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Visit the Wisconsin home of America's theater royalty
By Mike Michaelson | Daily Herald Columnist

Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne acquired a 60-acre country estate about 30 miles west of Milwaukee where they entertained theatrical luminaries.

 

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Published: 6/15/2008 12:02 AM

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Remember your first introduction -- perhaps in an English lit class -- to that restless teen, Holden Caulfield, in the J.D. Salinger classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye"? Holden and girlfriend Sally go to a Broadway production featuring "The Lunts," she a gushing fan, he a snide critic.

If you were puzzled as to the identity of the Lunts, it probably is simply because you are of a later generation. During professional acting careers that spanned close to six decades, the husband-and-wife acting duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne became theatrical royalty.

Perhaps if they had extended their performances to cinema they might have become wider known -- but they held motion pictures in disdain.

Not that they didn't respond when Hollywood came calling. In 1931, the Lunts starred in a film adaptation of their stage hit "The Guardsman," then declined further film offers -- highly lucrative as they were. As Lynn observed, "We can be bought, but we can't be bored."

Instead, they went on to dominate the American stage for decades, lauded for introducing new acting techniques and receiving Lifetime Achievement Tony Awards. Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theater was named after them. In 1965, each received an Emmy Award for "The Magnificent Yankee."

When they weren't performing or traveling, the pair was busy creating a lifestyle far from Broadway. They acquired a 60-acre country estate at Genesee Depot in southeast Wisconsin, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee. It contained an 18-room main house known as Ten Chimneys.

It was to this setting that Alfred, who was born in Milwaukee, and Lynn, who hailed from southeast England, created the perfect retreat, which they shared generously with their numerous friends in the acting fraternity. Noel Coward was virtually inseparable from the Lunts (he wrote a play for them and starred in it with them). Another regular was Helen Hayes, who spent a month at Ten Chimneys every summer. The Lunts also entertained Carol Channing, Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier, who proclaimed, "Everything I know about acting I learned from Alfred Lunt."

Ten Chimneys is a house museum where you actually could touch -- but are on your honor not to -- as you tour in a small group with entertaining guides. The house looks as though the couple had just stepped out for a hike through the rolling wooded hills of nearby Kettle Moraine State Forest. Prize possessions are displayed or simply set down as they were when the Lunts lived there.

The kitchen and dining room are important stops on two-hour tours of the property. The Lunts and their guests would linger over good food and sparkling conversation. Alfred was an accomplished cook, earning a diploma from le Cordon Bleu. "He passed with flying saucers," quipped Lynn. Following an afternoon in the kitchen, Alfred would pop upstairs to dress for dinner, then escort guests into the dining room.

Throughout the house are historic furnishings, hand-painted murals, diverse collections and tender mementos, such as inscribed first editions of books by Edna Ferber and Alexander Woollcott. The Lunts designed and decorated Ten Chimneys the way they crafted stage performances. Each room was carefully dressed as if it were a stage set. The "flirtation room" is straight out of a French farce, with six doors for characters to pop in and out.

Claggett Wilson, a prominent scenic and costume designer, was invited to visit and spend a month painting a mural. He ended up spending more than two years, painting murals on walls and ceilings throughout the estate. To the Lunts, a blank wall was a challenge. A piano, delivered as a conventional black Steinway, became a colorful garden of flowers.

Ten Chimneys has become more than just a stunning house museum. Its visitor center mounts exhibitions, such as this year's "Fashion Forward: The Gowns and Garments of Lynn Fontanne," featuring clothing designed by fashion luminaries, but also including items created by Lynn (herself an accomplished seamstress).

View a famous 1970 television interview when the Lunts and Noel Coward appeared as guests on ABC's "Dick Cavett Show." Stop to ponder an entire wall covered with colorful Playbill covers. Step across the footlights and ham it up on stage using costumes and props. Ten Chimneys' events include music series and play readings by actors of such works as "The Guardsman" and Shaw's "Arms and the Man."

The Lunts probably would have enjoyed Milwaukee's thriving theater district. Although there is a wide selection of accommodations between Genesee Depot and downtown Milwaukee (including many budget chains), the stylishly modern InterContinental Milwaukee in the heart of the district is a good choice for a splurge. This trendy hotel, full of edgy contemporary shapes bathed in the glow of orange light, has comfortable high-tech guest rooms, a lively bar and an innovative kitchen that serves a delicious lobster roll that is a much-ordered luncheon choice.

Another popular theater-district destination is Eagan's. Lively crowds of theatergoers pack the bar, which offers early-evening appetizers. Cost is only $1 with a drink purchase of $4 or more (Monday through Friday) for bar food that includes baby Rueben, steamed mussels, lemon-garlic baked shrimp and Margarita or wild mushroom pizza. This budget-stretching bistro is decorated with oversized murals copying works of French impressionists Renoir, Degas and Monet.

If you go

Information: Ten Chimneys, (262) 968-4110, www.tenchimneys.org; Wisconsin Travel Information, (800) 432-8747, www.travelwisconsin.com.

Mileage: Genesee Depot is about 90 miles north of Chicago.