Vivian Dandridge, Singer With Sister, Dorothy, Dies

Acclaimed as the black Marilyn Monroe, Vivian Dandridge's younger sister, Dorothy, was the more famous of the two.

Dorothy is listed in a dozen directories, from "Who's Who in Hollywood 1900-1978" to the "Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts." Vivian's name is mentioned in only one.

And Vivian Dandridge never lit up any stages in Seattle, except for the occasional "open mike" night.

The bright lights, the glittery gowns - the "running maids in hot and cold," as she occasionally joked about her past with her Seattle friends - were all part of her earlier life.

She lived the last eight years in Seattle as Marina Rozell, in a small apartment in the Ross Manor complex overlooking Elliott Bay in the Pike Place Market.

Dandridge died in Seattle last Saturday at age 70. And her life as one of the performing Dandridge sisters was buried with her at Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon. Vivian hadn't yet finished a book about herself and her sister when she suffered a sudden stroke.

Most of the dozens of people who gathered last night in her apartment complex to pay their last respects never saw her perform under the stage lights. She brightened their lives all on her own.

"My mother had died, and I could not have made it in Seattle without her," said Gloria Afful, who met Dandridge in Detroit and moved to Seattle the year after Dandridge arrived here.

"She was color-blind with people," said Patricia Croghan, who performed with Dandridge at local "open mike" spots, in which anyone can perform. "She never felt uncomfortable with anybody. She saw through to the essence of people."

As young children they performed as the Dandridge Sisters. They toured Europe and the states with their singing, dancing and acrobatics act.

But they split in their teens as Dorothy's career took off. Dorothy landed her first movie role in 1937 at the age of 16 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in 1954 as the lead in "Carmen Jones" - the only African-American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

Grace Kelly won the Oscar that year. And Dorothy, who also starred in "Porgy and Bess" in 1959, never had another shot at one. She died in her Sunset Strip apartment in 1965 of complications from an ankle injury.

Vivian wrote about her sister's disappointments in a 1989 black-history calendar:

She was ecstatically happy, and said to me, `Vivi, now I will do the work I love . . . acting. No more working in saloons for me.' Unfortunately, Hollywood and white America weren't quite ready for this beautiful, talented black woman. The only roles that were offered were those of a sex-crazed female. Dorothy had her heart set on getting the lead role in `Cleopatra'; however, the producers selected Elizabeth Taylor for the role, and had her made up to look like the Egyptian Queen. Losing the role hurt Dorothy deeply; she realized prejudice still existed in Hollywood.

Vivian worked the saloons and nightclubs in New York, Canada and Europe. She was a consummate performer who sang in French, German and Hebrew as well as English, said Howard Farley, a friend who first met Vivian in 1963. She had just ended her third marriage, changed her performing name to Marina Rozell and was returning to the nightclubs after a six-year hiatus.

"She was the ultimate professional," Farley said. "When she stepped up she owned the stage, whether it was a small room or a 100 feet wide. Her opening number for most shows was, `This Could Be the Start of Something Big.' " Farley stopped, blinking back tears. "It was a good opening."

But the constant harassment - racial and sexual - finally took its toll. Farley said Vivian told him countless stories about turning away club managers who came to her room after the show - and about sometimes losing her job the day after she turned them down.

Dandridge may have given up the stage, but she never stopped performing, Farley said. Soon after she moved to her Pike Place Market apartment, she noticed a day care in Post Alley.

"She bought a whole bunch of puppets," Farley said. "Then she would go over there and do performances with different voices. The children were thrilled. Every time she went by, they waved."

Dandridge is survived by a son, Michael Wallace, and two granddaughters, Lisa and Nayo Wallace, all in Detroit.