Honoring a legend

Madison to get historical marker
to honor film star Dunne

The ‘First Lady of Hollywood’
spent her youth on First St.

By Levi King
Staff Writer

(August 2005) – The “First Lady of Hollywood” will soon have a historic marker outside the Ohio Theatre. A group of Madison residents applied earlier this year to the Indiana Historical Bureau for a sign honoring actress Irene Dunne. The marker has been approved, but the wording will not be decided until the Bureau convenes again in November.

Irene Dunne marker project

Photo by Levi King

Working on the Irene Dunne marker project
are (from left) John Eckert, Harold Lakeman, Laura Ratcliff and Jim Courter.

Madison attorney John Eckert said the marker process began when he and Jim Courter struck up a conversation about Dunne over a game of golf. Courter, a Madison State Hospital retiree, had become interested in Dunne after seeing her film, “Anna and the King of Siam,” and learning about her Madison connections.
“We want to do something to commemorate Irene and ensure that we don’t lose this part of our history,” said Eckert. Laura Ratcliff, co-owner of the Ohio Theatre, and Harold “Pee Wee” Lakeman, a fan and collector of Dunne memorabilia, soon joined the marker effort.
Dunne, film star of the 1930s and 40s, was born in Louisville in 1898 to Joseph John and Ade-laide Antoinette Henry Dunn. Irene added the “e” early in her career. The couple had a son, Charles, in 1900. Adelaide was an accomplished musician and encouraged Irene to practice music. Joseph, a steamboat inspector, died unexpectedly in 1909, and Adelaide moved the family to Madison. The Dunns lived at 916 W. Second St., with Adelaide’s father, Charles Henry, who operated the boiler works.
Dunne’s first dramatic role came in 1913 in a school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which she played the minor part of Mustardseed, a fairy. She followed with a role in a benefit performance of “St. Cecilia” for King’s Daughters Hospital. The production was a hit, and the players ferried to Milton, Ky., for an encore performance. Dunne’s vocal talents were so impressive that she was paid $10 each week to sing in the First Baptist Church choir.

Harold Lakeman & Laura Ratcliff

Photo by Levi King

Harold Lakeman and
Laura Ratcliff examine
memorabilia about Irene Dunne. The marker will be erected in front of the
Ohio Theatre.

Dunne graduated in 1916 from Madison High School, and a group called the Madison Current Events Club granted her a scholarship to the Oliver Willard Pierce Academy of Fine Arts in Indianapolis. She studied there for a year and then went on to earn a teaching certificate from Webster College in St. Louis.
In 1918, Dunne was offered a teaching position in Gary, Ind., but won a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College, and instead continued her studies. Dunne traveled to New York City in 1920 and auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Co. She was rejected but won a role in a traveling theater company.
Dunne scored a small role in a Broadway musical in 1922. Her hard work paid off, and in 1928 she received her first lead role. That same year, Dunne married dentist Dr. Francis Griffin. The two remained together until his death in 1965.
After seeing her on tour with “Show Boat” in 1929, executives from RKO studios offered Dunne a film contract. She accepted and moved to Hollywood. Her first film, “Leathernecking,” premiered in 1930, but her breakthrough came as the leading lady in “Cimarron.” Dunne was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the western.
In 1936, Dunne received a second nomination for her work in the screwball comedy “Theodora Goes Wild.” The following year, Dunne played opposite Cary Grant in “The Awful Truth,” earning a third nomination. Her fourth nomination came in 1940 for “Love Affair,” and Dunne’s role as the Norwegian mother in “I Remember Mama” garnered her a fifth nomination. In spite of her five nominations, Dunne never won an Oscar.
Dunne’s final film was the 1952 comedy, “It Grows on Trees,” but she continued to make television appearances. She made 41 films in her career.
Dunne went on to become an active philanthropist. She worked closely with the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society and the Boy Scouts of America, donating generously to each. President Eisenhower in the late 1950s appointed her an alternate delegate to the United Nations. In 1985, she was honored at the Kennedy Center with the American Medal of Freedom for her achievements in the arts.

Irene Dunne

Photo courtesy of
Harold Lakeman

Irene Dunne

Although stories suggest she made several stealthy visits to friends in Madison, Dunne “officially” returned only once after she began her film career. That trip, in 1954, involved a visit to her ailing friend, Michael E. Garber, publisher of the Madison Courier.
In 1976, Dunne donated $10,000 to the Broadway Fountain’s restoration. Two years later, Lakeman sent her a birthday card. Dunne wrote him back, beginning a correspondence that eventually led to a meeting between Dunne and Lakeman’s son.
Randy Lakeman traveled to California to see his mother in 1979 and while there visited Dunne at her home in the exclusive Holmby Hills section of Beverly Hills. Randy moved to California the following year and arranged a meeting in 1982 between Madison city officials and the actress. Mayor Dr. Warren R. Rucker, Clerk-Treasurer Betty Brunton, Eckert, who was then City Attorney, and their spouses were attending a meeting of the National Association of Cities and Towns in Los Angeles and met with Dunne at her home. The group presented her with a photograph of the Broadway Fountain for her contribution. Dunne died in 1991.
Courter, Eckert, Ratcliff and Lakeman agreed that the Ohio Theatre is a natural location for the marker. “The theater’s current configuration dates back to 1938, when it was remodeled and re-opened,” explained Ratcliff.
Eckert added, “That was her heyday.”
Dunne sent an autographed photo to then theater operator, Herbert Johnson. The photograph hung in the lobby for decades but disappeared sometime before Ratcliff purchased the Ohio Theatre.
Courter said he hopes that by reminding people of Dunne’s legacy, the marker could uncover artifacts and anecdotes of her youth in Madison. “There’s a lot out there on her,” he said. “It would be nice to gather it all together.”

• To report any information about Dunne’s life in Madison, call Laura Ratcliff at the Ohio Theatre at (812) 265-4821. Thanks to Harold Lakeman for his photo of Dunne. Read more on Dunne’s film career at these websites:
(Denny Jackson’s website about Dunne)

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