Oak Park native created the role of Laura in 'Glass Menagerie'

Donella Donaldson's delicate career

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Why you're not crippled, you just have a little defect — hardly noticeable, even! When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it — develop charm — and vivacity — and — charm!

Amanda to Laura, Scene 2, The Glass Menagerie

When Oak Park Festival Theatre begins its run of The Glass Menagerie at Madison Street Theatre, Oct. 6, Zoe Palko, the actress playing the famously fragile Laura Wingfield, will be following some pretty big — and local — footprints.

Julie Haydon, who originated the role of Laura when the play opened on Broadway in 1945, grew up in Oak Park and River Forest.

Born on June 10, 1910 at 314 Ontario, Donella Donaldson, as she was known then, was the daughter of the publisher and editor of the Oak Leaves, Orren Donaldson. They moved around some — 156 Forest in River Forest, later 818 N. Euclid in Oak Park — until 1916 when her father sold the paper to the MacArthur brothers (Alfred and Telfer). The family moved to Hollywood, where Donaldson started a paper called the Holly Leaves (reportedly stealing the Oak Leaves' masthead) and young Donella "acquired a full-blown passion for acting," according to a July 28, 1938 Oak Leaves article titled, "Julie Haydon is Again on Cover of a Magazine" (in this case, Scribner's).

"While she was working for RKO [Studio]," the article indicated, "David Selznick and several other people got together and changed her name to Julie Haydon (rhymes with maiden)." In her early career, reportedly, she provided Fay Wray's horrified screams during the original King Kong in 1933.

Her breakthrough role came, ironically, thanks to another MacArthur brother, Charles, Ben Hecht's writing partner on The Front Page and actress Helen Hayes' husband. MacArthur cast her opposite Noel Coward in the film version of the Hecht-MacArther play, The Scoundrel in 1935. Only later did Charles MacArthur learn that he had crossed paths with his lead actress when Charles worked for her father as an Oak Leaves reporter.

"The delicate and lovely Donella," unfortunately, did not catch on in Hollywood. According to the Oak Leaves, "soon she was lost in the shuffle — someone noticed her resemblance to Ann Harding and she was miscast into obscurity."

After landing the role of Mickey Rooney's older sister in the first Andy Hardy film (A Family Affair, 1937), she set her sights on the stage and was cast in the play Shadow and Substance. Prominent New York theater critic George Jean Nathan (whom Haydon eventually married in 1955) "thought she was a natural for the female lead — Brigid, ethereal, childlike made servant" (according to the 1938 Oak Leaves article).

On Nov. 14, 1940, the Oak Leaves covered her visit to River Forest, returning to "her birthplace for the first time in 23 years," for an appearance at the River Forest Drama Club. She was in Chicago, starring in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life at the Erlanger Theatre. In fact, she created the role of prostitute Kitty Duval.

"I remember well the house that we lived in River Forest and the trains that ran right through the backyard," she reportedly told the Drama Club members at the house of Mrs. Ralph Ullman, 918 Keystone. "But I can't remember the name of the street. I wish I could for I'd love to see our old home again." After her appearance, one of the members ("Mrs. Norman Clausonthue") who knew her parents, drove her to the house on Forest near Washington (the 200 block now, thanks to a new numbering system).

But Glass Menagerie was the high point of her career. After Nathan died in 1958, Haydon continued to act in early television and community theater. Her 1979 entry in The Film Encyclopedia noted that "she teaches drama at a Catholic school."

Julie Haydon died of abdominal cancer in La Crosse, Wis., on Dec. 24, 1994 at the age of 84.

(A couple of oddities: Her Wikipedia entry lists her as growing up in "Oak Grove, Illinois," and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) entry lists her original name as "Donatella." Neither is correct.)

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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Doug Deuchler from Oak Park  

Posted: October 5th, 2011 8:46 AM

There's always an "Oak Park angle" to every story. An additional one: You mentioned Chas. MacArthur, Ken. He was co-author with Ben Hecht on the great '20s newspaper comedy, "Front Page." Also married to actress Helen Hayes and one of Dorothy Parker's lovers. When he was a teenager he and his folks lived in Frank Lloyd Wright's home, right after Frank jumped ship and Kitty went into the Studio space to live. The Wright home was split up into apartments and the MacArthurs had one of them.

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