Young with former University President Thomas Kean.

Dorothy Young’s $13 million gift made her the namesake, benefactor of the university’s theater, music, fine arts facility.

MADISON, NJ—Dorothy Young, last surviving stage assistant of Harry Houdini and generous namesake of Drew University’s Dorothy Young Center for the Arts, passed away yesterday at the age of 103.  Young was known on campus as a strong supporter of theater, music and fine art, and as the sister of legendary Drew professor and baseball coach Sherman Plato ‘Doc’ Young.  Her wider fame was due to her role as the “Radio Girl of 1950” in Houdini’s 1926 stage act and as an internationally acclaimed dancer.

“With Dorothy’s passing, Drew loses more than just an extremely generous benefactor and friend,” said University President Robert Weisbuch.  “The university has also lost a link to its past, someone who represents Drew in all its human richness.”

Young, the daughter of a Methodist minister, joined Houdini’s company as a teenager.  While on a trip to New York with her parents, she had read about an open casting call for the illusionist’s act, auditioned and was hired.  During her year with Houdini, she played the role of the “Radio Girl of 1950,” which represented a 1920s vision of what radio would be like several decades later.

Young’s fame didn’t end along with her stage career with Houdini.  She and New York-based businessman Gilbert Kiamie, who would later become her husband, rose to international prominence as a dance team, even inventing and perfecting their own Latin dance, the rumbalero.  As an established dancer, she was featured in many early motion pictures, including the Fred Astaire musical comedy “Flying Down to Rio.”  Later, she published a novel inspired by her career, “Dancing on a Dime,” which in 1940 was turned into a movie by Paramount Studios.

As the last surviving member of Houdini’s act, it seems fitting that one of her final visits to Drew’s campus was in October 2008 for The Official Houdini Séance, which commemorated the 82nd anniversary of Houdini’s death.  The séance was held in the Dorothy Young Center’s black box theater and featured an inner-circle of Houdini enthusiasts and historians, but Young was the only one among them who actually knew and worked with the magician.  Several Drew students approached her both before and after the program to request her autograph.

Young also visited Drew in May 2009 for the graduation of her great-grandson, McKinley Parker, who earned a BA in history and classics from Drew’s College of Liberal Arts.

In addition to being a stage performer and dancer, Young was also a skilled artist.  She studied oil painting in the 1940s and was invited to join Fifty American Artists, which afforded her several chances to exhibit her work in both New York- and Florida-based galleries.  Many of her paintings hang still today in Drew’s buildings, including a portrait of her brother, Doc, which hangs in Brothers College.

As Drew’s baseball coach for 22 seasons, Doc Young’s overall record was 164-75, posting only five losing seasons.  The university’s baseball field still bears his name and a memorial scholarship, funded mostly by former students, exists in his honor.  He was also a professor of Greek and Latin.  He earned a bachelor of divinity degree in 1927, a master of theology in 1929 and a doctorate of theology in 1930, all from Drew.

Young’s father, the Rev. Robert S. Young, was also a Drew student, having pursued a bachelor of divinity degree from the university.

A memorial service for Dorothy Young will be held on Saturday, April 16, at 4:00 p.m. in her hometown of Ocean Grove, NJ, at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, which is located at 80 Embury Avenue.  Donations in her memory may be made to the Dorothy Young Scholarship for the Arts at Drew University, c/o Advancement Office, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940.—Michael Bressman

Posted: March 21, 2011