From Denison to Eternity, It’s Still a Wonderful Life
By Catherine Collison
This February, far away from the annual red carpet rolled out under the Academy Awards spotlight, when the only carpet is a white snowy one stretching down the Lincoln Highway, a marquee will be lit up on Broadway — in Denison, Iowa. Lights will shine on a stage first lit as the Germania Opera House in 1914 and since 1995 the anchor of the Donna Reed Theatre and Center for the Performing Arts.
While it’s no longer decorated as a billboard greeting visitors to Donna Reed’s hometown, the water tower that rises from the landscape along Highway 30 does carry a familiar motto — It’s a Wonderful Life. Denison’s younger generation and recent immigrants may be unfamiliar with the talented actress who graced the silver screen and television screens for more than three decades. They may have never seen the long-running Donna Reed Show or the Oscar statuette that distinguished her award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity. Still, what’s happened here in this western Iowa small town is right out of a Frank Capra movie.
Denison City Manager Kevin Flanagan refers to that touching scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, the one in which George and Mary Bailey (Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed) offer blessings and congratulations to an Italian immigrant family moving into their first home in Bailey Park, a brand-new residential development offering affordable starter homes. Flanagan sees a parallel in Denison, a place where Hispanic immigrants can find affordable housing, good schools, and a solid community. He expects more housing developments to be underway this spring. “It’s the American story here,” says Flanagan, who estimates a population close to 10,000 now, up 2,000 since the 2010 census. That growth has been led by Hispanic immigrants drawn to work in agricultural and meatpacking industries in Crawford County.
Denison isn’t the same town that Donna Belle Mullenger left by train in the 1930s, en route to pursue her dreams in Los Angeles. But it is, says Flanagan, a place where dreams can take root. In 2012 it’s neither Bedford Falls nor Potterville but instead a community where you can lunch on pork tenderloin at local icon Cronk’s on the Lincoln Highway or a cheese-topped burrito at El Jimador, one of the town’s popular Mexican restaurants; where you can treat yourself to a Chocolate Mint Marble Sundae at Reiney’s Soda Fountain or fresh-baked bread from Panaderia Pan de Vida, a new bakery in town.
And, if you’re in luck, there’s something showing at The Donna Reed.
Crawford County Chamber of Commerce executive director Don Luensmann is proud that Denison is blending cultures and generations in the city’s business district. He thinks Donna Reed would be proud, too. Her namesake theater doubles as a community center, not only screening films and presenting plays but also hosting events such as weddings, school concerts, even the crowning of a princess court during Cinco de Mayo festivities.
In 2012 it will likely again draw candidates on the presidential campaign trail. (Candidate Barack Obama held a town hall event there in 2007.) The theater may host a debate or two for state offices as well. The venue’s multifaceted role in the community is by design.
After Reed’s death in 1986, her family established the Donna Reed Foundation in Denison with the goal of helping young people pursue their dreams in the performing arts. A major part of that foundation’s initial work was an annual festival in June. Visitors enjoyed spotting celebrities (including former child stars from The Donna Reed Show), and young people and their families from across the country filled the town for a week of workshops and performances.
As costs grew, and the actors involved aged, the festival became challenging for the foundation and town to maintain. With a newly renovated historic opera house — once the movie theater where the young Donna Belle watched films — the foundation, with Reed’s children serving on the board, changed gears, shifting to year-round promotion of the arts. It still provides scholarships and training for young people, but funds now target Crawford County students specifically.
“Our mission is to educate and entertain,” says Tim Tracy, managing director of the foundation, underscoring the emphasis on education that highlights one of the famous actress’s passions. “Donna Reed was much more than an Iowa girl who made good.”
Tracy helped organize and cast a local live production of It’s a Wonderful Life in December, and he hopes it may spur more community theater productions.
Last October the theater had its own red carpet event to celebrate the retirement of the mortgage. The foundation’s American Icon series wraps up in February, and Tracy is already planning the next series. He also hopes to have an online film competition and a winners’ festival down the road. He’s proud of the alums of the Donna Reed workshops — a young actress was recently cast in Jersey Boys and another found a career in television weathercasting.
With its diverse events, the performing arts center crosses generations and cultures and is, points out city manager Flanagan, a significant legacy of a native daughter. “It’s less now about her being an icon and more about Donna Reed being an iconic influence in our community, maybe our region,” explains Flanagan. “[Her] influence is forwarding a spirit of what the arts can do in normal everyday life.”
The Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts contains the Donna Reed Theatre, the Donna Reed Museum, and Reiney’s Soda Fountain.
A visit to the theater’s museum is a must for film buffs, who will find letters, photos, movie posters, wardrobe, and more from the actress’s celebrated career. Reed’s Oscar still resides a few blocks away at the McHenry House, a museum displaying Crawford County memorabilia.
The Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts