Obituary of Mari Lyn Henry

June 24, 2023

Mari Lyn Henry, actor and author, acting coach and casting director, teacher, theater historian, and long-time member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, passed away June 24 in New York City after a long illness. She was 81 years old.

A memorial celebrating Ms. Henry’s life and career will take place in the fall of 2023.

Born in San Francisco and raised in California, Mari Lynn Henry fell in love with theater and aspired initially to be an actor. She majored in theater at San Jose State University, and after graduating, she traveled East to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she entered that school’s Masters Degree program in theater history.

At Catholic University, she continued to act. Among her outstanding roles was Foible, the eloquent former beggar in The Way of the World, a performance for which Mari Lyn won a Gilbert Award. For CUA’s National Players Touring Company she was cast as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet and Frosine in The Miser. In recognition of Mari Lyn’s talent, Father Gilbert A. Hartke, the founder of CUA’s Department of Speech and Drama, cast her as Lily Miller, the unmarried, childless schoolteacher in Ah! Wilderness. The production, part of a state department cultural exchange program, traveled to Europe and Israel.

But possibly one of Mari Lyn’s most thrilling experiences at CUA happened in 1964 when she was cast, after an open audition, as the young Miss Dove in Good Morning, Miss Dove by William McCleery, a production that starred Helen Hayes. The first lady of the American theater, as Hayes was called, had been born in Washington, and she often said that she made her stage debut there when she was five years old, singing at the Belasco Theatre, across from the White House. For Mari Lyn, appearing on the same stage with Helen Hayes was a joyous experience.

After completing her Master’s in Theater History, Mari Lyn moved to New York City, and there, she told interviewer Martin Bentsen, her goal was to “wow them.” Like thousands of young actors before her, she sought a temporary job to help support herself. But this job hunt eventually led to a career change: it brought her to the ABC television network, where she initially assisted the casting director and subsequently became director of casting, East Coast, for ABC-TV.

While at ABC, Mari Lyn collaborated with Lynne Rogers, a long-time actor on the CBS television soap opera “The Guiding Light,” and together they wrote what became one of the mostly widely read books in the business: How to Be a Working Actor: The Insider’s Guide to Finding Jobs in Theater, Film & Television. Published in 1986, the book was soon applauded for being “The Bible of the Biz.” It has been republished five times, and for each new edition Henry and Rogers updated their book to keep pace with changes in the worlds of theater, movies, and TV.

Award-winning actor Rosemary Harris spoke for her fellow thespians: “What a wonderful book to guide you into---and more importantly—out of the theatrical jungle. Tuck it under your arm and set off purposefully on your journey. Bon Voyage!”

Ultimately, Mari Lyn gave workshops and seminars all over the country, helping to prepare young performers for the tough business of show business. For more than twenty years she was on the guest faculty of the Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York City and she also taught at the John DeSotelle Studio in New York City.

A feminist as well as a theater historian, in 2013 Mari Lyn Henry founded the Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History. One primary mission: to establish a living archive to educate about and preserve the legacies of women who have acted on our stages in the past. “If you’re an actor,” she told interviewer Martin Bentsen, “I think you should know about your history.” On December 12, 2013, the Society produced a show called “Stage Struck: From Kemble to Kate,” which celebrated Fanny Kemble, Clara Morris, Mrs. Fiske, Alla Nazimova, and Katharine Hepburn. Mari Lyn performed the solo piece about Clara Morris, a popular nineteenth-century Canadian-American actor who also wrote several books.

The Society, whose work continues, has been sponsored in part by the League of Professional Theatre Women, which in 2019 presented Mari Lyn Henry with its Special Theatre Woman Award.

Mari Lyn Henry’s husband, the actor David K. Varnay, passed in 2010. She is survived by several cousins and a niece, Shannon McHenry. Her relatives and many friends will miss her deeply, as will the hundreds of actors and others in the performing arts who continue to benefit from her inciteful advice about making a career in show business.

At the time she fell ill, Mari Lyn Henry was writing a book about American vaudeville, based on her Masters thesis at Catholic University. Hopefully the book can be published posthumously. Her writings, her teaching, and the memory of her indelible personality will remain with us for years to come.

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