Obituary: Dorothy Graeham / Community theater actress who persevered as a single parent of 4

Feb. 25, 1933 - Oct. 9, 2013

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No matter what happened, Dorothy Graeham stayed dynamic and positive and funny -- so funny! -- and always determined to come out on top.

Even after her husband left her with four children to raise, she not only found a job to support them but also continued acting in the plays for local community theater that she loved all her life, said her daughter Moira Craig.

"She was a single mom with four kids and she just kept moving forward, acting and working," said Ms. Craig, 51, of Dormont. "There were some rough times, but she persevered always, amazingly."

Ms. Graeham, of Carnegie, died Oct. 9. She was 80.

Born in Liverpool, England, on Feb. 25, 1933, Ms. Graeham was the daughter of Dorothy and William Smith and grew up in a family of gifted entertainers who, while they never performed professionally, became the life of the party during social gatherings. "Her brother played the piano so somebody would always have a song to sing or an act to do to entertain everyone," Ms. Craig said.

Ms. Graeham, who attended secretarial school after graduating from high school, became involved in community theater while still living in Liverpool. She met her husband, Kenneth Fraser, at a play in which they were both involved, family members said. ("Graeham" was a stage name that she took on and kept.)

After marrying in 1956, Ms. Graeham persuaded her husband to emigrate to the United States. He found a job as a draftsman for an engineering company in Sewickley, allowing his wife and 2-year-old daughter, Jane, to emigrate and join him in July 1958. Ms. Graeham concentrated on raising the couple's children at the family home in Upper St. Clair, with Ian, Kenna and Moira arriving in quick succession.

Ms. Graeham soon became involved in community theater again with plays at McKeesport Little Theater, Stage 62 and Little Lake Theater, where she performed 42 times between 1968 and 2009. Her plays there included "The Odd Couple," "The Gingerbread Lady," "You Can't Take It With You," and "Strange Bedfellows."

As an actress, Ms. Graeham was thrilling, her performances enlivened by her intelligence and her irreverent sense of humor, said Little Lake Theater's artistic director, Sunny Disney Fitchett of Mt. Lebanon.

"She was an incredible actress," said Ms. Fitchett, 56. "She had an intellect and a wit and life experience that I think actors blossom because of -- you're lucky if you get to work with an intelligent actor."

But after Ms. Graeham's husband left her in 1971, she had to focus on practical matters as well, finding work planning meetings at several area hotels, followed by working as an administrative assistant for Federated Investors and then for the Carnegie Hero Fund until her retirement in 2002.

"She's the reason my brother and sisters and I are all the way we are -- she gave us all senses of humor and a lot of determination," said daughter Kenna Given, 52, of Virginia Beach, Va. "Considering what she went through, she was a very positive role model."

After retirement, Ms. Graeham remained active in theater, continuing performances on the main stage at Little Lake Theater, at the theater's children's matinee shows and with fellow retirees at area nursing homes.

In 2010, a stroke ended her ability to perform, but it didn't dim her strong spirit or her desire to enjoy her life -- as her children, placed in charge of organizing a birthday party for Ms. Graeham's favorite teddy bear several months after her stroke, can attest.

Teddy and his guests enjoyed a huge sheet cake, games, music and the company of approximately 15 other teddy bears that were later donated to the Carnegie Volunteer Fire & Rescue Bureau, to keep in the fire trucks for local children who might need a fuzzy friend.

"She just always wanted to give," Ms. Craig said. "My mother probably didn't have two pennies to rub together, and she was probably the most giving person you'll ever know."

Ms. Graeham's life will be celebrated at her church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, Sunnyhill, 1240 Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon on Nov. 23.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Baptist Homes Charities, or Family Hospice and Palliative Care.


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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