is short, so make your reservations soon. This year’s Donna Reed Festival
is scheduled for June 12-19 in Denison, Iowa. Be there.
Donna grew up on a farm just outside of Denison. According to a festival
press kit, she milked cows, drove the tractor, sewed her own 4-H uniform,
and won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for a pan of biscuits.
Back then, her name was Donnabelle Mullenger.
After high school, she went to California to study drama and business
(she needed something to fall back on if the acting didn’t work out)
at Los Angeles City College. She entered some beauty contests, too,
and when she was named Campus Queen and got her picture in the newspapers,
her telephone started ringing. Donnabelle Mullenger signed a contract
with MGM and became Donna Reed.
Though she appeared in 42 movies and won an Academy Award for her
performance in From Here to Eternity, she may be best remembered
as Jimmy Stewart’s loving wife in the classic It’s a Wonderful
Life. The model-wife-and-mother role suited her so well that she
later played it for eight years on television’s The Donna Reed Show.
I once found a TV channel that was broadcasting a Seven-Day Donnathon
– a full week of nonstop Donna Reed Show reruns. It made for soothing
viewing. In a relentlessly wholesome, black-and-white world where
nothing really bad ever happened, Donna was a cheerful helpmate to
her husband, a wise counselor to her children, a consummate homemaker
who twirled into her spotless kitchen and emerged moments later, every
hair in place, bearing pot roasts and layer cakes. She was perfect.
No wonder they’re proud of her in Denison.
In addition to several educational workshops and an appearance by
Shelley Fabares, who was Donna’s TV daughter and is currently playing
a live-in girlfriend on the sitcom Coach ( a role of which I’m not
sure Donna would approve, but never mind), the festival offers a preservation
angle, too: Sponsors are raising funds to restore Denison’s Ritz Theater.
I’m really glad to hear that. They’re not just saving a building.
They’re preserving a means of escape.
I was growing up, I spent a lot of time at two theaters in Plainview,
Texas: the State and the Granada. The State was a small, plain
theater where we yelled and threw popcorn and scuffled in the aisles
during the westerns and comedies that filled the double-feature bill.
A Saturday afternoon at the State was an experience in moviegoing
as contact sport.
The Granada was different. Nowadays I’d call it a movie palace; back
then, I just knew it was a vast and wonderful place where yelling
was unthinkable. A ceiling studded with dim stars was suspended over
walls that simulated a castle, with Spanish shawls draped over fake
balconies and dripping fountains set into niches. (We learned to avoid
those fountains. If we sat too near them, the sound of the water sent
us on frequent trips to the restroom.) At the center of it all was
a screen of truly monumental dimensions, thundering with the exploits
of pirates, knights, Walt Disney characters, and atomic-mutant monsters
on a rampage.
I distinctly remember more than one afternoon when I thought, sitting
there in the plushly upholstered splendor of the Granada, “I wish
the whole world was like this.” A decade later, Donna Reed brought
that sentiment into our living rooms. She created, inhabited and exemplified
a world in which parents were strong and loving and relatively affluent,
adolescents were polite and well-adjusted, problems were relatively
minor and endings were always happy. Watching, we knew it was ludicrously
unreal, but we couldn’t help wishing the whole world could be like
That’s why I’m glad they’re memorializing Donna Reed by restoring
an old movie house. Escape is essential now and then, but it’s hard
to find it in a shoebox-sized theater with a name like Asphalt Gardens
Shopping Plaza Multiplex Cinema 17. We need to save lots of Palaces
and Rialtos and Majestics – and Granadas.
In fact, when the folks in Denison finish restoring their Ritz, I
wish they’d take on the Granada. I hear it’s been subdivided into
two smaller theaters. I’ll bet the fountains are dry, and I’m worried
that they’ve turned off the stars, too. Donna wouldn’t like that.
-- Historic Preservation News, June 1993
Having suffered a number of indignities in recent years, the Granada
closed its doors in 1997. The building still stands, a vacant but
imposing landmark on Plainview’s Broadway. Just down the street, the
smaller and less opulent Fair Theatre has been restored; it reopened
in 1999 as a venue for live performances and meetings. The kid-battered
State, on the other hand, long ago followed ten-cent popcorn and Saturday
afternoon double-feature westerns into oblivion. I’m not sure what
sort of building now occupies the site, though it occurs to me that
the presence of a foot-thick layer of discarded Milk Duds and bubble
gum might have rendered any redevelopment infeasible.
Meanwhile, the Donna Reed Festival is still doing boffo business in
Denison. The renovated Ritz reopened in 1995 and is now known as the
Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts. Information on the theater
and festival can be found at www.donnareed.org.
Speaking of Donna, a reader wrote to remind me that not all of her
screen roles were of the apple-pie-and-gingham-apron variety. In fact,
she won her Oscar for playing a prostitute in From Here to Eternity.
Snuggling up against her in one scene, boyfriend Montgomery Clift
says, “Gee, this is just like being married, isn’t it?”
Shooting him a Meaningful Look, Donna replies, “It’s better.”
Further evidence – if any were needed – that when it came to creating
a perfect world, nobody out-did Donna.
Published with Permission, Courtesy Dwight Young
Shoe Horses, Don't They? February
1 , 2005 Guest Column