Famous Wisconsin

Famous Wisconsin Film Stars • 2002
DENNIS MORGAN
by Kristin Gilpatrick

From early on, everyone who’d ever heard Stanley Morner sing knew he’d be a star.  His college newspaper even predicted that, “In years to come (we) will no doubt be proud to claim as one of (our) sons the famous Stanley Morner, world’s greatest tenor.”

Years later, they were proud to claim him as a famous alum, though never as the “world’s greatest tenor.”  Instead, the singer, whose “voice flowed as easily as water from a pitcher” according to a 1928 Waupaca newspaper review, became one of the biggest stars in American cinema of the 1940s.  Stanley Morner became Dennis Morgan.

Morgan was born Earl Stanley Morner [Stanley Earl Morner] in Prentice, Wisconsin, a town his great grandfather reportedly founded, on December 10, 1910 (or December 30, 1910 or even December 20, 1908, depending on the source) [the author of this site believes December 20, 1908].  His singing talent was recognized early in the Presbyterian Church choir where he often soloed, and voice lessons improved his range.

Though singing was his first love, Morner also enjoyed the stage and reportedly first appeared in a barn theater near the Jump River.  He attended high school in Marshfield and won the Wisconsin State High School Singing Contest at the University of Wisconsin’s Bascom Hall his senior year.  That same year, he fell in love with Lillian Vedder, a Marshfield High School junior.

Morner had thoughts of attending Lawrence University in Appleton before he fell for Vedder.  The beautiful and fun loving Vedder quickly persuaded him to join her at Carroll College in Waukesha instead.

After high school graduation in 1926, Morner began his freshman year at Carroll College thinking he would study business and keep his singing voice primed by participating in the schools men’s glee club, Ye Carroll Troubadours.

Morner also tried out for the school’s winter play, The Goose Hangs High, and was immediately case as Hugh Ingals.  He performed “two very well-sung solos” December 1-4, 1926, according to the college newspaper, the Carroll Echo.

Business school was quickly forgotten and Morner focused most of his efforts on singing and acting, under the tutelage of the college’s renowned drama teacher and director Ms. Rankin.  Though he hadn’t learned of her reputation for producing spectacular shows and stars (like Alfred Lunt) before he enrolled at Carroll, the teacher quickly impressed her new student.

“Ms. Rankin had tremendous flare.  She believed in good and sometimes unusual staging.  I remember that for that time and era, it was quite a set.  I can still see it.  She was also a stickler for enunciation.  She had a great deal to do with (my success) because she gave me the feeling that I had the ability” to succeed as an actor, Morner told Marquette University graduate student Marilyn William Linley in a 1969 interview for her thesis.

In addition to drama department recitals and Theta Alpha Phi (drama) fraternity plays, such as The Valiant in January of 1930, Morner appeared in all of Rankin’s college productions from 1926 to 1930, taking the lead in most of them.  He played Richard in Smiling Through in June 1927 and Oliver Winslow in The Youngest December 8-10, 1927.  Based on just these performances, the Carroll College Bulletin listed Morner as among those “who have made their names in Carroll’s roll of honor on the stage.”

Morner earned further acclaim as Viscount Charles Deeford in a June 1928 production of Disraeli and as Adam West in Wake Up, Jonathan! December 6-9, 1929.

He starred as King Eric VIII in the June 1929 production of The Queen’s Husband, a performance that earned him the praise of a Carroll Echo reviewer who said, “Stanley Morner again won the hearts of the audience by his brilliant, easy going manner of acting.”

While his performance was something to celebrate, the show proved to be the last that Rankin directed personally.  The legendary drama teacher had an accident while preparing the play and thus had to produce Carroll College plays from her home, using guest directors—including famous Wisconsin stage star, Alfred Lunt.  She died March 2, 1931, from an illness that resulted from the June 1929 commencement play accident.  Morner later donated $1,000 to her memorial fund.

It was under the direction of theater great Lunt that future movie great Morner performed his final role at Carroll College, playing Torvald Helmer in the June 1930 commencement production of A Doll’s House.

Morner’s performances were nearly always flawless, though he later admitted in a 1945 Warner Bros. news release that one of the most embarrassing moments of his career occurred during a Carroll College drama department performance of Romeo and Juliet at a local Waukesha school.  “I’ll never forget the night I was playing Romeo.  My tights split, and we had to do a quick sewing job in the wings (between scenes).  I rushed on stage with the needle and thread still dangling behind.”

While the 6-foot, 2-inch actor performed flawlessly by the audience’s standards, costars like his future wife Lillian—who earned college praise for her realistic Theta Pi Delta presentation of Peter Pan during a May 1930 drama department production—knew differently.  “He would not study his lines and often fluffed them, much to the discomfiture of the rest of the players,” she told the Milwaukee Journal in a 1948 interview.

Morner also was a member of a college singing quartet and the Ye Carroll Troubadours Glee Club for most of his college career.  The glee club toured the state, traveling by bus and staying in homes, colleges and even basements, from Sheboygan to Neenah and Green Bay to Madison.  Morner performed as the group’s first tenor in 1928 and as lead tenor in 1929 and 1930, when he also was the club’s manager.  Wisconsinites statewide soon learned of his musical talents.  A Waupaca newspaper noted after the club’s 1929 performance in town that when Morner sang the Irish ballad, “Kerry Dance,” he “sang with a clearness and feeling that is seldom found away from the operatic stage.”  One place the singers performed was at the Rotary Club in Baraboo, Wisconsin, according to the actor’s friend Don Philips—who later became an American Airlines pilot.  Philips played the piano as Morner sang.  In the middle of “The Garden of Tomorrow,” Philips got stage fright, quit playing and left.  “Stan didn’t even look at me, he just went right on singing,” he told writer Maxine Arnold in her 1947 Milwaukee magazine piece, “Badger Boy.”

The glee club ended its 1929 tour with a bit of campus mischief, according to the Carroll Echo.  After the club’s end-of-tour concert, “at an hour when all good college girls should have been soundly sleeping, the Glee Boys (including Morner) serenaded the (women’s) dormitory.”  Morner serenaded the Midwest in 1929 as well when he won the state radio singing contest and went on to perform at the district level in Chicago, placing in the Top 10 as a representative from Marshfield.  WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee carried the competition live on the air for all of Morner’s college classmates to hear.

His musical talents were so impressive that the radio station hired him his senior year to sing as their “prince of song” in a half hour musical program.

Performing wasn’t Morner’s only talent, however.  He was a star, 200-pound tackle on the college football team from 1926 to 1929 and played on two championship teams.  In December of 1983, Morner told Jason Methou of The New Perspective that the greatest victories he remembered from his football days were when Carroll College upset the then powerhouse Northwestern University.

His wife also recalled the times Morner played against Lawrence University and her old high school boyfriend, Olin Jesup.  “After a game, he’d rush into the dressing room and pile on street clothes as fast as he could so as to get back to where I was before Olin appeared,” recalled Lillian in a March 14, 1948 Milwaukee Journal article.

Somewhere between the football field and the stage, Morner also found the time to be president of his sophomore class from 1927 to 1928, a member of the national dramatic fraternity Theta Alpha Phi, a member of Beta Pi Epsilon fraternity, and an Inter-fraternity Council representative his senior year.  Meanwhile, his wife and high school sweetheart Lillian was vice president of the Student House Government Association, according to the college’s Hinakaga yearbooks.

When he wasn’t performing, Morner was working in Waukesha, either dishing up ice cream at Mike Zoler’s Sweet Shop on South Street or washing dishes at Goff’s Restaurant at 800 Clinton Street, or stopping there with Lillian after plays for milk toast.  Every time he returned to Milwaukee, Morgan is reported to have stopped in to see his old bosses, who were more like his Waukesha family.  He is also known to have kept in touch with old college friends like Fred Zickerick, Les Smith, Lee Larson and Joe Adams.

According to the 1948 Milwaukee Journal article, Zoler remembered Morner for his big heart and big appetite.  “That boy!  He works 50 cents worth and eats $3 worth!”

“We used to like to have Stan around.  While he never put in any extra hours, he’d come over to the house.  Mr. Goff would get his cello out and my daughter Betty and Stan would sing duets,” Mrs. Goff added in the 1945 publicity release.

Still, Morner was living on a shoestring and his piano teacher and other friends were often known to gladly give the singer a few dollars now and then so he could take his girlfriend out on a proper date.

One time, the couple had gotten permission to keep Lillian out past the women’s curfew for such a proper date to see The Beggar’s Opera in Milwaukee.  “But we skipped off and took in a movie.  Someone talked and, as a punishment, I had to give a complete report of the opera before all the girls at a special meeting called by Dean Perkins,” Lillian told the Milwaukee Journal in 1948.

Stanley Morner graduated from Carroll College in 1930 with a certificate in literary interpretation and worked at WTMJ while he waited for Lillian to graduate in 1931 and join him.  While Morner continued to perform on WTMJ, Lillian taught school for a few years in Shawano, Wisconsin, until the couple married on September 5, 1933.

While working for WTMJ, Morner often bumped into radio actor and future Hollywood and stage star Dave Willock, a University of Wisconsin alum.  One of Willock’s good friends was Jack Carson—a future movie star then selling insurance in Milwaukee.  Willock introduced Carson to Morner at a restaurant near the radio station.  The two new friends got together “often to discuss their futures with mugs of root beer and shooting the pinball machines,” noted writer Maxine Arnold in a 1947 Milwaukee magazine story, “Badger Boy.”  Carson and Willock soon formed a popular vaudeville act while Morner moved to Chicago with his new bride and into national radio, and eventually, Hollywood.

Morner’s work on WTMJ caught national ears in the early 1930s, and he was signed to do a coast-to-coast program with the “Silken Strings” of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Meanwhile, he continued to improve his voice at the Chicago Music College.

In 1935, Morner was a Ted Weems Orchestra vocalist at Chicago’s Palmer House, sang the lead in the Xerxes opera at the University of Chicago and gave concerts at the Bohemian Club.  When opera star Mary Garden heard his singing in Xerxes, she asked the Wisconsin performer to star with her in Carmen.  When production plans fell through, Garden got Morner into a screen test for MGM Studios instead.

That same year, Morner returned to his alma mater to sing “Ich Hatte Viel Bekummernis” in the School of Music’s Bach Music Festival May 27, 1935, and to sing several numbers in a college recital that June.

Using Stanley Morner, or a new variation of his name, Richard Stanley, the actor signed an MGM contract in 1936 [actually, he was Stanley Morner at MGM and Richard Stanley later at Paramount], and spent his first year in Hollywood playing bit parts in such movies as Suzy (1936), Navy Blue and Gold (1937), and King of Alcatraz (1938).  His first credited role was in 1936 in I Conquer the Sea, which reportedly took just eight days to make.  His biggest early role was as a soloist in MGM’s famous musical, The Great Ziegfeld (1936).  However, the role was also one of the singer’s most frustrating since the studio used Allan Jones’ voice as Morner’s.

Morner subsequently broke the contract and joined the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company where he sang in The Student Prince.  That performance led to an offer from Paramount Studios in 1938.

In 1939, Morner returned to Chicago to make a record-breaking appearance in the Palmer House’s Empire Room during the World’s Fair.  He then went to Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater where he was reportedly singing when he got an offer from Warner Bros. Studio to take a screen test for a new film, The Desert Song.

He took the offer and changed his name to Dennis Morgan.  Although The Desert Song wasn’t made for two more years [four years—1943], Warner Bros. kept their new star busy.  In all, he performed in forty films for the studio.  His Warner Bros. career began with B movie leads in films such as 1939’s Waterfront and 1940’s River’s End and A movie supporting roles in such films as 1941’s Affectionately Yours.

Morgan proved his star potential by playing the love interest of Ginger Rogers, who won an Academy Award for her role in RKO’s 1941 [1940] hit Kitty Foyle.  Rogers once said that of all the hundreds of stars she had danced with, only a handful rated in her top 10; Morgan was among them, along with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire.  In Morgan’s 1994 obituary in the Milwaukee Journal, Rogers, with whom he also starred in 1950’s Perfect Strangers, was quoted saying, “Just because a person dances well on the stage doesn’t automatically mean he is delightful on the dance floor.  Morgan was delightful.”  Warner Bros. liked what they saw, too.  The studio moved Morgan up to star status, beginning with the delayed The Desert Song in 1943, where the college tenor and one-time opera star was finally getting major, un-dubbed singing roles.

By the mid-1940s, Morgan had become the highest paid actor in Hollywood.  He starred in such movies as The Hard Way and Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Shine On, Harvest Moon and The Very Thought of You (1944), Christmas in Connecticut and God is My Co-Pilot (1945), One More Tomorrow (1946), and Cheyenne (1947).

Most fans believed Morgan was an Irishman.  Though he sang many Irish tunes, could carry the accent well, and played an Irishman in such films as Three Cheers for the Irish [a Scottish police officer] (1940) and My Wild Irish Rose (1947)—which also featured his then 8-yeard-old daughter Kristin—Morgan and his clan never hailed from the Emerald Isle.  The closest his lineage came, in fact, was Scotland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

More than with any leading lady, Morgan was most often paired with his old Milwaukee friend Jack Carson, who provided the comedic sidekick to Morgan’s romantic lead.  The two starred together in The Hard Way in 1942 [1943], One More Tomorrow in 1946, and The Time, the Place and the Girl (1947) [1946].  They also toured military bases and hospitals off screen during World War II and spent a lot of free time enjoying each other’s company and families at Morgan’s 500-acre California ranch in Ahwahnee.

By this time, Warner Bros. was bent on making the pair a more permanent act in the hope that the friends would rival Paramount’s popular Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road-trip films.  Though they never reached Hope-Crosby status, Morgan and Carson did put their home state on the Hollywood map with the 1947 [1946] movie Two Guys from Milwaukee.  The movie is actually set in New York with Morgan playing a European prince disguising himself as a man from Milwaukee to find out how the average American lives.  He meets and befriends New York cab driver and actual Milwaukee native Buzz Williams, played by Carson.  The friendship is tested when the prince falls in love with the cabbie’s Brooklyn girlfriend Connie, played by Joan Leslie.

The exciting part of this film for most Wisconsinites was not its plot, nor the title.  It’s that the movie premiered in Milwaukee, with the two Wisconsin natives returning home for the gala, staged as one of the many events during Milwaukee’s Centurama centennial celebration in 1946.

In a November 3, 1995 article “Premieres Here Nothing New,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Jackie Loohauis relates that: “The pair made a glamorous, comic entrance into our city by water in a tiny white rowboat, that was ‘rescued’ by the Coast Guard and finally escorted to a landing while sirens wailed, yachts gave an honor guard and a fire boat hosed streams of water in the air.  Fifteen thousand citizens watched the spectacle (after which) police escorted Carson and Morgan through a crowd of fans estimated at 100,000 (to the Warner Theater).”

Two years later, the team produced Two Guys from Texas (1948) to less fanfare.  Then, in 1949, the friends costarred in a unique movie, It’s a Great Feeling, a comedy in which each actor played himself: Carson as an actor/director trying to recruit a cast for a movie and Morgan as the star he’s trying to win for the lead.

In between, Morgan continued to star and costar in movies through the 1940s, including One Sunday Afternoon in 1948.

As Hollywood moved toward westerns in the 1950s, Morgan moved away from movies.  He did make a few cowboy films in the early 1950s, such as Cattle Town (1952), The Nebraskan (1953) [Morgan wasn’t in this film], The Gun That Won the West (1955) and Uranium Boom (1956).  And, Morgan tried his talents on the small screen too, starring in the 1959 television series 21 Beacon Street.

Essentially the film star was retired, devoting himself even more to his wife Lillian and their three children, Stan, Kristin, and Jim, and living off the substantial earnings he’d wisely invested from his movie career.  Morgan was often seen singing in his church’s choir or sitting in the bleachers at La Canada public schools, cheering on his children.

Morgan said he loved the role of father and husband the best, though he struggled to maintain a normal life for his Hollywood family.  “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a success in Hollywood and still be the ordinary husband and father,” he often lamented.

He lived modestly and spoiled himself only with the luxury of a summer home in the state he loved most—Wisconsin.

In his 1994 Milwaukee Journal obituary, his nephew David Foster said his uncle “went to Wisconsin every chance he got.  He was always a very practical fellow, a good Midwesterner.  He didn’t buy a new car every year, even at the peak of his career.  He always had enough wood for his fires.”

Morgan and Lillian returned to their Lac du Flambeau home for six weeks or more every year to hunt and fish.  Though Lillian often dressed in flannel and accompanied her husband into the woods and duck blinds, it was his old childhood and college friends who most often traveled along on Morgan’s outdoor adventures.

“Dennis makes a swell Boy Scout when he goes along on fishing trips.  He does all the dirty work, gets up early, makes the fires and you’ve never eaten such fish as he can cook,” said Morgan’s old singing teacher, Mario Silva, to writer Maxine Arnold for her mid-1940s Milwaukee magazine “Badger Boy” story.

Silva’s student could still carry a beautiful tune, too.  As often as Morgan returned to Wisconsin for recreation, he returned to perform for old friends and/or help his alma mater or hometowns raise money.

Morgan was the featured sing in a patriotic concert at Milwaukee’s Washington Park in 941 for the national American Legion convention and set the Washington Park attendance record at 40,000 when he starred in a 1945 Music Under the Stars production.

The actor returned to the Badger State during World War II to help sell war bonds, attending a 1942 Carroll College rally that raised $181,000 worth of bonds and singing at the Rex Theater, where he used to watch westerns as a boy, for a war stamp fundraising performance.  Morgan also returned to help his alma mater where fundraising was concerned, visiting in 1948 to boost a building fund campaign.

The actor was so dedicated to Carroll College that he served as the alumni association’s president from 1961 to 1962 and gave the 1963 commencement speech, saying “Carroll is our own.  We alumni must never let her down.”  They were words Morgan lived as well as spoke.  Morgan had his Carroll College pictures and diplomas displayed prominently in his California home.  And, over the years, the actor donated and raised money for the college and returned to his alma mater for many special occasions.

In 1946, Morgan attended the college’s centennial celebration where he was presented with an honorary doctorate degree in fine arts and serenaded homecoming queen Cora Sue Pepin at halftime of the football game.

That same year, Morgan suited up to play on the alumni basketball team, reassuring the crowd that it was good he chose acting and not basketball as a profession.  According to a 1986 Waukesha Freeman article, the actor was “far from the star of the game.  The team couldn’t let the man play without scoring one point, so they trucked out a stepladder, which he climbed to sink his shot.  At that, he almost missed.”

Morgan returned for homecoming in 1961 where he crowned the queen, visited his old Beta Pi Epsilon fraternity house and attended his wife’s 30th class reunion.

In 1963, the singing actor returned with fellow Wisconsinite and film star Pat O’Brien to perform Show Boat in Madison and Milwaukee.  Pat O’Brien played Capt. Andy, his wife Eloise O’Brien played Parthy Ann Hawks, and Dennis Morgan played Gaylord Ravenal.

During the show’s performance in Madison, the two stars reportedly took turns presenting the news and sports on Madison TV station WKOW, according to retired University of Wisconsin journalism professor Blake Kellogg, who was working for the station at the time.  The TV man also recalled seeing the stars drinking on State Street after their performance and watched a tipsy O’Brien slide into a phone booth to call a friend in northern Wisconsin.

Morgan came back to Milwaukee in 1967 to help the radio station that gave him his start celebrate its 40th anniversary and to host the Music Under the Stars program again.

In 1974, the actor took some skilled swings in the Vince Lombardi Memorial Golf Classic at North Hills Country Club and then attended a private party thrown by William Pabst at the Oconomowoc Lake Club.  Morgan’s college roommate, Gerald Sivage, president of Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago, also attended.  And, the Milwaukee Journal reported July 1, 1974, the talented tenor “joined the band for a round of Irish tunes and guests stopped dancing to join in.”

In between special appearances, the actor spent his time raising money for worthy causes, especially the American Cancer Society.

“My best Hollywood pals were killed by cancer, including Jack Carson, my Wisconsin buddy… It was Jack’s death (in 1963) that helped me get involved so much with the ACS,” he told the Milwaukee Journal July 23, 1978.

In fact, fundraising and old friends were the only things that pulled the one-time Hollywood star back onto the screen of any size.  “I don’t go on talk shows very much because I don’t have anything to sell.  Except now and then, when the cancer people say it will help,” he told the Journal.

In 1980, his friend Jane Wyman convinced Morgan to appear in an episode of The Love Boat with her, and he was talked into appearing as a tour guide in the flop Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), his last movie.

Morgan never slowed down, however.  He enjoyed his 500-acre ranch in the Hollywood hills and his Wisconsin summer home into the 1990s.

In January of 1983, he and Lillian were seriously injured when their station wagon “plunged down a ravine and caught fire near Tracy, California,” The Associated Press reported.  Lillian was partially crippled in the accident and the actor suffered head and chest injuries, reportedly losing sight in one eye.

The injuries didn’t stop the couple, then married fifty years, from returning to their home state later that year to watch Morgan and his friend Jack Carson be the first inductees into the Wisconsin Performing Artists Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.  (Carson was inducted posthumously.)  While in town, Morgan also accepted a Distinguished Alum Award from Carroll College.  Wisconsin’s star singer died of respiratory failure ten years later on September 7, 1994, in Fresno, California, two days after his 61st wedding anniversary.

In his later years, Morgan had guest-starred in University of Wisconsin-Marshfield and Wood County Players summer productions such as The Pleasure of his Company and Paint Your Wagon.  He reportedly worked only for his expenses and used his presence to help add thousands of dollars to the troupe’s scholarship fund.

Morgan especially enjoyed his northern Wisconsin performances, he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1978.  “Working with the players is fun to do and it isn’t really a star situation… Let me tell you, there are fine people in that group.”  Some of the players were so talented that the star had to wonder why he made it big and they didn’t.

“Don’t let anybody ever tell you this business isn’t a matter of luck,” he added.  “Why it hit for me and not for others, I’ll never know.”

Famous Wisconsin Film Stars: http://www.badgerbooks.com/

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