Cathy Downes and the company at Downstage Theatre:
"The NZ theatre scene is greatly impoverished by the loss of Dorothy McKegg. Beloved, admired and thoroughly enjoyed by all of us – we will never see her like again.  Darling Dotty – we love you and we miss you. Dotty’s Downstage appearances include:
THE STRONGER in 1966;  GHOSTS in 1969;  HOME in 1971; 
OBSTACLES in 1974;  THE ODD COUPLE in 1990; 
and TZIGANE in 1996. 

It was a privilege to know Dotty.  She will be missed in so many different ways.  By her family, by her friends, by the public who loved to see her on stage and by the young actors of today who will never again witness at first hand her interpretations or the traditions she followed. 

The influence she had on the New Zealand performing arts – stage, radio, television and film – will not be lost by her passing but for those of us who loved her she will be sorely missed.

I leave the last word to her very dear friend, Constance Scott Kirkcaldie:
"Dearest Dotty – freed from your travail and always in our hearts."

Thank you.

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