Lunt-Fontanne abode brings theater home
GENESSE DEPOT, Wis. -- There is a magical spot here, just a short crow's flight from Milwaukee, that is now designated a national historical landmark and hallowed ground to anyone with a reverence for the theater's past, i.e., those days before Broadway ticket prices zoomed up past the $450 mark (as we've just been informed Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" is going to cost us per ticket). I refer to 60 acres of land known as Ten Chimneys, the longtime home of the famous acting couple Lunt and Fontanne, who wove their magic in an era when Broadway's top ticket price was often $4.50 as the Lunts were acting in such now-legendary plays as "Design for Living," "Idiot's Delight," "There Shall Be No Night" and "The Visit." Today many know Lunt and Fontanne only as a New York theater on 46th Street near Broadway, but at one time, to everyone from Manhattan to the smallest burg in America, they were household names: Lunt meant Alfred Lunt, actor extraordinaire, and Fontanne was his wife, actress Lynn Fontanne, herself a powerhouse in the theater, the two of them representing the best that live theater could offer in regard to talent, glamour and pure magic. One didn't need to travel to New York to see them perform, either: After every Broadway run, they'd tour the States for a full year, taking New York-caliber theater across the country, determined that theater should be accessible to everyone. They had a few unbreakable rules: In 1929, they made the decision never to work separately, and they never did for the remaining 31 years of their careers. They also decided to only work in live theater despite the fact they had a great success in the one film they made as stars, 1931's "The Guardsman," which earned each of them Academy Award nominations. (They didn't like the filmmaking process, triggering Fontanne later to send a famous telegram to Universal head Carl Laemmle after he offered them the moon to sign a film contract. She wrote: "We can be bought, my dear Mr. Laemmle, but we can't be bored.") One other rule of the couple was that, no matter what, they must have every summer free to spend at their cozy and comfortable Ten Chimneys home and estate, sitting 30 miles outside of Milwaukee. Here they rested, relaxed, refueled, swam, picnicked, gardened, cooked and planned their next theater venture as they also famously entertained such close chums as Noel Coward, Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, Edna Ferber, critic Alexander Wolcott, Van Johnson, Carol Channing and Laurence Olivier; it was a design for living that suited the Lunts perfectly. He died in 1977, she in 1983, and though at one point Ten Chimneys came dangerously close to being lost to a wrecker's ball, since 2003 it has been open to the public for touring after an ambitious restoration by a Ten Chimneys Foundation that was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1996 to preserve the estate. Open this year from May-November, it offers much more than a peek into bedrooms, dining areas and a state-of-the-art kitchen. (Lunt was a Cordon Bleu chef; an "Alfred Lunt's Cookbook" has also recently been published.) Visitors can tour the entire grounds -- which includes a second house, a log-cabin studio, greenhouse, vast pool area and woods -- as well as attend play readings and lectures and see interactive exhibitions and ever-revolving memorabilia, all presented in a classy manner. I suspect that the Lunts, known for their ultra-high standards, would approve.