Ten Chimneys: A Must

David Hyde Pierce amuses, Kitty Carlisle Hart amazes; a songbird and a second of sorts

“When I think theatrical elegance,” observed David Hyde Pierce at the 2005 Theatre Museum Awards, “naturally, I think Wisconsin.” In his distinctively droll way, Pierce said this only half jokingly, as he was giving an award for theater history preservation to Ten Chimneys Foundation, the home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Gennessee Depot, Wisconsin.

If you’ve never been, by all means go. It’s not far from the charming college town of Madison and a trip into theater history. Both houses—one for Alfred and Lynne, the other for his mother—as well as their Rehearsal Barn and Cecil Beaton-designed Rococo pool house, remain as they were when the original occupants were alive.

Lunt’s costume from his final, shattering stage appearance in Dürrenmat’s “The Visit” is prominently displayed. Fabulously camp murals depicting actors as Olympian gods by set designer Claggett Wilson festoon the walls. This precious landmark would have been razed to make room for condominiums had it not been for the late Joseph Garton, who came up with a million dollars to buy it and began the Foundation.

The awards ceremony was held October 10 at The Hudson Theatre. Built in 1903 by producer Henry B. Harris, who perished aboard the Titanic, the theater housed more 90 plays, including Louis Armstrong’s Broadway debut, “Hot Chocolates,” as well as Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show.” It was also a porn theater and a nightclub, The Savoy, before its bejeweled present-day restoration. Recently uncovered Tiffany tile work has been painstakingly returned to its original glow, a testament to an era when lavish financial outlay for architectural design meant something exquisite, not just expensive.

Michael Presser, founder of Inside Broadway, received the Theatre Arts Education Award for bringing theater to thousands of children since its inception in 1982. Scaled down, professional Equity productions of Broadway shows are produced to tour local schools, with public community performances.

Theatre Museum president Helen Guditis told me, “Right now, for us, it’s about forging relationships with businesses and cultural institutions, where we’ll be having theatre history exhibits in their spaces until such time as we have a space of our own. We have a full plan for a theater museum and just have to find the right real estate angel to make it possible. We realize we need to be in Times Square, but found out that if you stand at ground level of any of these new buildings, it’s $350 a square foot. We may have to have the Starbucks Theatre Museum.

Pierce told me his Lunt connection was through his acting teacher, Uta Hagen, who appeared in “The Seagull” (1938) with them, and had given him their biography. He described Ten Chimneys as “simultaneously sophisticated and completely insane.” He still loves performing in “Spamalot.”

“We opened last December in Chicago, but we’re still having fun. I’m in it through the beginning of April. Tim Curry and Sara Ramirez are leaving December 15, but Hank Azaria is returning to the cast and we will finish out our run together. The audience now is always a grateful mix of returnees, staid older theatergoers, and young people who’ve never been to the theater before. So many times, we’ll be at the stage door signing autographs and see somebody saying, ‘This is my first Broadway show.’ I was absolutely always a Monty Python fan. It came on when I was in my last year of high school in upstate New York and completely flipped for them, so for me, this is a dream come true.”

Kitty Carlisle Hart brought down the house when she presented an award to Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, the creators of PBS’ “Broadway: the American Musical,” “for the book and the BVD.” She recalled, “I took my daughter Kathy to Ten Chimneys to visit the Lunts. She was in college nearby in the days of a lot of demonstrations and unrest, so I wanted her to see what lovely, wonderful, charming, talented people could be like. I said to Lynn one day, ‘How do you keep your neck so beautiful?’ She said, ‘I’ll tell you, but you won’t do it.’ I said, ‘Of, course I will!’ ‘I lie on the bed with my head over the mattress and I do twenty minutes of exercises, swinging my head up.’ I said, ‘You’re right, I’ll never do it.’”

Hart just finished up a successful Feinstein’s engagement and is going back on November 11-12.

“So I must have been a hit. It was a little different from my last show. I added new songs, and, you know, I can’t remember where I’m going, practically, but I can remember songs. It must be a different part of the brain.”

Hart credited accompanist David Lewis. “He’s wonderful, made my life so easy and he showed me that I could learn new songs.”

One thing about the indestructible 95-year-old Hart—she’s got legs and she knows how to use them, maneuvering stairs to and from the Hudson stage from her table!

Such was sadly not the case with two other recently seen, much younger divas, Holly Woodlawn at The Cutting Room on October 4 and Gloria Lynne at Tribeca Arts Center on October 7, who both needed visible assistance on their pins. Woodlawn was one big ole flamboyant mess, with big-time memory lapses during her act, making constant raspberry noises every other second and yelling back and forth to poet Taylor Mead at his ringside table.

“What was that thing on Andy [Warhol’s] head? A yak?”

Still, one amazed 20-something enthused to me afterwards. “Wasn’t she freaky? I loved it! So freaky!”

Claret-voiced jazz veteran Lynne was clearly happy to be back and performing, so happy that she took about six song requests from her screaming audience and forgot to sing the signature song they had all come for, “I Wish You Love.” No matter, it was pretty special to hear those still-resonant pipes and terrific backup quartet, and the great stories about Sarah Vaughan and Lynne’s 1950’s recording days on the Everest label.

I recently slagged the music of composer Ricky Ian Gordon, so, feeling he deserved another chance, went to see his “Orpheus” on October 8. Well, I was right the first time! The lights went up on a scrim-covered, blindingly white stage, filled with dun-clad dancers moving to no music. It was extremely avant-garde… for 1971. What followed was a retelling of the Greek myth, with Eurydice played by a lovely, physically pliant Elizabeth Futral, and Orpheus by clarinet-playing Todd Palmer in a tacky teal leather jacket. One can only wonder why Gordon replaced the tradition lyre of Orpheus with that tooting instrument, rather than, say, a sexier saxophone, thereby transforming his work, however artistically ambitious, into a klezmer-fest. Melvin Chen did his manful best to hit the right piano notes on a platform that was wheeled about the dancers, entrapped as they were by Doug Varone’s unexciting choreography. The music itself was one long, monotonous, dithering noodle, while the lyrics consisted of stuff like “Lions ceased to roar, instead they’d sway and swing/Antelope would swing when Orpheus played that thing.” In terms of sheer eye-glazing boredom, I’d rate it about equal with Gordon’s Proust horror, “My Life With Albertine.” If you could bottle his talent, you could call it Nyquil.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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