Image shows Mary Wickes standing in front of a building on the Washington University in St. Louis campus.
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In Character: The Life and Legacy of Mary Wickes

This site is a digital companion to an in-person exhibition that appeared in the Main Lobby and Gingko Room of the John M. Olin Library from October 2013 to March 2014. The items in this exhibition are from the Mary Wickes Papers and other collections housed in the University Archives collection.

About Mary Wickes

When people think about library archives, they often think of old books, but as you may have noticed, the collections in our new displays in Olin Library contain a variety of materials, from coins to costumes. One of the fabulous costumes currently on display near the north entrance of the library belongs to the well-known character actress and Washington University alum, Mary Wickes.

Explore the Mary Wickes Papers

Search the Mary Wickes Library Guide

Wickes felt a strong connection to Washington University in St. Louis and its libraries, once stating:

“I’m always happy to be back on the campus. I could live on or near a campus happily the rest of my life. I love libraries; I love stacks; I get very excited over microfilm of the New York Times. I love the look and the smell and the feel of classrooms.”

Inaugural Adele Chomeau Starbird Memorial Lecture, Wash U, 1988
Mary Wickes with Whoopi Goldberg in costume for the film Sister Act. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

Upon her death in 1995, Wickes donated much of her estate to the University, including a large donation to set up the Isabella and Frank Wickenhauser Memorial Library Fund for Television, Film, and Theater Arts in honor of her parents. The Mary Wickes Papers contain Wickes’ film and television contracts, photographs, personal correspondence, audio-visual material, early Wash U memorabilia, costumes, and other personal effects.

The Beginning of an Acting Career

When Mary Isabella Wickenhauser came to Washington University in the late 1920s, she had no intention of becoming an actress, but when one of her professors invited her to be in a play he was putting on in January Hall, she readily agreed. Recognizing talent in her performance, this professor recommended that she audition at the St. Louis Little Theatre, where New York director F. Cowles Strickland saw her perform and invited her to act at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge.

Mary Wickes at Washington University. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

Wickenhouser adopted the stage name Wickes and traveled to New York to take on a role as the understudy for Margaret Hamilton. After a few days, a spell of homesickness sent her back to St. Louis, but Roy Mackenzie, director of the English Department at Washington University, encouraged her to go back, warning her that if she did not make the most of this opportunity, she might regret it for the rest of her life. Taking his advice, Wickes returned to New York and began what would become a life-long career as a character actress.

Performing on Stage and on Screen

A news clipping about Mary Wickes in a performance in a stage production of Oklahoma! in 1979.

Younger audiences are most likely to recognize Wickes from her appearance in the 1992 musical comedy Sister Act, but this performance was one of her last in a long career. Beginning in the 1930s, Wickes performed in 18 New York plays, over 50 major films, and 200 theater productions, 15 of them at the Muny. Her 1979 appearance as Aunt Eller in a Broadway revival of Oklahoma! received particularly rave reviews. In 1987, Wickes was inducted into the Muny Hall of Fame for her many fabulous stage performances in St. Louis.

A Career In Television

Mary Wickes, Lucille Ball, and others in costume. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.

Wickes also appeared in over 125 television shows, most of which were romances or comedies. She frequently played nurses and caregivers on television, and she continued this nursing role offstage, logging over a thousand hours of volunteer work at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in LA and serving on the Auxiliary Board of the UCLA Hospital. Wickes also knew Lucille Ball and appeared on several of her programs.

Wickes at Washington University

Wickes served as the University’s first artist in resident in theater in 1968, appearing with a student company in a performance of Tennessee Williams’ A Glass Menagerie, and received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1969. In an address she gave in Graham Chapel in 1988, Wickes proclaimed her love for the University, stating

“I owe Washington University so much. I really feel so close. I’ve been back so many times to do other things – MC the opening of Edison. It’s just been — this is such a part of my life.”

Mary Wickes and female students at Washington University preparing for a performance of The Glass Menagerie. Washington University Archives, Mary Wickes Papers.