The former home of Judge Edward A. Stevens has been the site for many social gatherings during the past century, but this past week, the party goers were actors, dancers and singers recreating the highlights of a local fashion icon’s lifetime.
“Nelly Don: The Musical” recounts the life of Nell Donnelly Reed, who found early success as a Kansas City designer and whose dress label, Nelly Don, became known across the nation as a leading manufacturer of stylish outfits for over 50 years.
Producer and director Terence O’Malley first relayed the story in a 90-page book and DVD documentary titled, “Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time,” in 2006. O’ Malley operates his own law firm, but due to a family connection has always been fascinated with the story of the woman he considers his great aunt.
“I am the great-great nephew, but it’s more like a great-nephew relationship because Nell is the aunt to my grandmother, but is less than three years older than my grandma,” O’Malley explained. “So Nell and my grandma grew up like sisters and my mother was a favored great niece of Nell’s, even though the relationship was more like an aunt and niece.”
Donnelly Reed passed away in 1991 at the age of 102. The musical covers the years of her life from 1899 when she was born in Parsons, Kan., to her second marriage to Senator James A. Reed, and concludes with a fashion show featuring recreated dresses offered by the Donnelly Garment Company from 1916 to 1978.
The musical debuted as a stage production in 2017, with 21 performances at Crown Center’s MTH Theater. O’Malley worked with Daniel Doss to create the music and lyrics, which will be modified to accommodate an entirely new cast than when performed live.
“Because of an all new cast, the voices will all be different,” O’Malley said. “Further, the music is recorded, as opposed to played live, which means that it is practically perfect in every musical way. The costumes are much more detailed because film allows changes of costumes, as opposed to theater where costume changes must be made quickly, thus limiting their number and their design. The choreography is all original and because we are shooting on location and before a green screen, it will be quite different from the play because those locations drive what the movement can and cannot be.”
During the four-day filming session, several scenes were filmed in the Stevens House, including the Grand Hall. Built in 1902, the Colonial Revival home at 3223 Gladstone Boulevard was listed on the National Historic Register in 2017. Jeff Zumsteg and Jeff Linville, known to friends and neighbors as “The Jeffs,” are the current homeowners.
“We listed the house with the Kansas City Film Office, where it caught Terence’s attention, as it was within the time period of the film,” Linville said. “He dropped by to introduce himself and tour the house. It offered bigger spaces to film a musical and period appropriate furnishings.”
“Most scenes required very little change to rooms. Rooms chosen were already decorated in period furnishings ranging from 1890-1930’s. So just a few modern paintings, family photos and electronics needed to be removed. The exception was the ballroom which is furnished as a family room with 21st century decor. The ballroom had to be transformed to become Nelly’s business/factory office. Crew ‘shopped’ the house for furniture and brought some pieces with them,” explained Linville.
As the crew prepared to film a scene last Friday, the cast and crew were relaxed, figuring out camera angles, moving furniture and props, and discussing how Nell Donnelly (Julie Pope) would perform as she moved from room to room wearing an authentic Nelly Don dress.
“It was an immersive experience with filming occurring throughout the house for four days,” Linville explained. “Your house becomes a movie set and you have to give up control. But it was fun to meet so many diverse people and gain insight into the movie making process. As for doing it again, I would think it would depend on the project and level of commitment involved.”
Every member of the production – actors, camera crew, makeup and wardrobe – is from the Kansas City area. Many are friends and family of O’Malley, with his brother John, a retired judge, donning a black robe to perform as the judge in the wedding scene.
Sunday evening, the Grand Hall was set to film the wedding and reception scene. Extras milled about, waiting for their turn at being fitted in costumes and appropriate makeup. Two seamstresses stitched and ironed costumes at a small table in the home’s kitchen, while other staff prepared a light dinner for the crew members. Among those dressed to represent the fashions of 1934 were homeowners Linville and Zumsteg.
Linville and Zumsteg were outfitted to portray wedding guests in the final scene, a 1930’s cocktail party reception that was filmed in the home’s Grand Hall. While certain scenes were being filmed, they hung out on their back porch.
“We had a lot of fun being extras but after multiple takes at every possible angle for several hours, I think my acting career lies on stage rather than on film!” quipped Linville.
The musical begins when Nell is 10 years old and showcases the highlights of her life; falling in love with her first husband Paul Donnelly, starting her garment business, a kidnapping for ransom, the “adoption” of her son, and affair with next-door neighbor Senator Reed – her eventual second husband.
“The story is about capturing her personality, her essence. She lived to be 102 and we’re trying to put her life into a 95-minute film,” O’Malley reflected while the next scene was set for filming.
Once filming is complete, O’Malley hopes that it will be shown in local theaters.
“Our focus is on production and not distribution,” O’Malley said. “I feel confident enough to say that local theaters like Screenland Armour and The Glenwood and other independent movie houses will show this film. We also will enter it into film festivals and make it available for downstreaming.”
The remaining scenes for the musical will be filmed by the end of October, then the editing will begin. Depending on the scheduling of upcoming film festivals, the film may not be released locally until early 2024.
For more information about Nell Donnelly Reed or to purchase the book or DVD, visit www.nellydon.com.