RACINE — Only one actor has achieved the distinction of winning two of Hollywood’s most coveted honor, the Oscar, and two of Broadway’s most coveted honor, the Tony. And that actor, Fredric March, is from Racine.
Yet one has to look pretty hard in his hometown to find acknowledgement of an actor who had a career in movies and Broadway that last more than a half century.
All to be found relatively easily is a mention on a time line inside the Racine Heritage Museum, which in fairness did host an extended exhibit on the actor in 1996.
“And that’s surprising because Racine likes to acknowledge its history ordinarily,” said local film historian James Neibaur.
Other nearby cities acknowledge their entertainment giants. Waukegan, Ill., has a street, statue and school dedicated to legendary TV and radio comic Jack Benny. The city also has a park dedicated to science fiction author Ray Bradbury.
And noted Milwaukee historian John Gurda points out that Waukesha “lionizes” guitar virtuoso Les Paul with a highway dedicated to its native son and an extensive exhibit on Paul is in place at the Waukesha County Museum. In fact, Paul’s face is the first thing you see when you call up the museum’s website.
While no official memorial exists in Kenosha, there is a marker placed in the front yard of the house where iconic director and actor Orson Welles was born. (Apparently there once was a plaque for March at the home on College Avenue, where he grew up, said March biographer Deborah Peterson Bjelajac). Kenosha also is gearing up to celebrate the centennial this year of Welles’ birth, even though Welles left the city as a child and did not always speak fondly of Kenosha.
“Orson Welles hated Kenosha. He used to refer to it as a vast wasteland,” Neibaur said. “Frederic March always liked Racine. He always spoke very highly about having grown up here. He thought Racine was perfectly cool.
“So I don’t understand why we never really acknowledge or saluted the fact that we have one of the leading actors of all time from the golden age of Hollywood having been born here.”
In fairness, neither Gurda nor Mame McCully, executive director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, could think of any physical markers or memorials in Milwaukee for two of its major entertainers, like Liberace or Spencer Tracy, who was far more a cinematic giant than March, his co-star in the 1960 film “Inherit The Wind,” which is based on the Scopes monkey trial and also features March’s wife, Florence Eldridge.
Milwaukee does have the “bronze Fonz,” a statue dedicated to a fictional character from the 1970 TV show “Happy Days,” Gurda and McCully note.
“How people get recognized varies from place to place,” said Chris Paulson, executive director of the Racine Heritage Museum, said. “Somebody usually takes it up as a personal campaign. Usually it’s a labor of love for some volunteer out there.”
March is memorialized in two theaters in Wisconsin. The 168-seat Fredric March Play Circle Theater is located on the second floor of Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which March attended from 1916-20, just before he broke into show business.
More curious is the naming for March of the 500-seat theater at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. March was able to attend the 1971 dedication of that theater before his death in 1975 at the age of 77.
There is no plaque or marker at the Racine Theatre Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave. Doug Istenes, managing and artistic director, said March was long gone from Racine when the guild was founded in 1938 so he has no connections there.
The 1996 display at the Racine Heritage Museum was organized after the 1996 publication of Peterson Bjelajac’s biography “Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second.” Both of March’s Oscars were on display for the exhibit, which ran for seven months.
Paulson says with limited space in the museum, a permanent exhibit on March is not likely.
“He does appear every now and again in the story we tell,” Paulson said. “We only have so much space and there are more stories. He will probably come back.”