Nestled into the rolling landscape of the Kettle Moraine, Ten Chimneys was the home of American theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The pair lived and worked together for decades at the estate, which was later opened to the public.
Since 2003, exceptionally well-trained docents have lead visitors on two-hour tours through the house and grounds. Docents receive a minimum 14 weeks’ training before they “graduate.” Not only must they practice their timing, they must master an archive of information about the Lunts, the household furnishings, and the history of theater.
While it’s an intensive course, “it’s a very gratifying experience,” says volunteer manger Erika Laabs. “I think all of our volunteers feel they’re contributing to something really worthwhile, and they’re very passionate about being here. Once you come to Ten Chimneys, you really fall in love,” she adds.
The grand tour
“All the tours here are guided tours, and we’ve learned here at Ten Chimneys that it’s not just about the house — it’s about the stories,” says Ten Chimneys Foundation President and CEO Randy Bryant. “To just walk through the house, one would not really get a true understanding of what’s all there. Everything at Ten Chimneys is in the details,” he explains.
More than 250 people volunteer as preservationists, docents, and gardeners on the 3-acre estate. At 8,800 square feet and 14 rooms, the main house takes an hour alone to walk through. Tours also include the studio, a Swedish-style cottage where the Lunts rehearsed their lines, and the cottage, where the couple stayed while Alfred’s mother and sisters lived in the house.
“You can come to Ten Chimneys and escape into a world of masterful retreat, masterful elegance but also masterful comfort, and just be there and bathe in all that that offers. When you’re ready to leave, you have such a great feeling,” says Bryant.
Docent training begins in February for estate tours that run May through November. Many docents have professional backgrounds in sales, teaching or theater, but volunteers come from all walks of life. “Many of the docents know nothing about theater, but they have a love for history or the art of living — and that’s really what Ten Chimneys is all about,” Bryant explains.
John Kraft of Hartland, a docent at Ten Chimneys for the past 5 years, is a retired salesman who had never set foot on the property before he signed up. “I didn’t know anything about theater or really about the Lunts at all,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience,” he recalls.
Joan Niquette of Waukesha also become a docent 5 years ago after visiting Ten Chimneys with a friend. “I really loved the tour. I really wanted to go back to the house again, and I thought: This would be a perfect way,” she says.
As with all potential docents, Kraft and Niquette received a training manual, recommended outside reading, and weekly instruction. Laabs says it’s normal for volunteers to feel overwhelmed initially. “We present our docents with a wealth of information, and we want them to be well rounded and well-spoken when on tour. Many of our guests have different interests, and we want to be able to address them,” she says.
Niquette appreciated the in-depth training. “In order to be really good at being a docent — to give all this information to the guests — you really need that,” she says.
Throughout the program, docents also have access to an extensive library, archives, teachers and mentors. “No two tours are alike; the docents have an arsenal of information they can pull from,” says Bryant.
More than a museum
After 10 weeks in the classroom, docents move to the main house for four additional weeks of hands-on training. “I couldn’t wait until we got over to the estate that first time,” Niquette recalls.
Hand-painted murals, Delft china, and other valuable antiques reside side-by-side with the Lunts’ personal mementos: inscribed books, snapshots, gifts, and letters from friends such as Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin, and Noel Coward. No ropes corral visitors, who walk through rooms and experience the home as its owners did.
Once a student has a working knowledge of the estate, the next step is to become a so-called shadow. “You’re there with the docent: opening the doors, listening, making sure people don’t lean on the walls or furniture,” Bryant explains. Learning the flow, hearing guests’ questions and seeing how experienced docents politely manage the crowd are also part of the job.
Some people choose to remain a shadow indefinitely, and the schedule for both shadows and docents is very flexible. The Ten Chimneys Foundation is thankful for volunteers’ help, and docents reap their own rewards. For Kraft, being at Ten Chimneys has broadened his horizons about theater. For Niquette, “The best part is the enthusiasm you see as you go from room to room, and you realize visitors are really listening.”
Above all, the extensive docent training helps create an unforgettable, authentic experience for visitors. As Bryant explains, “Ten Chimneys is all about escapism, and having the stories allows you to escape into the era and lives of the Lunts.”
The Lunts: a love story
Young actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne met in New York City in 1917. In 1919, they appeared in their first play together, and, three years after that, they were married. “It was as though they were destined to meet. They both had this terrific love of the theater and this deep desire to always do the very best,” says Ten Chimneys docent Joan Niquette.
By the mid-1920s, they were the most popular, well respected, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Between 1928 and retirement in 1960, the husband-wife team appeared in more than 40 plays together.
Docent John Kraft explains that when Alfred died in 1977, the performer George Burns called Lynn at Ten Chimneys to console her. “He said, ‘When Gracie died, the best advice I ever got was to go sleep on her side of the bed.’ In the library was Alfred’s favorite chair, and Lynn adapted that, and it became her favorite chair."
Niquette adds, “When she was sitting in that chair, she said it was as if Alfred’s arms were around her.”
The couple is buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, and their tombstone reads: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were universally regarded as the greatest acting team in the history of the English speaking theatre. They were married for 55 years and were inseparable both on and off the stage.