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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011

A Day at Ten Chimenys

Remembering Lunt and Fontanne

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In his new comedy on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Powerhouse stage, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher imagines stagy entanglements and arch repartee involving several giants of 20th century theater.

Ten Chimneys
is named after the Genesee Depot mansion where theatrical legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne relaxed with famous friends from long runs on Broadway and the road. For almost 40 years, the two were the first couple of the American stage, appearing together in one hit after another.

Precious few people still living ever visited the home— now a national landmark museum— when the Lunts were alive.  It was my great good fortune, as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, to spend an awed afternoon with this fascinating couple. I'm sure some of my queries sounded pretty banal, but they handled all with grace and wit.

Before my 1967 visit, Journal veterans told me, no Milwaukee reporters had visited the Lunts in their Waukesha County escape. I was the beneficiary of lucky timing.  Fontanne had just finished her final acting performance, in NBC-TV's  "Anastasia" for "Hallmark Hall of Fame." Apparently, the network or sponsor had extracted an agreement from the reclusive Fontanne to do publicity.

Previously when Milwaukee reporters would call Ten Chimneys, Lunt would answer the phone in his best faux British butler accent and say "the Lunts are away" or something equally disingenuous. Not this time.

The late Walter Monfried, then the Journal's drama critic, urged me to "Be on Time! They're theater people and promptness is important." (He'd apparently seen me straggle into work late.)

So, equipped with a long list of questions formulated while cramming through the Lunt biography "Stagestruck," I left early. And plowed through a thick February blizzard to Genesee Depot where I slid into a ditch.  The fates intervened again and a kindly passerby helped pull me out and I made it to the Lunt compound on time.

Sweating from nerves and exertion, I rang the doorbell, a servant opened the door to the vision of an elegant Lynn Fontanne descending the staircase, all smiling graciousness.

"Would you like to see the property?" she asked, in an accent that blended her British accent and the broadened a's then de rigeuer on American stages.

I certainly would since the grounds' two cottages were where some of the leading world playwrights crafted vehicles for the Lunts.

So Fontanne, then near 80, pulled on a long mink coat, clutched my arm and off we trudged through the deepening snow and icy patches.

"Good grief," I thought, "what if she falls, pulls me on top of her and dies?" It would have provided one hell of a scoop. But, it was that rare scoop I certainly did not want.

Eventually, we arrived at a cottage where Lunt was stretched out on a board extended between two ladders like a 20th century Michelangelo, rosemaling the ceiling.

"She's survived so far," I worried, "but now him!"

After a time, Lunt descended and we began the most fascinating afternoon of a long career.

The aging but still glamorous stars answered in mellifluous theater voices, interrupting and completing each others' sentences in a unique style that altered American acting' technique. While the repartee didn't match that written for them by their close friend Noel Coward, it radiated wit and deep affection.

They told me that they amused themselves by daily listening to Gordon' Hinkley's "Ask Your Neighbor" WTMJ-AM show, which featured visits from Packer sportscaster Jim Irwin. (After the Journal printed that, the Irwins became, rather improbably, close Lunt friends. I later attended a party for the Lunts at the smallish Irwin home which became jammed when the 5 p.m. guests refused to leave as the 6:30 shift arrived.)

After the Lunts completed my February house and grounds tour and bid me kind, but tired, farewells, they sent me on my way through deepening snow and fast-falling dusk. But dazzled, and aglow.

Over the next few months, I accumulated videotapes of the Lunts' finest TV and film work and a video biography which Gloria Irwin did for Channels 10/36. They now form the basis for a presentation I give on this experience. It ends with this couplet from Ring Lardner, writer, humorist and Lunt devotee from that era:

"What the world needs, and needs at once

Is more Lynn Fontannes and Alfred Lunts."

True then, true today.

(Michael Drew can be reached at mdrew16@wi.rr.com)

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