A new, locally filmed production, “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.
Many scenes from the 1 hour and 50 minute production were filmed in Historic Northeast last summer. The film will open at area theaters this weekend.
Executive 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 as Ellen Quilan 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 collaborated with lyricist Daniel Doss to create the music and lyrics for 20 original songs, which were modified to accommodate an entirely new cast for the film than when it was performed live.
During a four-day filming session in July 2022, several scenes were filmed in the Historic Edward 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 few changes to the rooms. Rooms chosen were already decorated in period furnishings ranging from 1890-1930’s.
“Just a few modern paintings, family photos and electronics needed to be removed,” Linville explained. “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. The crew “shopped” the house for furniture and brought some pieces with them.
“It was an immersive experience with filming occurring throughout the house for four days,” Linville said during last summer’s filming. “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.
Linville and Zumsteg were outfitted to portray wedding guests in the final scene filmed on location, a 1930’s cocktail party reception that was staged in the home’s Grand Hall. While prior 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,” Linville quipped.
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,” O’Malley said. “She lived to be 102 and we’re trying to put her life into a 95-minute film.
An attorney with The O’ Malley Law Firm of Overland Park, Kan., he is also an accomplished musician, performing regularly at Conroy’s Pub in Leawood.
Starring as Donnelly Reed is actress and singer Julie Pope, with Grace Taylor playing young Nell. Husband Paul Donelly is portrayed by T. Eric Morris and Senator Reed is played by Tim Alehius. In a nod to authenticity, scenes for the film were shot in locations throughout Kansas City and the surrounding area, including at the Reeds’ home at 5236 Cherry.
The Donnelly home at 5235 Oak is now home to the Toy and Miniature Museum, so the Stevens House here in Northeast was used for those scenes. The Donnelly Garment Co. also produced dresses at a factory at 3500 E. 17th St., near the former Sears store and warehouse on Truman Rd.
The film will open to public showings in a limited engagement on Friday, September 29. Local theaters showing the film are the B&B Theater at Union Station, Glenwood Arts, and Screenland Armour; check with those theaters for showtimes and ticket availability.
For more information about Nell Donnelly Reed or additional theater locations and showtimes, visit www.nellydon.com.