Sleuthing in the Donna Reed Archive
A column by Judy Miller
Donna Reed began earning the acting stripes that eventually won her an Oscar with a couple of important roles in two Denison High School productions. Back then, she was a teenager living in Denison and her name was still Donnabelle Mullenger. Letters to her pen pal Violet Coughenauer chronicle her earliest acting aspirations. On January 28, 1938, still a senior at DHS, Donna wrote to Violet, "Tonight we give the play, 'The Ghost Flies South,' and I can't tell you how scared I am. We've sold so many tickets.--It looks like we will have a full house. I get the whim-whams every time I think of it."
A few months later, the class play was "The Night of January 16th" in which Donna played the part of a defendant on trial for murder. The jury was randomly chosen from the audience, and fortunately for Donna's character, she was acquitted! This time Donna wrote to Violet, "It was the most successful play ever given by DHS and we took in over $100! That's pretty good for a town our size, and the tickets were only 15 and 25 cents."
By September of that year, the young DHS graduate set off for California. Donna climbed aboard the Union Pacific “Challenger”, a passenger train on UP’s Overland Route that linked Chicago to the west coast passing through Denison, on to Omaha, and then on to points along the way to California.
Donna’s plan was to attend Los Angeles City College. She would live with Aunt Myldred, a former Denison resident herself, who had moved to the greater Los Angeles area and by then was living in the suburb of South Gate.
Donna started school on September 19th, majoring in radio and drama. Like many young college students, she considered switching her major to a more practical field. Donna considered becoming an education major with the idea of being a chemistry teacher or possibly transferring to UCLA to study dietetics. The message to Violet shortly after beginning her college career was, "I don't know how long I shall stay here--two years perhaps, but I think I'll let fate take care."
She further reported, "The drama courses are excellent, the best in California; however, I don't expect to profit financially from dramatics, but I think it is marvelous training for any individual." Donna's midwestern naivete and Iowa humility apparently prevented her from recognizing her potential at this point or foreseeing the opportunities that would soon open the door to starring in more than 40 films and becoming one of the pioneers in early Television.
Want to know more about Donna Reed? Do you have a Denison-related story to share about Donna’s early life in Iowa? Contact the Donna Reed Foundation. We are looking for volunteers to help preserve Donna’s legacy. Call 263-3334 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.