Before Hume and Jessica, before Woody and Diane, before Tom and Nicole came perhaps the most famous theatrical couple of all, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Dubbed The First Couple of the American Theatre, Lunt and Fontanne performed together for 40 years and were even honored, posthumously, with a U.S. postage stamp back in 1999.
Now the duo receive another tribute at the Broadway house that bears their name. On July 19 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, a permanent photo and artifact exhibition will be unveiled, capturing The Lunts both at work and in more casual settings at their 60-acre Wisconsin estate, Ten Chimneys. The latter is being renovated and, according to spokespersons at the Richard Kornberg press office, "will open to the public in 2003 as a unique resource for American theatre and arts."
Robert Whitehead, who produced the Lunts' legendary turn in The Visit, will attend the opening of the exhibit, titled "A Life in the Theatre."
As for Ten Chimneys' restoration, that project's cost is expected to exceed $10 million. A year ago, the organization received a quarter million dollar grant towards the renovation from the government's Save America's Treasures preservation program. Sean Malone, vice president of the Ten Chimneys Foundation, told the Milwaukee-based Business Journal in September 2000 that to Lunt and Fontanne, the estate "was really a stage set." The house included murals, curios and odd decorative touches and was visited by such notables as Noel Coward, Lillian Gish and John Gielgud. Helen Hayes visited so often, she had her own bedroom there.
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed together for 40 years, largely in sophisticated and urbane comedies. Lunt was born in Milwaukee in 1892 and performed in vaudeville and tours before he played his first Broadway lead in Clarence in 1919 (although he previously appeared on Broadway in Romance and Arabella in 1917). Fontanne (nee Lillie Louise Fontanne) was born in 1887 in London and performed in England until she emigrated to the United States in 1916. The pair performed together in a summer stock company and were married in 1922. They joined the Theatre Guild in 1928 with the stipulation that they work together. They were coupled in 26 plays, three films and four television programs, and occasionally performed separately (he in Outward Bound, for example, in 1924, she in Strange Interlude in 1928).
Plays they appeared in include The Guardsman (1924), Design for Living (1933), The Taming of the Shrew (1935, 40), Idiot's Delight (1936), Amphitryon 38 (1937), There Shall Be No Night (1940). They spent the war years performing in England, and returned the U.S., acting in the comedies O Mistress Mine (1946), I Know My Love (1949), Quadrille (1954) and The Great Sebastians (1956). Their final Broadway play was The Visit (1958). The former Globe Theatre became the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1958, coinciding with The Visit.
Fontanne was considered the more subtle of the two performers, according to reviews, and both were thought to be among the finest actors of their generation. The Lunts were given a Special Tony Award in 1970.