Ellenburg-Dorsey came home to teach generation of Atlanta actors, dies at 83

Sandra Ellenburg-Dorsey was an Atlanta native and actress who had success in New York before returning to act, direct and teach acting in Atlanta.

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

Sandra Ellenburg-Dorsey was an Atlanta native and actress who had success in New York before returning to act, direct and teach acting in Atlanta.

Sandra Ellenburg-Dorsey bathed in Broadway applause years ago alongside Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters and Melina Mercouri; hung with the “Dukes of Hazzard” on TV; and had a role in the Oscar-winning movie “Norma Rae.” She even got decapitated by a lawn mower in the movie “Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland.”

But it was as an Atlanta teacher of acting and voice that she is mainly remembered by hundreds of students who took her classes over more than 30 years.

“She was a powerhouse. She was the Ethel Merman, Bette Midler type of performer whose voice reaches the back row,” said Wilbur Fitzgerald, a longtime Atlanta actor who started taking classes from Dorsey in the 1970s and left his successful career as a lawyer to be an actor.

“She really kicked off a lot of people’s careers,” he said. “It was all about the craft for her. She had a vision for her students.”

Sandra Ellenburg-Dorsey died at her daughter’s home in Atlanta on Sept. 26, 2023, just two days short of her 84th birthday, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July.

A fourth generation Atlantan, Ellenburg-Dorsey was born on Sept. 28, 1939; her parents owned Howard’s Furniture store in downtown Atlanta. She attended Northside High School and decided early on that she wanted a life onstage rather than at the store, said her nephew, Drew Ellenburg.

“She wanted to be a performer,” he said. “She loved being onstage. Loved it.”

Dorsey earned a bachelor’s in sociology and psychology from Oglethorpe University and an MFA in vocal performance at the University of Georgia. She studied voice with Inge Manski-Lundeen of the Metropolitan Opera.

Billed as Sandy Ellen, she performed in five Broadway shows: “Drat the Cat!” with Elliott Gould in 1965; “Illya Darling” with Melina Mercouri in 1967; “Mata Hari,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, in 1967; “Gantry” with Robert Shaw and Rita Moreno in 1970; and “On the Town” with Bernadette Peters in 1971.

After moving back to Atlanta in 1972, she performed at local theaters but gravitated toward teaching. In 1977, she founded Dorsey Studios for the Performing Arts in Decatur in a former church and taught voice, acting and directing there until she retired in 2017. She also set up a small theater space in the studio that was the first home for Actor’s Express Theatre

“I never did I think I would ever be a teacher, but in New York good friends would come to me and ask me to coach them,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1989. “I would say, ‘Sure,’ and became infected with the bug of how wonderfully creative teaching is.”

“I consider myself an educator, not a coach,” Dorsey said. “A coach gives line readings; an educator works with the talent to allow the uniqueness of their personality to be free.”

“She taught method acting and was adamant that actors do theater first before film or TV,” said Sharon Blackwood, who taught voice at Dorsey Studios alongside Dorsey for decades.

“Students needed to learn how to create characters, how to be in front of an audience. And it gave them experience and an etiquette of professionalism.”

She was married to Joseph Dorsey and the couple had one daughter, Sara Jane; they later divorced.

A member of the Screen Actors Guild and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, she was also a past president of the Atlanta chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

A devout Christian, Dorsey was a longtime friend of Ted Baehr, founder of the popular Christian movie-review website Movieguide.org. He posted online that as she was dying, “She said she wasn’t afraid. … Sandra knew she was going to heaven.”

Friends and family all recalled her robust sense of humor and contagious laugh. One of her last appearances was a quick comedy bit onstage with Jeff Foxworthy at the Fox Theatre in 2017. Her niece Anna Lisa O’Toole explained: “He does a segment about how you never want to see grandma in her brassiere. And she came out onstage at the Fox wearing a very thick ‘50s style brassiere.

“She was very much someone who could laugh at herself,” O’Toole continued. “She knew she would be playing a sexy geriatric role, and it would make people laugh.” She was 78 at the time.

She is survived by her daughter Sara Jane Dorsey Wilson (Robert); stepson Alexander Dorsey; granddaughter Izabella Zempri Wilson; grandson Emeric Lucious Wilson; and many nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Screen Actors Foundation (sagaftra.foundation/donate) or to Metro Atlanta Christian Center.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at Metro Atlanta Christian Center, 3593 Clairmont Road, NE, Atlanta, in the same building where Dorsey once taught generations of Atlanta actors. Dorsey planned the service herself as she was dying and asked Atlanta cabaret entertainer Robert Ray, whom she taught in the 1970s, to sing a gospel medley ending with “This Little Light of Mine.”