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The legacy of a legendary theatrical couple lives on at this Waukesha County estate.

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Since 2009, Ten Chimneys – a Waukesha County estate originally owned by Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne – has hosted one of the nation’s most prestigious theatrical master classes, the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program. U.S. regional theaters nominate actors each year. The 10 or so chosen arrive at the estate in July, and spend a week working with, and learning from, a master teacher there.

Past teachers include Alfred Molina, Jason Alexander and Phylicia Rashad. This year, Stephen McKinley Henderson takes the reins. The actor received a Tony nomination for his role in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences. But he may be best known for his roles in the Oscar-nominated films Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea and Lincoln. The Lunts were famously generous and often hosted friends – Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes – at their Wisconsin home for weeks at a time. And the president and CEO of the Ten Chimneys Foundation, Randy Bryant, considers the master class an extension of that hospitality. “The Lunts are considered the best acting duo of all time,” he says. “To study at the estate where they lived, and find inspiration there, and network with other actors, is a wonderful opportunity. There’s no other program like it in the country.”

The 60-acre property makes a stunning backdrop for the workshop, and visitors can spend hours wandering the 18 rooms of the main house. But the fellows seem to have more to say about the program itself than its environs. Zonya Johnson, who participated last year (nominated by Milwaukee Repertory Theater), says she was struck by how committed Bryant and the other foundation employees were to making the actors feel appreciated. “We’re in a business where we hear ‘no’ all the time,” she says. “They reminded me that we’re worthy, that people do see the value in what we do as performers, and in us as people.”

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The King and Queen of American Theater

In 1892, Alfred Lunt was born into a wealthy Milwaukee lumber family. He inherited a love of theater from his mother – who was supposedly fond of saying “I can do without the necessities, but I cannot live without the luxuries” – and a small fortune from his father. He used the money to purchase land in Waukesha County.

Lynn Fontanne, born in London in 1887, took a shine to acting as a child – her biographers say that she could recite Shakespearean monologues, with flawless diction, at the age of 5. She made her first Broadway appearance in 1910.

The two met in New York in 1919 and married in 1922. They eventually starred in more than 20 plays together and are still widely considered the greatest stage couple of all time. “Their special genius,” according to New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson, “enslaved about every theatergoer in the United States.”

Actors and directors – including, in recent years, Jesse Eisenberg and Wes Anderson (who drew inspiration from a cottage on the grounds for his 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom) – still make regular pilgrimages to Ten Chimneys to pay their respect to the Lunts.

Upcoming events

Visit tenchimneys.org for more information.

A Conversation with Stephen McKinley Henderson

JULY 20
$50-150 

Henderson will share stories about his life and career at this intimate evening event.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, photo by Walter McBride

Concluding Presentation

JULY 21
$50-150 

Henderson and the 10 2018 Lunt-Fontanne Fellows will stage a work-in-progress performance.

All Access Day

AUG. 4
$50

Visitors can picnic on the estate grounds and swim in the Lunts’ pool, the first in-ground pool installed in Wisconsin!

The Lunts, photo courtesy of Ten Chimneys


“Actors Invitational” appears in the July 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 2nd, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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