by Dan Zeff
Genesee Depot, Wisconsin —From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, the husband and wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the First Couple of the American theater. The Lunts, as they were universally known, dominated the American stage with their successes extending to England.
The couple acted together in a string of important plays but they left little of record that preserves their acting. The Lunts made one mediocre movie, “The Guardsman,” but disdained Hollywood and its big money offers choosing to perform on the New York stage and the road. They still made an indelible mark on the American theater by establishing realism as the performing norm on the American stage rather than the declamatory style of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
One enduring monument exists to celebrate the Lunts and their times, their estate in the little town of Genesee Depot about three hours drive from Chicagoland. The estate was Alfred’s boyhood home and ultimately the home of the Lunts from the early 1920’s (they were married in 1922) through their retirement to their deaths. Alfred died in 1977 at the age of 84 and Lynn in 1983 at age 95.
The estate was called Ten Chimneys, named for the 10 chimneys (actually 11) that spouted from the several buildings on the estate. Ten Chimneys now exists in a state of almost perfect preservation as a National Historical Landmark. The estate was not only the home of the Lunts when they weren’t performing, it was a magnet for their friends in the theater. Recurring houseguests included such luminaries as Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Carol Channing. Their extended visits have become the stuff of legend, from the witty conversation, always about the theater, around the dinner table to nude bathing in the Ten Chimneys outdoor pool.
Ten Chimneys now offers tours through November 26 from Tuesday through Saturday and Sundays in October. The guides are docents steeped in Luntian lore. The full tour takes about two hours and covers the three-story main house, the rustic studio (the site of the play “Ten Chimneys” seen several months ago at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie), the cottage, the restored gardens, and the exteriors of the pool house, the greenhouse, and the creamery.
The visitor sees Ten Chimneys almost exactly as the Lunts left it. The furnishings and décor are the real thing, not period historical replacements. Lynn was a skilled seamstress and her sewing is scattered throughout the estate. Posed photos of the Lunts and their guests decorate the living areas (the Lunts refused to be photographed informally).
The tour is a wonderful exercise in nostalgia and provides an intimate glimpse into the Lunts and their lifestyle, but Ten Chimneys is a treasure trove for people who never heard of the couple and could care less. The Lunts had a shrewd eye for interior design and the rooms are filled with antiques that would make collectors salivate, like a small Biedermeier table that surely would fetch something in the six figures at auction, especially with its Lunt associations. There is porcelain and crockery and statuettes and fabrics and paintings and prints that combine to give Ten Chimneys the attraction of a high-end interior design museum.
The docents not only know the objects that furnish the estate, they have a limitless fund of anecdotes about the Lunts, their friends, and Ten Chimneys itself. A repeated trip to the estate with a different docent at each visit would doubtless provide visitors with fresh sets of tales about the Lunts, their companions, and their home.
What comes through strongly during the tour is the warmth of the Lunts, the importance they placed on hospitality, and their total immersion in the theater. Alfred always greeted their arriving guests while Lynn watched from an upstairs window, timing the appearance of the visitors so she could greet them with a sweeping entrance down the stairway to the main floor. Alfred was a cuisine cook who prepared the dinners for his celebrity guests. Liquor flowed freely but the Lunts disliked hard booze and drank only champagne. Those are some of the innumerable docent-provided tidbits that humanize two of the dominant figures in modern American culture.
The Lunts were world famous but virtually ignored by their Genesee Depot neighbors, who were unimpressed with the famous residents. Alfred was an amateur farmer and was usually seen around Ten Chimneys in bib overalls and a work shirt, telling visitors who sought the home of the famous Lunts that the couple actually lived miles away and were virtually inaccessible. The Lunts were impeccable hosts to their theater friends but had little use for the outside world. They would have been horrified by the assault on the privacy endured by the rich and famous in today’s world of People Magazine and blogging and paparazzi.
A visit to Ten Chimneys would be a perfect adjunct to attendance at the American Players Theatre, about two hours away in Spring Green. There the APT represents everything the Lunts stood for in quality theater.
Tours of Ten Chimneys leave about every 15 minutes from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission for the full tour is $35. Children under 12 are not allowed in deference to the fragility and accessibility of the estate’s countless artifacts. Walk-ins are welcome but reservations are recommended. For information, call 1 262 968 4110 or visit www.tenchimneys.org.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org. August 2012
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