Absolutely Fabulous at Ten Chimneys? If Only.
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD: Thinking About Museum Problems at the Home of Forgotten Actors.
Hello from Non-Boring House!
Today, I introduce you to two famous actors you probably never heard of. Mostly, though, I'm talking about their home, and some surprising problems of American historic house museums. You might think that doesn't affect you, but even if you never set foot in one, it probably does.
British readers? Grab some popcorn, and get ready to find out that there's something the UK still does well.
American readers? You may be disappointed, even offended, by what I have to say. That's one reason I called this Non-Boring History: You may be irked, but you won't be bored!
Have you had a great or disappointing experience at a historic house museum? If you have rarely or never visited one, that's interesting too! Read on, then weigh in.
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The Fabulous Lunts, Darling!
You probably never heard of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. If you know who they are, sit next to me so we can be smug together. :) Just kidding: Lunt and Fontanne long ago ceased to be celebs in the US and UK, and they won't be on the test.
They were a married pair of actors. Maybe you've heard of Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, named in their honor. Fun Fact: Kiss Me Kate, the musical, was inspired by their performances (and behind the scenes antics) in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
Lunt and Fontanne pretty much invented modern acting: Talking conversationally, interrupting each other. They broke the old tradition of actors taking turns to speak and DECLAIMING like they were announcing names at a graduation ceremony.
And Lunt and Fontanne's fame crossed the pond: They performed nightly in the West End while bombs fell in wartime London. Actress Lynn Redgrave was named for Lynn Fontanne. Laurence Olivier, Britain’s greatest actor of the 20th century, credited Alfred Lunt with showing him how to act.
Indeed, The Lunts, as they were known together, were a thoroughly transatlantic couple in every way: She was from Essex, near London, while he was from Wisconsin.
Were they in movies? Not quite. They only ever made one: In 1931, they starred in The Guardsman, based on a play in which they had starred in New York. It wasn't that they weren't asked to do more film: With the arrival of sound movies in 1927, top stage actors like The Lunts had suddenly found themselves in great demand in Hollywood, and both were nominated for Oscars for The Guardsman.
But The Lunts had discovered that they hated movie-making: the stops and starts, the long waits, the lack of an audience, all made film acting a tedious process. When they were asked to make another film, they refused, explaining, “We can be bought, but we can’t be bored.”
So The Lunts returned to stage work, and every night, their performances were recorded only in the memories of their audiences, and otherwise vanished into thin air. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne last took to the stage more than sixty years ago, which means the only people still alive who saw them on stage are now elderly.
Almost all I can do to properly introduce The Lunts to you is to assure you that even if you have never heard of them, they were a very big deal.
That said, I can give you one tiny hint of their charm, through this entertaining five-minute clip from 1970, in which they were presented with Tony Awards for lifetime achievement.
Fun Facts: Yes, that is Julie Andrews introducing the presenters. The presenters, in turn, are another famous theatrical couple, Brits Maggie Smith and her then-husband Robert Stephens. On this occasion, they were either extremely jet-lagged after having just flown in from London, or else they had thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality suite beforehand. Ahem. I’ll let you be the judge.
The Lunts retired in 1960 to their estate in rural Genesee Depot, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In retirement, they were often visited by their theatrical friends from Britain and the US. Their hospitality was legendary, and it was considered quite an honor in theatrical circles to receive an invitation to The Lunts’ home. Broadway star Carol Channing said that Ten Chimneys felt more like home than her own did.
Alfred Lunt died in 1977, Lynn Fontanne in 1983. Ten Chimneys sat empty, frozen in time, until local people, led by a theatre professor, set out to preserve it, and open it to the public as a non-profit museum.
Recently, I visited Ten Chimneys in the company of He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets, HWSNBNOTI, aka Hoosen Benoti, and our cultured college-age offspring, Hoosen, Jr.
You know I pride myself on writing about a variety of subjects in British and American history here at Non-Boring House. So I really didn’t mean to feature another historic house in Wisconsin, and certainly not so soon after my less than enthusiastic review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, Taliesin. But the trip to Ten Chimneys had long been planned as a family outing.
The boys and I are all fans of London theatre. We have been excited to visit Ten Chimneys since 2019. That summer, not long after arriving in Wisconsin, I spotted the brown sign on the freeway while we were headed to Milwaukee. Ten Chimneys National Historic Monument, it said. It didn't ring any bells. Hoosen was driving, so I looked it up on my phone. Surely there wasn’t a Civil War battle up here? What on earth could this place be? I peered at Wikipedia.
“Oh, it’s The Lunts!” I exclaimed.
“What?” said Hoosen.
“Not what, who,” I said, and read Wikipedia at him. Like most people, I didn’t know much about the once celebrated but now long-dead couple. I certainly had no idea they lived in the countryside outside Milwaukee.
The more I read about Ten Chimneys, the more I wanted to visit. The ticket price (a whopping $35) was very steep, so it had to be good, right? A tour of a fabulous theatrical retreat! And for an extra $15 per person, we would be served champagne and canapes. Who can resist bubbly and posh snacks? Not me.
In 2019, Ten Chimneys was already closed for the season, so I put it at the top of my list of Fun Day Trips for when I returned from touring schools in the South that winter.
And then came COVID.
So we finally made it to Ten Chimneys a week ago, the three of us. COVID had canceled the champagne and canapes option, but we anticipated a fabulous show, all the same. You would think I would know better, having worked in a PR office in my youth, but I enthusiastically gobbled up the Ten Chimneys Foundation website. Ten Chimneys would be stuffed with stories, with the glorious presence of The Lunts. The architecture and decor and furnishings might indeed be fabulous, but they weren’t the stars. The stars would be The Lunts, returned to life through story. For $35, and with promises of fabulousness, this had to be lots of fun.
I think you can already tell it wouldn't work out like that. But I want you to know we went like lambs to the slaughter of our dreams.
We arrived early at the Ten Chimneys visitor center, so we had plenty of time to visit the Gift Shop before the tour. It was just as fabulous as it claimed to be on the web, with amazing hats and fun knick-knacks among the goodies on offer. I made a mental note to come back after the tour and treat myself generously.
We also had time to peruse the excellent introductory exhibition. That was fabulous too! Despite a tendency to textiness, it was very creative. Highlights from The Lunts’ stage career played out in cute animated miniature theatres on the wall: You push a button to start the action, and listen in on a handset.
We wondered around an enchanting exhibit designed as a theatre stage, complete with backstage area.
And the loos! Even the loos were fabulous!
We were already delighted we had come.
Now the docents arrived for our tour. A note to my British readers: Docents (pronounced doe- sent) are volunteer tour guides, and as in the UK, are usually retirees, and especially women.
One of our docents introduced herself as the “shadow", who would help us if we needed anything, but, it was kind of obvious, was really there to follow us, and make sure nobody tarried on the tour, or nicked the knickknacks.
The other docent would do the talking. As we gathered for her to give us an introduction before the arrival of the shuttle bus to the house, she regarded us all coolly. Her hauteur set off alarm bells in my head. I know that look.
Meanwhile, none of the staff or volunteers were masked, while all the visitors were masked, so it felt a bit awkward, as though we tourists had already failed some unexpected political test. On behalf of middle-class Brits everywhere, because we're basically a hive mind, I couldn't imagine Lynn Fontanne as an anti-masker. So this was unexpected.
We then all crammed onto a shuttle bus with zero social distancing. Given the flare-up of Delta variant, this and the masklessness didn’t exactly mesh with the web site’s claim that the Ten Chimneys Foundation is concerned with the “wellbeing of our Guests, Volunteers, and Staff”.
We had already paid more than a hundred bucks for the three of us and were on a shuttle bus, but bailing was still an option. I’m still not sure we made the right decision by going ahead, especially as, one by one, encouraged by the lemming effect, the other guests shed their masks, until only the Benotis remained, labeled by our faceware as cowardly liberal weirdoes (instead of, you know, well-meaning people just trying our best to do our bit for public health).
Our decision to stay on the tour once the masks came off became even more fraught when we were ushered into the house’s surprisingly tiny entry hall, and stood, crammed together, to listen to a long spiel. Even under the best circumstances, this would have felt claustrophobic. But perhaps the idea, as at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, was to impress us all the more with some large and opulent room upstairs, right? I no longer cared: I was nervously wondering when we could move on and stop breathing in everyone else's germs. Forgive me if I seem a little hypochondriac, but spending nearly 18 months in a pandemic after having read books about the history of pandemics can have that effect.
I can’t show you what we actually saw in the house, because interior photography is prohibited at Ten Chimneys. Our docent informed us that this was because “photography in old historic buildings is not allowed.” That’s not a general rule, by the by, and I have thousands of legit photos from some very grand mansions indeed to show it. However, it's their call, so, instead, I jotted notes on my phone to jog my memory later.
Now I wonder if they banned photos simply because they didn't want to give the game away: Ten Chimneys isn't fabulous at all.
Words of Wisdom from Hoosen, Jr.
Young Hoosen, Jr, has spent many hours of his young life visiting museums on both sides of the Atlantic, courtesy of his historian mother. He began visiting them while he was still in his pram. Now, as a college student, he visits museums wherever he goes, even if I'm not with him, so, parentally speaking, mission accomplished!
A few days before we visited Ten Chimneys, Hoosen Jr. observed in a discussion about our experience at Taliesin (and I wrote this down immediately to share with you) “Britain has much better museum culture. Here, you pay though the nose, are made to feel uncomfortable, and get talked down to.” His words proved prophetic. Or maybe not prophetic, but simply a spot-on observation. I just didn't imagine it would apply at Ten Chimneys, because I'm one of life's little optimists.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The Incident
Okay, I have to tell you, in the interests of transparency: Early on this tour, Something Happened.
To repeat, I was taking notes on my phone. When we walked into a large drawing room, about thirty minutes into the tour, I tried to put myself somewhere that was out of the way to jot things down about the previous rooms, and yet not so far from the docents that I might alarm them that I had evil designs on The Lunts’ stuff.
Like most Brits, I have a terror of being in other people's way. Excuse me and sorry are among the first words we learn, and we routinely apologize to people who have stepped on our feet, because obviously it was our fault for having been in the way.
Having satisfied myself, rightly or wrongly, that I wasn't in a place that was in the way, I started jotting down a few notes. Within seconds, a face got uncomfortably close to mine, and roared, “MOVE SO PEOPLE CAN GET BY YOU. CAN YOU MOVE PLEASE?” I turned round, and the whole room was staring at us, agog.
While the docent started her narrative, I rejoined Hoosen, and gave him the very slight eyebrow raise that means “OMG, what just happened?” Just then, the docent stopped speaking. “I’m sorry if I offended you,” she said loudly across the room.
Later, I did what I always do in such situations: I asked the boys if I could have handled it all better. They are great about telling me when I have misread a situation, or when I'm being oversensitive. But the two of them assured me her behavior was shocking, and said they wouldn’t have blamed me if I had exploded at her. In fact, I had remained calm but icy.
I have also wondered if she had assumed I was texting instead of listening, although that's still not a great excuse for tearing into a visitor. Less generously, I wonder if a short, plump middle-aged woman (for lo, that’s me) just doesn't look like a serious person, and is fair game for whatever you chuck at her, because, alas, that’s a thing.
This drama was definitely NOT the drama I had come to enjoy. And it was not fabulous.
As you see, I decided to write about it, but not as payback, I promise. Note that I’m doing my best to conceal her identity. Partly, I decided to write about it, because, well, it didn't help my perception of the entire experience, and it's only fair to tell you that although I promise that I tried very hard to remain objective about Ten Chimneys.
More importantly, I'm writing about it because I'm afraid that Hoosen, Jr. is correct: There is a problem with American museum culture. I’ll talk about that shortly. First, let’s have a look around Ten Chimneys.
I really don’t have a lot to say about Ten Chimneys. From the beginning of this two-hour (!) tour, what we saw was mainly a series of surprisingly similar cozy and cluttered sitting rooms in surfeits of pink and yellow. Almost every one of these rooms was drowning in chintz, floral fabric, including Lynn Fontanne’s homemade curtains. Every room boasted an assortment of underwhelming knick-knacks, mostly mass-produced figurines.
Even the wall murals in which the docent exulted, which had begun promisingly in the hallway with playful painted figures (standing in for Lunt and Fontanne) who promised food offerings for guests, soon lost their charm. They were pastel and pretty samey. This was not striking art. After hearing about The Lunts’ creativity in interior design, this wasn't living up to expectations at all.
Judging from the number of little tables, The Lunts, it seems, spent a lot of time sipping tea. Each room was set up for tea, dear, not cocktails, darling. The house was cozily domestic, not theatrical, and, it now became uncomfortably clear, not at all worth the absurdly high ticket price. Not fabulous.
The narrative didn't help. Mostly it was vaguely focused on the uninteresting decor and furnishings.
I would describe the interiors as Early Coloniawful/Edwardian Cherubic. But then I was feeling increasingly jaundiced. Ten Chimneys had cost us almost as much as a day at Blenheim Palace, and more than visiting Windsor Castle. You at least get your money's worth at both of those fabulous places.
And, by the way, Wisconsinites don't have to go as far as England for an opulent house tour that doesn't break the bank: the nearest historic house I know, Milwaukee's Pabst Mansion, currently charges a more reasonable $15, and that’s just off the top of my head. Wherever you are, I'm sure most of the historic houses near you are cheap, and some are even free. Unless we’re talking the Biltmore Estate or Hearst Castle, and Ten Chimneys simply isn't in their league.
That said, my favorite historic houses are often not in the least bit opulent: The Beatles Childhood Homes, for example, or the miners’ cottages at St. Fagans, Wales's fantastic (and free) national outdoor museum. That's because these ordinary places tell great stories.
Rather than tell great stories in Ten Chimneys, the guide made much of, say, the size of the small double beds, as if these were exotic and eccentric. In fact, they would look perfectly normal to Brits.
Our guide also made much of a question that was hardly riveting to anyone: Are there, in fact, ten chimneys at Ten Chimneys? Making this a theme might have made sense if children were allowed on the tour, because kids love this stuff, but under-twelves are banned.
Stories of theatre and theatricals that could and should have redeemed this entire experience were either absent or else told with a surprising lack of narrative panache. These stories also assumed a knowledge of, say, Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and Carol Channing that practically nobody under 70 is likely to have.
Between the three of us, we knew a bit: Hoosen knows a little about Channing, I know a lot about Olivier and a little about Coward, and Hoosen, Jr. (who's been an avid theatre fan since seeing The Merchant of Venice in London, age 7) knows Olivier as founder of the National Theatre, but otherwise was lost.
After the main house tour, Hoosen, Jr. came to walk next to me on the path to the outbuildings. “This is so incredibly mundane,” he muttered furiously. “It's two hours of my life I'll never get back.” It was hard to argue.
We hadn’t come to see the house, which is a rambling pile. Or the decor, which is, to put it kindly, faux English country house with a touch of damp, a tired and past-it retirement retreat. We had come to get a sense of the Lunts and their famous guests. We kind of did, but it was weak and anticlimactic. This was a story of a couple in life's twilight, enjoying puttering about at home.
Maybe there were no great house parties, as I had assumed. Maybe actors just came for R&R, to enjoy Alfred's cooking, to have meals served in bed at the times of their choosing, and to help Lynn needlepoint the chair cushions. Maybe Ten Chimneys was a place where they could get away from the pressure to be fabulous, be fussed over by their kindly hosts, and just be themselves: Ordinary. What was it Carol Channing said? Ten Chimneys felt more like home than her own did. That's a story, but not the one we had eagerly anticipated. If actors are as boring as the rest of us (and you would be surprised how many are) it would have been kind to warn us before charging $35.
The widespread rumors that Alfred and possibly Lynn were gay, and that theirs was a lavender marriage, a marriage of convenience, was not broached at Ten Chimneys, and I wimped out of asking about it. Whatever their sexuality, The Lunts unquestionably had a long and devoted marriage, and Fontanne said in an interview that their long retirement was the best part of their relationship. Domesticity is what mattered most to them. But still. If the rumors about their relationship were true, this might have been one of the most interesting things about them as people.
Perhaps part of the problem is that I see no evidence that The Lunts intended their home become a shrine, much less a tourist amusement. They willed the estate to a niece, not to a nonprofit, and it sat empty after Lynn Fontanne’s death in 1983, until the Foundation took it over in the 90s. I would take a guess that The Lunts would have been surprised and delighted by the creative museum in the visitor center, which focused on their joint career, and the annual actors’ workshop held in their names.
But it's not equally clear to me they would have been okay with having their home and possessions shown to tourists.
One problem with not knowing much about people we depict and interpret is that we tend to impose our own views on them, a problem that fascinates me as an academic historian. The docent at Ten Chimneys made much of Alfred Lunt’s generosity to local people, but very much wanted us to know that he only gave to the deserving poor, my phrase (it's a historian term). I have no idea about Lunt’s politics, but it was hard not to at least suspect that this anecdote was more reflective of the docent’s views than it was of Alfred Lunt’s. It's an easy trap to fall into, but hopefully one that the docent training program at least addresses, since volunteers work to their own scripts.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Museums?
Sorry, I couldn't resist this title. It was seeing Julie Andrews in that clip above…
When I started teaching classes in public history at Georgia Southern University, I attended a few state and national museum conferences. The subject of much discussion among museum professionals was What Do We Do About Docents?
The consensus? Docents are a nightmare. Much of the blame for that has been laid at the feet of Boomer Docents. You can read about that here, in an article from Nonprofit Quarterly.
I honestly don't think it's fair to single out Boomers. Thirty years ago, there were ghastly WWII-era docents. I knew one all too well in Sacramento in the early 80s, since her inexhaustible volunteerism led to her occasionally being in charge of teenage me. Irritatingly bossy, and lacking in genuine warmth, she was a legend of the wrong kind.
During a three month program at Colonial Williamsburg in the early 90s, I took a tour with what must have been the Last Docent at Colonial Williamsburg, before all were replaced with paid professionals, and this member of the Greatest Generation was gloriously snotty and ill-informed.
Now, I know that a docent is probably reading all this, and that you have smoke coming out of your ears.
Wait. I agree that there are good individual docents in the US. I don’t think every docent is bad, or that good docents don’t have bad days. But there's still undeniably a problem.
Are docents actually the problem, though? I'm inclined to think that the real problem is guided tours, and the difficulty of finding Americans who are well informed, and who also enjoy working with the public. There’s a certain snottiness attached to learning in the US, and I have theories about that I shan’t bore you with, at least not today. For now, I'm not convinced that there are wonderful paid guides by the hundreds or thousands standing by to replace weak docents at US museums.
Strangely, the situation is almost reversed in the UK. I haven't always had great experiences with paid staff at museums in London. But the volunteers I have met staffing museums throughout the UK have been delightful: Humble about what they know and yet typically very well informed (and willing to admit when they don’t know something), passionate, and well-read, they enjoy working with the public, and are respectful of scholarship. Yes, it is possible to generalize like this, because I simply cannot recall exceptions, although they're bound to exist. Volunteers are often highlights of my UK museum visits. Best of all? They're down to earth.
In the US, I cannot lie, that hasn’t often been my experience with volunteers, with all due respect to the wonderful exceptions (shout-out to the warm and welcoming costumed volunteer interpreters at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley, CA!)
So how else to account for the difference in the US? It seems clear that at least part of the problem is docent culture. Becoming a docent is not necessarily a selfless act. At certain US sites, becoming a docent brings social cachet to a volunteer that volunteering for England's National Trust does not: Too many docents assume the work as an affirmation of their social status in the community, or the social status to which they aspire.
That’s not a great frame of mind for serving the public, because it tends to cast visitors in the role of ungrateful minions.
Yet house museums in the US depend heavily on volunteers. Why, I wondered? At $35 a head, a very steep price by any standard, surely Ten Chimneys could pay its guides?
Turns out that, at least according to this article, the first house museum opened in the states was George Washington's Mount Vernon, preserved before the Civil War by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. They set the model and the tone.
Today, I learn, there are more historic house museums in the US than there are branches of McDonalds. Relying on ticket sales is not now, and never has been, a viable means of survival, and yet that's what many of them do. As the author of the article above notes, these museums have to compete not only with each other, but with many, many other things to do that honestly sound more interesting to the average member of the public.
Given all this, a high ticket price, like that at Ten Chimneys, might seem like a bad business move. But it may also be an inspired one: It implies a superior experience. In an age where we value what we pay for, it may make a site more attractive, not less.
The problem: If you visit a house museum despite the high price, and the experience is mediocre and disappointing, even rude, what possible incentive is there for you to return? Or, if this is your first-time experience, ever risk visiting another historic house? Thankfully, Ten Chimneys wasn’t my first historic house experience, to say the very least.
In case you’re wondering, I abandoned my plan to go a little crazy in the Ten Chimneys gift shop: That’s because I knew that, ever after, I could never look at anything lovely I bought there, and not think with dismay of the dismal tour, and the docent who loudly shamed me for getting in the way while taking notes for Non-Boring History.
I also had to let go of a thought I had had since learning of Ten Chimneys. I had idly considered that I might even volunteer myself, and help uphold the public memory of that long ago, mid-century era, when a house in rural Wisconsin was an unlikely social center for famous British and American stage actors. Needless to say, snowball's chance in hell of doing that now.
I do think Ten Chimneys could be redeemed by vastly improved storytelling, and attention to volunteer culture. Indeed, the paid staffer at the desk was perfectly pleasant. At museums, hospitality matters. That's why, when I organized immersive theatre programs set in the past for children in rural Georgia, I had my student volunteers read a Disney guide to hospitality. I emphasized that these kids were our guests.
People matter. Visitors matter. And Guides matter. They can make or break an experience.
When it comes to overpriced tours, to paraphrase The Lunts, I can be caught, but I won't be bored.
Do we need so many historic house museums? Or would we be better off just sticking with those that survive the COVID shakeout? Sadly, disruption doesn’t guarantee the best museums will win: The best-funded museums aren’t always the most hospitable, or the most interesting, and some of the smallest, humblest museums can be the best experiences: You may recall my recent account of the Evelyn Cameron Gallery in Montana.
In 2008, my study abroad students in London voted for a tiny museum called Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge as their favorite of all those we visited for our museum studies class. They gave surprisingly low marks to the British Museum, which has excellent visitor services, but is overwhelmingly vast and eclectic. At Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, which I have visited twice, I've enjoyed the warm and friendly volunteers, a brilliant, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic introduction from the director, and a terrific story that was easily digested. That's what I had hoped for at Ten Chimneys.
Most people who took the Ten Chimneys tour with us seemed happy. The boys and I have talked about that. I have come to realize over the years that bad, boring, and expensive museums often get good reviews. Part of it must be that people who seldom visit a house museum have nothing with which to compare it. But I suspect other factors are at play. People (a) assume that, if they don't like something everyone else seems to like, it somehow reflects poorly on them and their education and (b) having laid down significant cash and time for an Educational Experience, they don't want to admit, even to themselves, that it's not all that.
It’s the lemming effect again.
If you happen to be in the area, and are very interested in the Lunts, I very tentatively suggest visiting the Ten Chimneys visitor center. The website makes a to-do about reservations, so do call to make sure it's okay just to turn up to see the visitor center displays.
The loos (free) are fabulous, as is the gift shop. The creative and informative displays in the little museum currently cost $10 to see if you don't take a house tour, which is still too steep. What you can glimpse from reception is about a third of the displays, so you can decide whether you want to spend the money, or whether to hit the gift shop and run.
Obviously, I can’t recommend the house tour. But don't just take my word for it if you are otherwise inclined to go. Everyone brings a different perspective. A good guide having a good day can make all the difference.
Have you had a great or disappointing experience at a historic house museum? If you never visit them, why is that? Share your story, and let's talk!
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