By Kathy Kelsey Foley, director
My husband, Ernie, is a terrific partner and a good sport, usually willing to indulge me in a museum visit while away from home or on vacation.
An invitation to a wedding in Milwaukee over the Fourth of July holiday weekend provided the opportunity to visit Ten Chimneys. The historic landmark estate of Broadway actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne is located in Genesee Depot, about thirty miles west of downtown Milwaukee.
Our reservation was for the first Friday-morning tour. We made our way to Genesee Depot with time for breakfast at the Cornerstone Restaurant. Fortified by multigrain – “healthy” – blueberry pancakes for me and a protein-rich combo for Ernie, we were ready to step back in time and enter the world of Lunt and Fontanne.
The Ten Chimneys experience is a highly controlled one, which is not surprising and actually quite welcomed. You check your purse or other carry-along items in a complimentary locker and join a small group – ten or less – escorted by a docent and backed up by another volunteer to ensure that no one goes astray.
Theater at its best, really. Entrances and exits – doors opening and closing – are all timed for maximum effect and designed to highlight the attention to detail lavished on Ten Chimneys by Lunt and Fontanne. Nothing was left to chance.
The two-hour tour flew by. We experienced the three-story main house, the studio, cottage, gardens, and pool area. I loved the stories told by our knowledgeable and quite theatrical docent, Diane, and was amazed by the condition of the property and its contents, which is due not only to the superb work of the Ten Chimneys Foundation, but also to the fact that most everything remained in situ following Lynn Fontanne’s death, thus providing a treasure trove of materials.
Leaving Ten Chimneys, Ernie and I talked quite a bit about the tour and its relevance. We wondered what can be done to ensure that interest in Lunt and Fontanne and their Ten Chimneys lifestyle is nurtured among younger generations. Those who toured in our group were of a certain age, and we asked ourselves if our daughters and their friends – in their late twenties and early thirties – would find the visit to Ten Chimneys interesting.
These are questions museums and historic sites consider almost daily, if we are to remain relevant as well as vibrant. We have so much to learn from history and its stories – especially colorful ones – which have the power to stir the imagination and inspire creativity.
While our visit to Ten Chimneys was a busman’s holiday for me, it also was a delightful experience that celebrated the remarkable and rich lives of theatrical greats.