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Dorothy I. Levin, 86, gave support to Maryland's growing theater scene

Dorothy I. Levin, a longtime Columbia resident who was known for her colorful personality and lively parties for members of the burgeoning dinner theater scene in Maryland, died Monday in her home after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 86.

The daughter of an Irish immigrant father who owned a paint store, the former Dorothy Cowley was raised in the Bronx borough of New York City.

When her father died, she was left at age 16 to care for her ailing mother while attending high school. Her mother died when she was 18, which resulted in her moving to Miami.

After graduating from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx in 1944, Mrs. Levin worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as a stenographer for several years.

Mrs. Levin had an affinity for writing. Traces of this can be found throughout her life. During World War II, she participated in a program to correspond with soldiers overseas. She wrote hundreds of letters, according to her daughter, Jeanne L. Smith of Columbia.

Mrs. Smith recalled her mother writing friends whom she had known since childhood.

"Once she made a friend and there was a connection, they remained in her life even if they lived in another state," Mrs. Smith said. "She kept ahold of those friendships. She kept up with her friends."

Mrs. Levin lived in Miami for four years after initially moving there to stay with a childhood friend as a way of coping with the death of her mother. While there, she met Paul L. LaHue. The two married and had a child, Jeanne. The marriage ended in divorce, and Mrs. Levin and her daughter moved to New Jersey to live with family.

Throughout the 1950s, Mrs. Levin worked as a secretary for the American Trucking Associations in New Jersey. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1956 to help care for a cousin, Joan E. Corboy, who was stricken with polio. The two had grown up together in the Bronx and were as close as sisters, said Mrs. Smith.

While in Washington, Mrs. Levin met her eventual husband, attorney Bernard T. Levin. The two married in 1962. She worked as his stenographer for several years before following him in 1968 to Burn Brae Dinner Theatre in Burtonsville, where he became co-owner.

There, Mrs. Levin did everything from helping out in the box office to performing secretarial work. She made her mark when she opened her home for lavish parties for actors, musicians and other theater employees.

"We'd usually have parties in nice weather. We'd have about 150 people in our middle-class home. The parties flowed out into the neighborhood," Mr. Levin said. "She loved to give parties and have everyone there. She treated everyone the same — from the leading lady to the dishwasher. She was very democratic."

Toby Orenstein, who owns the popular Toby's Dinner Theatre, had fond memories of Mrs. Levin when reached by phone Sunday. The fact that the two at one point worked for competing companies did not affect their friendship.

"She was an honest, bubbly, no BS woman," said Orenstein, who worked at Burn Brae before opening her own business. "You knew if you went to her she would give you the truth, whether you would like it or not. That is what I admired about her."

Mrs. Levin was known for speaking her mind — especially if it meant standing up to bullying behavior. She once dumped a plate on the lap of a customer who inappropriately touched her while she was working as a waitress in Miami. Another time she told a group of men to stop accosting two young women in a Manhattan restaurant.

"She didn't take any guff from anybody," Mrs. Smith said. "She would take up for anyone who was being taken advantage of."

Ultimately, though, Mrs. Levin was known for her kind heart, according to family and friends.

"My mom is so much more than I could ever tell you," Mrs. Smith said. "She had a lot of friends. As an adult, people gravitated to her. She was very funny, and had a lot of stories."

Mrs. Smith fondly remembers her mother regularly making cookies — lemon love notes and chocolate with peanut butter chips were her specialties — for the Long Reach Fire Station and others in the area.

"People loved them," Mrs. Smith said.

In addition to her husband of 50 years and daughter, Mrs. Levin is survived by a stepson, Michael A. Levin of Strafford, Pa.; a stepdaughter, Pamela L. Cameron of Farmington, Conn.; three grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; one great-granddaughter; and two step-great-granddaughters.

A celebration of life memorial is planned.

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