Honoring a Legend

Madison plans to erect
Dunne historical marker

May event to unite fans of the 1930s-40s actress

By Don Ward

(March 2006) – It has taken several decades but, thanks to a small group of dedicated citizens, the City of Madison will honor one of its own – the late film legend Irene Dunne – in a historical marker ceremony May 19 in front of the Ohio Theatre.

2006 March Cover

Cover of the 2006 March
KY. and IN. Editions
of the RoundAbout.

The Indiana Historical Bureau approved the marker in December, and the $1,700 required to pay for it has been raised. The state of Indiana provided $1,000 toward the project and Madison attorney John Eckert paid the balance, according to Jim Courter, one of the group’s members. Bureau officials plan to take part in a 4 p.m. dedication ceremony that day, along with remarks from Madison city officials and special guest, Randy Lakeman of Los Angeles.
Lakeman is a Madison native and son of Harold “Pee Wee” Lakeman, a city employee who was part of the marker organizing group, along with Ohio Theatre owner Laura Ratcliff and Eckert. Ratcliff plans to have Irene Dunne memorabilia belonging to various private collectors on display at the theater that day, organizers say.
“Irene Dunne was an icon in the film industry and certainly one of the early pioneers in female screen stars. She had tremendous success, and she never really forgot Madison,” said Madison Mayor Al Huntington, himself a collector of Madison memorabilia who owns one certified, autographed Dunne photo. “Because her success happened so many years ago, a lot of people today don’t really appreciate her. So I think it’s great that this group of people has gotten together to honor her with this marker. It’s way past time.”
Randy Lakeman is also scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. on May 19 at the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum, 615 W. First St., as part of its monthly docent program. The event is open to the public for an admission fee of $2 but free for museum members.
Over the years, Lakeman has collected “literally thousands” of photos, posters and other Dunne memorabilia since meeting her on three occasions at her Hollywood home back in the 1970s. He plans to display some of his collection and talk about his time spent with her. Lakeman presented a similar program on the Dunne legacy in 1991 at the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library.

Irene Dunne
Indiana Historical
Marker Ceremony

4 p.m., May 19
Ohio Theatre, 105 E. Main St.
Madison, IN
(Memorabilia display inside theater)
(812) 273-4821 or (812) 265-4906

Randy Lakeman Program
on Irene Dunne

2 p.m. on May 19 at the
Jefferson County Historical
Society Museum, 615 W. First St.,
Madison. Tickets $2; free for members.
(Discussion and memorabilia display)
(812) 265-2335

The historical marker group, meanwhile, met several times last fall to get the application completed and are now planning the dedication ceremony for the marker. It will stand in front of the theatre, which celebrated its grand re-opening on Oct. 4, 1938, during the heydey of Dunne’s movie career.
“It takes a lot of research to meet the criteria of a historical marker, but when I talked with the director at the Indiana Historical Bureau, she said this one was a no-brainer; that it was a good project and that the documentation was already available for it,” said Courter, a Madison State Hospital retiree.
“I think it’s great that Madison is doing something to commemorate Irene Dunne and ensure that we don’t lose this part of our history,” Ratcliff said. She added that obtaining her classic films has been difficult because they are either too expensive or simply unavailable. Many of her original films were later remade with different actors, and it is only the remakes that are shown on TV or offered for lease to cinemas today. Only recently have some of Dunne’s classics – those featuring other prominent co-stars such as Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy – begun to show up on Turner Movie Classics or other cable TV channels.
Ratcliff had hoped to rent Dunne’s classic, “Show Boat,” to show it at the Ohio Theatre during the weekend of the dedication, but she was unable to obtain it. Her unsuccessful attempts to rent an Irene Dunne movie classic is indicative of Dunne's virtual obscurity among today’s young moviegoers.
“You just don’t see many of her movies out there these days, and the fear is that she will be forgotten,” said Ratcliff said. “But she was a big star in her day – one of the biggest.”
In fact, Dunne was known as the “First Lady of Hollywood” after taking the film industry by storm in the early 1930s and throughout the 1940s.
In all she made more than 40 movies – and that after being discovered by Hollywood after a successful Broadway stage career in New York City. After a 22-year run, she walked away from the movie industry and never looked back.
Knowing when to quit.

Irene Dunne with girl scouts

Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society

Irene Dunne (standing center with
hat) in the 1930s posed with 16
girls scouts at Camp Louis Ernst in
Dupont, Ind. They are (front row
from left) Frieda Burkhardt, Minnie
Bersch Graham, Helen Klein, Mary Eunice
Muncie and Lillian Douglas Collins.
Second row from left: Mary Elizabeth
Meyers Hoefling, Helen Shepard
Degler, Edna Miller McDowell,
(Dunne), Jessie Mae Coppage, Evelyn
Curtis Handlon and Jane Server.
Third row from left: Dorothy Coppage,
Mary Elizabeth Majors Glenn, Bernice
Schnabel Douglas and Mary
Katherine Copeland.

“One of the amazing things about Irene Dunne is that she chose to retire at the top of her game rather than keep trying to stage comebacks later in life, and you have to respect her for that,” said film historian, author and Ball State University film history professor Wes Gehring.
In 1991, Gehring published one of the only biographies on Dunne and spent much time in Madison and California researching her life story and career. Gehring, 55, an Iowa native, has recently published his 24th book and has covered the careers of many Hollywood stars, including two others from Indiana – Red Skelton of Vincennes, Ind., and Carole Lombard of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Since the publication of those two books, officials from those two Indiana cities have tried to capitalize on the fame of their hometown stars, Gehring said. In Vincennes, the new $17 million Red Skelton Performing Arts Center opened and was dedicated in February on the Vincennes University campus. Skelton himself tried to purchase the home in which he had spent most of his childhood but was unable to do so because the owner “jacked up the price to a ridiculous amount,” Gehring said. “I think the city later was able to acquire the home.”
Meanwhile, he said Fort Wayne officials have recently contacted him for ideas on “how to maximize on the fact that Lombard was from there.”
During his research in Madison, Gehring said he found “a core of people” of were familiar with the Irene Dunne legacy, “but the average person on the street in her own hometown had absolutely no clue who she was,” he said. Gehring read the old newspaper clippings of the 1930s found in the local library and historical society and read the box of handwritten letters written between 1918-1957 by Dunne to a Madison friend, Fritz Ernst. The letters were discovered in 1991 by Charlie Davidson after he had purchased a house on East Street in Madison that was once owned by the Ernst family. Fritz Ernst, who never married, became a wealthy businessman in the steel industry and lived on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, Davidson said. He is buried in Springdale Cemetery in Madison.

Irene Dunne & Mother

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Irene Dunne with
her mother, Adelaide
Henry Dunn, in the
mid-1930s. Adelaide
lived with her daughter
in Hollywood until her
death in 1936.

Gehring used the letters to help construct Dunne’s biography, and they are cited frequently throughout his book.
“The letters are still in their original envelopes and are quite revealing about her life and career in Hollywood at that time,” said Davidson, a retired I.K.E.C. power plant employee who resides in Bedford, Ky. “She talks about her mother a lot and about her movie career. Fritz Ernst was about 20 years older than her and from a very wealthy family in Madison, and it is obvious from the letters that he wanted to marry her (even proposing to her in 1921), but she wasn’t interested. She was focused on her movie career.”
Davidson also has a telegram that was sent in 1959 by Dunne to another Madison friend, Dana Vail, when Ernst died. Davidson has kept the letters over the years but admits that he recently sold one on E-bay. According to Davidson’s reading of the letters, Dunne seemed well connected to her roots in Madison, even after she was far into her movie career.
Getting to know her
Even after becoming a movie star, Dunne never forgot her Indiana roots. She returned to Madison in December 1939 to help dedicate a gate to the Camp Louis Ernst Boy Scout facility on Hwy. 7, a half mile south of Dupont in Jefferson County. Dunne donated $500 to pay for the gate, which still bears this inscription: “This gate donated to Camp Louis Ernst by Irene Dunne, 1939.”
In April 1954, Dunne visited her hometown of Madison to attend a much-heralded reception at Clifty Inn in her honor and to visit her friend, the ailing Madison Courier publisher Michael E. Garber. Garber was bedridden at King’s Daughters’ Hospital at the time. Dunne also entertained friends during a luncheon at Hillside Inn, where she was staying. A Who’s Who of Madison attended the reception, which represented her last official visit there. Photographs from that day show Dunne posing with many Madison residents and sitting for a photo at Clifty Inn.

Irene Dunne Highschool Picture

Photo courtesy of
the Jefferson Co. Historical
Society Museum Archives

Irene Dunne’s 1916
Madison High School
yearbook photo.

Then in 1978, Harold Lakeman, a local historian of Madison Cubs sports, initiated contact with Dunne when he wrote a letter to her asking about her brother, Charles Dunn, who had played basketball for the Cubs from 1918-1920. Lakeman included a copy of the high school newspaper with the letter. "She was delighted to get it and responded with a letter, mostly because someone had taken an interest in her brother,” Lakeman recalled. As a result of the correspondence (which Lakeman has since framed), the next summer Lakeman’s two sons, Randy and Robert, were invited to see the famed actress at her mansion in the exclusive Holmby Hills section of Beverly Hills. The two boys arranged to meet the actress in 1979 while in California visiting their mother, Becky Wetzel. They were accompanied to the mansion by their mother, grandmother Bessie Scudder and aunt Ivy Scudder. They toured the house and were given an autographed movie still, Randy recalled.
“I didn’t know much about her at the time because I was only 17, but I knew she was a big star,” said Lakeman, now 43 and a consultant for Chicago-based Grenzebach Glier, which helps raise money for colleges and universities.
“I remember she had this big box of movie photos in her closet, and whenever anyone would come to see her, she would ask them what movie was their favorite. She would go into the closet and pull out a photo and sign it for them.”
Lakeman moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and two years later arranged a meeting between Madison city officials and the actress while the officials were in town attending a conference. Eckert, then serving as city attorney, was in the group from Madison, along with then-Mayor Warren Rucker and Clerk-Treasurer Betty Brunton and their spouses. They presented Dunne with a photograph of Madison’s Broadway Fountain in return for her earlier $10,000 contribution in 1976 toward its restoration. Eckert recalled Dunne as “gracious” and “regal,” while expressing fond memories of her childhood in Madison.

Harold Lakeman

Photo by Don Ward

Harold “Pee Wee” Lakeman
of Madison displays part of his
Irene Dunne collection.

Lakeman lived in Boston in 1983 when he visited Dunne the third time. He and a friend visited her one afternoon for about 45 minutes, he said. He moved back to Madison in 1984 and did not keep in contact with the actress any more.
Then in 1992, while visiting Hollywood, he was showing a friend around the area when he happened to drive by Dunne’s former home and saw the facade coming down. “Someone had bought it, and they were tearing it down to build a newer and bigger Hollywood-style house,” he said. “Her home had been a typical old Hollywood style of home, with no pool or amenities that they all want these days.”
Lakeman said what impresses him most about the actress is “the fact that no one has ever been able to speak ill of her. That’s unusual because for a lot of movie stars, long before they die or after they die, you hear bad stuff coming out about them. But that was never the case with Irene Dunne.”
Gehring said Dunne was unique as a Hollywood star because of the way she lived. Her strict Catholic morals and 37-year marriage to the same man kept her out of the gossip pages. “She was probably boring as a story for the Hollywood tabloids of her day, but that seemed just fine with her,” Gehring said.
Gehring said Dunne was considered a natural comedian and even had an ongoing joke with actor Cary Grant over who was the funniest on screen. “She often said in interviews that comedy came easy for her, and because of that, she valued her dramatic roles much more,” he said.
In addition to visiting Madison, Gehring spent 10 days reading Dunne’s personal papers housed at the University of Southern California. She subscribed to a newspaper clipping service and kept all the stories in boxes. They were all turned over to the college after her death.

Irene Dunne with Lakeman Brothers

Photo courtesy of Harold Lakeman

From left, Randy Lakeman, then 17,
and his brother Robert, pose with
Irene Dunne during their 1979 visit.

In the early days of Hollywood, movie magazines were not as scandalous as today’s, and Dunne actually wrote a few columns for some of them in the 1940s. “Because she was known as the ‘First Lady of Hollywood,’ she had a real class image in the industry,” Gehring said. “She’s always been one of my favorites.”
Fan base still strong
Another author, Margie Schultz, 44, of Cincinnati was hired by Greenwood Press to compile a bibliography of Dunne’s work as a sort of reference book for her career. The book was published in 1991 and contains a short introductory biography of the actress.
Reached by telephone in February, Schultz said she did not make an attempt to interview family members, but she did interview several of her friends and colleagues, including actors Jimmy Stewart, Roddy McDowall, Joseph Cotton and Joan Leslie. The book lists all her movie, TV and stage performances. During research for the book, the author and longtime movie fan said she gleaned a sense of the woman.
“I had to take off one year from college because of an illness, and I spent much of that time watching old movies on TV, and that’s when I discovered Irene Dunne,” said Schultz, herself a theater and journalism major at the University of Cincinnati. “I chose to write about her because I felt that in a way she was always neglected as an actress. She wasn’t very flamboyant; she just did her job and went home.”

Margie Schultz

Margie Schultz

In later years, many of her movies were not shown on TV because there have been so many remakes that are instead shown. She said that only since the advent of cable TV’s Turner Movie Classic channel have her movies reappeared. And a few of her movies that co-starred Cary Grant have been released on DVD, “which I hope will spark some renewed interest in Dunne among younger audiences.”
Schultz is a member of Amy Tarr’s Internet message board titled “Irene Dunne Society” that is posted at Yahoo.com. She offers answers to many questions that arise by visitors to the site. Tarr, an accountant for a jewelry store in Greenwood, Ind., spends much of her personal time on the site and surfing the Internet for Dunne-related items. She has bought dozens of movie stills and other Dunne memorabilia and plans to display much of it May 19 at the Ohio Theatre.
Tarr became interested in Dunne while watching the classic movie, “A Guy Named Joe,” which stars Dunne and Tarr’s favorite actor, Van Johnson. “I noticed her in the film, but then I saw ‘White Cliffs of Dover,’ and I’ve been hooked ever since.
She now owns 40-plus videos among her vast collection.
“She wasn’t just a great actress but also great with charity work and her faith,” Tarr said. In fact, Tarr, a Methodist, is considering converting to Catholicism because of her devotion to Dunn.

Irene Dunne - Amy Tarr

Photo by Emily Ward

Amy Tarr of Greenwood, Ind., has a
large Irene Dunne collection and hosts
a Yahoo Groups website devoted to the
movie star called the Irene Dunne Society.

“A lot of people tend to look only at her career and not her personal life because she didn’t talk much about that. But I’m a big fan of both.”
Tarr has even communicated with Dunne’s family members in the past two years, first by identifying a message posted at her Dunne website that she immediately recognized as belonging to Dunne’s grandson, Mark Shinnick. That contact led to her talking twice by telephone with Dunne’s daughter, Mary Frances Griffin Gage. Both live in California.
When Tarr read about the upcoming historical marker dedication ceremony on the RoundAbout Madison website last August, she contacted Ratcliff at the Ohio Theatre and offered to display her collection. Since then, Tarr has been organizing her army of devoted Dunne fans to attend the event in Madison.
The members of the group who organized the historical marker, meanwhile, say the Ohio Theatre is a fitting place for it. When then-theater owner Herbert Johnson re-opened the redesigned theater in 1938, Dunne sent him an autographed photo, which hung in the lobby for decades. But it disappeared sometime before current owners Laura and Tony Ratcliff purchased the building in 1996.
Courter said he hopes the marker will remind people of Dunne’s legacy and possibly lead to uncovering more artifacts and memorabilia about the Hollywood screen actress from Madison.

Irene Dunne

"Irene Dunne - First Lady of Hollywood," by Wes Gehring

• To report any information about Irene Dunne’s life in Madison, call Laura Ratcliff at the Ohio Theatre at (812) 273-4821. To inquire about the May 19 historical marker ceremony, call Jim Courter at (812) 265-4906. Keep up with Irene Dunne fans at Amy Tarr’s Internet message board:
For read more on Dunne’s film career, visit these websites:
www.geocities.com/Holly-wood/Hills/2440/dunne.html (Denny Jackson’s website to Dunne)

The RKO Gals

"The RKO Gals"

• To read more about the life and career of Irene Dunne, buy or check out these books:
• "Irene Dunne - First Lady of Hollywood," by Wes D. Gehring
• "Irene Dunne - Bio-Bibliography," by Margie Schultz
•• "The RKO Gals," by James Robert Parish
• "Whatever Became of...?" by Richard Lamparski



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