plans to erect
Dunne historical marker
event to unite fans of the 1930s-40s actress
(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.
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 groups
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 dont really appreciate her. So I think its
great that this group of people has gotten together to honor her with
this marker. Its 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.
Ohio Theatre, 105 E. Main St.
(Memorabilia display inside theater)
(812) 273-4821 or (812) 265-4906
on Irene Dunne
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)
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 Dunnes 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 its great that Madison is doing something to commemorate
Irene Dunne and ensure that we dont 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 Dunnes 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 Dunnes 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 todays young moviegoers.
You just dont 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
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
Knowing when to quit.
courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society
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
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
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
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
courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research
her mother, Adelaide
Henry Dunn, in the
lived with her daughter
in Hollywood until her
death in 1936.
Gehring used the letters to help construct Dunnes
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 wasnt
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 Davidsons 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
Kings Daughters Hospital at the time. Dunne also entertained
friends during a luncheon at Hillside Inn, where she was staying. A
Whos 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
the Jefferson Co. Historical
Society Museum Archives
Madison High School
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 Lakemans 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 didnt 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 Madisons 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.
by Don Ward
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 Dunnes 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. Thats
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 Dunnes
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.
courtesy of Harold Lakeman
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 todays, 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. Shes 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 Dunnes 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 thats
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 wasnt very flamboyant; she just did her job
and went home.
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 TVs 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 Tarrs 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 Tarrs favorite actor,
Van Johnson. I noticed her in the film, but then I saw White
Cliffs of Dover, and Ive been hooked ever since.
She now owns 40-plus videos among her vast collection.
She wasnt 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.
by Emily Ward
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 didnt talk much about that.
But Im a big fan of both.
Tarr has even communicated with Dunnes family members in the past
two years, first by identifying a message posted at her Dunne website
that she immediately recognized as belonging to Dunnes grandson,
Mark Shinnick. That contact led to her talking twice by telephone with
Dunnes 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 Dunnes
legacy and possibly lead to uncovering more artifacts and memorabilia
about the Hollywood screen actress from Madison.
Dunne - First Lady of Hollywood," by Wes Gehring
To report any information about Irene Dunnes
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 Tarrs
Internet message board:
For read more on Dunnes film career, visit these websites:
(Denny Jacksons website to Dunne)
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
"Irene Dunne - Bio-Bibliography," by Margie
"The RKO Gals," by James Robert Parish
"Whatever Became of...?" by Richard Lamparski