“You are on the same path Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn walked.”
Becky, our guide, was leading us to the entrance of Ten Chimneys, the longtime home of mid-20th-century theater stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne near Genesee Depot, Wisconsin.
The house and several other buildings, filled with memorabilia and stories of the glittering array of Broadway and movie stars who regularly visited, was the first stop for my wife, Marcheta, and me on a four-day swing through southern Wisconsin.
As we drove through the rolling green hills past numerous neat, well-tended dairy farms with red barns, using the Madison suburb of Middleton as a hub, we discovered an intriguing combination of history, nature, art and European heritage, along with an eclectic mix of entertainment from dinner theater to acrobatic circus performers and equally acrobatic lumberjacks.
Between the mid-1920s and 1960, the Lunts were among the most critically acclaimed and highest-paid stage performers in the United States. And they mentored and were friends with a legion of famous performers.
“Everything I know about acting, I learned from Alfred Lunt,” said Olivier.
The 60-acre estate includes the 18-room main house, a five-room cottage and a Swedish-style log cabin studio, along with an L-shaped swimming pool and a pool house.
The buildings are filled with original furnishings, art and artifacts, and the guides regale visitors with stories of famous visitors.
After leaving Ten Chimneys, we attended a performance of “South Pacific” at the Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson. What began in 1964 as a pyramid-shaped restaurant with its namesake fireplace in the center has grown into one of the top motorcoach destinations in the Midwest.
Owned and operated by the third generation of the Klopcic family, the Fireside has a well-deserved reputation for quality food and entertainment and unsurpassed hospitality.
Groups are personally greeted at the door, often by a member of the Klopcic family, and led to the restaurant for a sit-down meal and then to the theater-in-the-round for a show. There are also several well-stocked gift shops, and groups are given cookies from the Fireside bakery when they depart.
Between Two Lakes
The heart of downtown Madison sits on a narrow isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, with the large granite state Capitol dominating the skyline.
The Capitol, which is marking its centennial this year, underwent an extensive and lengthy renovation and restoration between 1988 and 2002, and now proudly displays an ornate interior that includes 43 varieties of stone from around the world.
“We try to show six rooms, but this is a working office building,” said guide Ken Rosenberg.
To illustrate his point, members of the governor’s staff were filing into the Governor’s Conference Room for a meeting as we were looking at the ornate red and gold gilt ceiling.
Rosenberg also took us into the dome, the only granite dome in the United States, where you can stand in a small Plexiglas inset and look down into the rotunda.
Across State Street from the Capitol is the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, an impressive facility that traces the military history of Wisconsin since the Civil War.
Although it has a large collection of artifacts, many displayed in realistic dioramas, it is the museum’s emphasis on the human stories that makes it emotionally appealing.
There are more than 2,000 oral histories on touch-screen computers throughout the museum.
“We can have all these things [artifacts], but they don’t mean anything without the story,” said Jennifer Van Haaften, assistant director. “That is our mission: to tell the stories.”