BETHLEHEM, CT -- "Past old stone walls, lush greenery and hidden driveways to handsome homes, the winding country road in northwestern Connecticut leads to a simple wooden sign that says Abbey of Regina Laudis.
It's the meditative rural setting where Mother Dolores, formerly actress Dolores Hart, has called home since she gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career during which she made 10 films in five years, playing opposite such leading men as Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton, Robert Wagner and Stephen Boyd. She made her movie debut with Elvis Presley in 1957 in "Loving You."
It's been 45 years since she left Hollywood for the cloistered order, but Mother Dolores is allowing the spotlight to fall again.
But this time she is shining it on the abbey's needs: improving its open-air theater and expanding its arts program for the community in Bethlehem.
Every summer, the 38 nuns at the 61-year-old abbey situated on 400 rural acres work with the community to stage a musical. (This year it was "West Side Story." Previous shows included "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Music Man" and "My Fair Lady.")
It's not so odd a connection for Benedictine nuns, whose practical work ethic runs parallel with their contemplative life. The sisters are known for more than prayer. They have recorded Gregorian chants (four CDs), created iron sculptures (by Mother Paxedes Baxter) and made cheese-making into an art. (Mother Noella Marcellino, "the cheese nun," was the subject of a PBS documentary.)
The abbey's newest project is to expand its connection to the community through the arts, and Mother Dolores, the abbey's prioress ( second in command), is using her fame to do just that.
On a warm late-summer day, she welcomes her guests with a delicate graciousness, dressed in traditional full-length black habit and veil. At 69, her bright blue eyes and striking cheekbones hint at the sparkle she showed on screen as a young beauty in Hollywood when she was compared to Grace Kelly. But she also radiated an innate intelligence that, in watching her films today, is reminiscent of a young Kate Hepburn.
A CONNECTION TO THE ARTS
When Dolores Hart arrived as a novice, she told Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, who founded the abbey, "I will never have to worry again about being an actress because it was all over and behind me. Lady Abbess said, 'I'm sorry, but you're completely wrong. Now you have to take up a role and really work at it.'
"I was so mad when she said that because I really emptied my pockets, so to speak, and literally had given away everything that had meant anything to me. She said, 'I'm sorry you did that, because there's a lot of things you gave away that you're going to need here.'
"I asked her what she meant, and she said, 'You live with me gently, and you will understand.' "
It took many years for her to completely appreciate what the abbess meant. Eventually she came to know that those whom she left behind could be helpful to the order, which itself received "the Hollywood treatment" in the much-fictionalized 1949 film "Come to the Stable," starring Loretta Young, about French nuns in Connecticut founding a children's hospital.
Friends of Mother Dolores from her movie-making days included James Douglas (who played Steven Cord in the TV series "Peyton Place") and his wife, Dawn. In the '80s, they relocated East, often visited her and wound up helping the abbey, including starting a little theater group for the community and putting on shows every summer at the abbey's annual fair.
In the early '80s, Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal ("Hud") found refuge in the abbey during a particularly difficult part of her life. In appreciation, Neal performed a recital of poems outdoors on a hillside at the abbey's ground.
"But then it started to pour, and we all made a dash for the little chapel, and we finished the recital there. Afterward she said, 'Mother Dolores, we can't do that again. We're going to have to build you a theater.' "
In 1986, The Gary-The Olivia Performing Arts Center opened. It's a 200-seat bare-bones wooden theater named after Neal's daughter, who had died, and the late Hollywood legend Gary Cooper, the father of Mother Dolores' best friend, Maria Cooper.
The arts are a good fit for the abbey, says Mother Dolores, "because St. Benedict is very practical and a man who always wants to help people do the basic things in life. The arts are a basic need because it opens what is holy in people, and it teaches them how to live together."
She saw the transformative power of theater on young people who worked on this summer's "West Side Story."
"When they came to Sunday Mass, they were far more willing and open to be present to what the Eucharist was about," she says.
Mother Dolores envisions a year-round arts school and a better-equipped stage. (Paul Newman helped with funding for a lighting grid, she says.)
When asked if these arts efforts reconnect her to her past secular life, she says, "Absolutely. But that's part of what contemplative life does. It puts you in the constant mode of reconnecting and refocusing."
A STORY FOR THE MOVIES
Mother Dolores smiles when it is suggested her life story would make a good movie or book.
A friend of hers, she says, has been helping her document details of her life, especially from her early says, "because there will come a day when I can't remember."
She was born Dolores Hicks in 1938, the only child of Bert and Harriett Hicks. "My parents were only 16 and 17 when I was born," she says, "and they died very young. I kind of lived fast and died young with them." Her father was an extra and bit player in Hollywood. Their parents divorced when she was 3. As a child, she lived with her grandparents in Chicago.
Her family was not particularly religious, she says, though she had a great aunt who was a nun, Sister Dolores Marie from St. Louis who, when she visited, would always talk to young Dolores about the lives of the saints.
"She had me pegged when I was 4 years old."
She remembers telling her grandmother once "that if I had my life to live over again, I would live it so differently - and that was when I was 4. My grandmother said, 'Have you been talking to Sister Dolores?' "
Her grandparents sent Dolores to a nearby parochial school, not for its religious education but because it was closest to home and "my grandparents didn't want me to get run over by streetcars."
Her grandfather was a projectionist at a movie theater, and she would watch the films - but without sound so as not to disturb his naps in the booth. Her job was to wake him at the end of each reel. In being transfixed with these wordless movies, she gave herself an education in the Hollywood art of filmmaking.
She knew then that she wanted to be in the movies.
But there was another reason.
"Daddy was in the films, too, and I was going to go and find Daddy."
When her mother remarried, Dolores moved to Southern California, where she grew up a teenager in Hollywood.
"I knew all sides of [the movie-making business]," she says. "My uncle was singer Mario Lanza, so I understood very early on what the picture was in Hollywood. I didn't believe in it as a way of getting everything in a simple way."
She acted in plays in high school (including a role as St. Joan). After graduating, she attended Marymount College on a scholarship for drama. In her freshman year, a friend sent photos of her to all the film studios. In the middle of a class, she received a call from Paramount. Producer Hal Wallis, who was preparing for the Presley's first film, signed her to a contract.
BEAUTY AND INTELLIGENCE
Her first film was 1957's "Loving You," which starred Presley. She played a sweet and innocent girl. But in "King Creole," made the following year with Presley, she played a girl with more spunk and sexiness.
When asked if she felt Presley was a spiritual person, she says, "I didn't feel it. I knew it. When we spoke together between scenes, he talked to me about the Bible. He'd pick up the Gideon Bible from his hotel room and go to a particular text and say, 'Well, what do you think of this?' He actually talked about it. I thought that was touching because there was no actor I ever worked with who I had that type of elevated communication. Mostly they would sit and jabber about nonsense. I was 19, and he was 22, and at that age, that was done out of something that is a part of you."
Her second film that same year had her in a state of panic.
"Wild Is the Wind," directed by George Cukor, starred Anthony Quinn and the tempestuous Italian star Anna Magnani.
The day she was set to shoot a scene opposite Magnani, "she took one look at me and said, 'No! Impossible! Not Italian! She is stupid!' I was devastated."
Cukor calmed Magnani by saying the young actress would be fine - and she could even do her scene in Italian, something that was news to the young actress.
"He called [Magnani's language] teacher over and said, 'Now, Pamela, I want you to go over this scene with Dolores, and I want you to teach her this scene in Italian because she's going to do it at 2 o'clock today.' I still remember those lines to this day," she says, reciting the dialogue in flowing Italian.
It turned out to be a powerful lesson in acting naturally. She said her lines well enough, but what she learned from Magnani was how to listen intently.
"It wasn't acting; it was just being," says Mother Dolores.
Encountering Cukor and Magnani the next day, the star came up to the young actress. "We got face to face, and she grabbed both of my ears, pulled me toward her and, looking right at me, went, 'Grrrrrrr!' "
She responded with a nervous laugh and walked on, "but when I turned back, George was looking at me and gave me an 'OK' sign.
"Nothing that I did after that frightened me. She was the best, a mentor, the one who had put me through the mill and said, 'You're all right, kid."
Film after film came after that, from "Loneyhearts" starring Montgomery Clift to "The Plunderers" with Jeff Chandler. In 1960, she starred in MGM's biggest hit of the year, "Where the Boys Are," with George Hamilton, Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis.
In it, she played a smart and self-possessed co-ed who travels to Fort Lauderdale with her friends for spring break.
A CHANGE IN ROLES
It wasn't 1961's "Francis of Assisi" but "Lisa," a low-budget dramatic film made the following year, that set Hart on the road to Bethlehem.
In "Lisa," based on a Jan de Hartog novel, she played a Dutch-Jewish Holocaust survivor in post World War II Europe desperate to make her way to her spiritual home in Palestine.
"That was it," she says. "That film was the one that made me really think about the possibility of being a nun. I've never realty spoken about it until now."
During the filming, she also struggled with romance.
"I had a very genuine affection for [co-star] Stephen Boyd, and I thought at one point this might be someone I might even fall in love with.
One night when she was "romantically inclined," he brought her back to her apartment. "When he got to the door, he stopped, looked at me and said, 'Dolores, I know what you're thinking. But don't you understand? You're marked.'
"I didn't say a word. Not a word. I was just pierced. I felt so rejected. I said, 'Good night, Stephen,' and I closed the door. . . . I remember racing back to where my room was at the end of the hall, and by the time I got there, I was a flood of tears."
Shortly thereafter, the young actress became engaged briefly to California businessman Don Robinson, but her growing interest in the sisterhood was too strong. (She and Robinson, who has never married, have remained friends.)
She made one more picture after "Lisa" - "Come Fly With Me" with Hugh O'Brien - but by that time, her mind was increasingly on the little abbey she had discovered five years earlier.
In 1958, she made her debut on Broadway in "The Pleasure of His Company," which starred Cyril Ritchard, Cornelia Otis Skinner and George Peppard and earned her a Tony Award nomination as best featured actress. It was then that a friend suggested the Catholic actress might enjoy meeting some nuns at an abbey in Connecticut. Mother Dolores says she felt that she belonged there as soon as she arrived that first time.
On a promotional stop in New York for "Come Fly With Me," she took a limousine up to Bethlehem to discuss the possibility of joining the order.
Her final one-way trip to the abbey in 1963 was not in a limo - as was widely reported in the press at the time - but in a regular car. She was 24. She took her final vows in 1970.
Though she is a member of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mother Dolores has not voted for films until they came available on video and DVD.
Her health is also improved, compared to the days when she was in a wheelchair with a neurological disorder: peripheral idiopathic neuropathy. "I was on my way out, and it was terrifying," she says of the seriousness of her condition a few years ago.
But new treatments, which she goes to New York to receive, have improved her health. "Now I'm doing fine."
Mother Dolores looks fragile and moves carefully about the grounds, but when she shows off the theater, its backstage and the area where she envisions the arts center's expansion, she has renewed energy and spirit.
For a photograph to promote her arts cause, she sits in a canvas Hollywood-style chair with "Mother Dolores" inscribed on it.
"The way the Lord worked with me throughout the whole experience," she says of her life, "was a constant reminder that my two lives were always going to be interdependent."
>> For more information about the abbey: www.abbeyofreginalaudis.com.