In December of 2003, a 94-year old Frances Dee traveled from her home in New Mexico to a wintery Massachusetts. Her coming was the culminating event of a year-long exhibit titled Lost Theatres of Somerville,1 hosted by Somerville Museum. The exhibit explored the movie-going experience in the era of neighborhood picture palaces, and the importance of these theatres in communities as sources of entertainment and fellowship.
Curator David Guss organized a tribute to Frances Dee to be held at the Musuem and Tufts University. "We asked her in part," said Guss, "because I've always adored her and I was also in contact with Andrew Wentink, who has been writing her biography.2 He lent us materials for the show which selected her as an example of the 'movie star' culture that was such an important part of the movie-going experience the show was about."3
Frances was guest of honor at a reception given at the museum on the evening of December 11. She was regally gowned and seated on a throne against a display of photographs from her days in Hollywood. "The mayor and everyone else in town came to greet her and get her autograph," said Guss. "It was fabulous."4
The next event took place at Tufts University on December 12. The evening's program began with a documentary on Frances' film career. Taking its cue from her first scene in So Ends Our Night (1941), it was titled "Then...I Saw Her Face: A Tribute to Frances Dee". When asked about it, David Guss replied, "Andrew Wentink...put it together. It's a great survey of her film career. Very thorough and beautiful. It's never been shown or distributed nationally to the best of my knowledge."5
A screening of I Walked with a Zombie (1943) followed the documentary. Then, applause as Frances was led onto the stage for an interview with the audience. Her son Peter McCrea later said, "She was very candid and very funny, very funny...She would come up with these great zingers [in answer] to questions."6 For instance, a man in the audience pointed out two musicals in Frances' filmography (Playboy of Paris from 1930, and Patrick the Great from 1945), and asked if she had done any singing and dancing in the movies. "Heavens, no!" Frances replied. "I was not a dancer. I wasn't even an actress!"7
Her remarks contained wisdom as well as wit. When asked if she, after 57 years of being Mrs. Joel McCrea, had any marriage tips, Frances replied, "First, patience with yourself, then patience with your mate."8
The Somerville events would be Frances' last public appearances. Family members, as well as fans, came to honor her. Among them were her three sons, Jody, David and Peter, her daughters-in-law and one of her grandchildren. Said David Guss, "It was a very moving and powerful event."9
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1 Visit the Lost Theatres of Somerville web site to learn more about the exhibit.
2 The biography is as yet unpublished.
3 David Guss, e-mail to author, November 2, 2007.
5 David Guss, e-mail to author, November 5, 2007.
6 Peter McCrea to author, interview, October 26, 2005.
7 Transcript of the event, Frances Dee & The Golden Age of Hollywood.
9 David Guss, e-mail to author, November 2, 2007.
Photographs are courtesy of David Guss.
Advertisement flier is from author's collection, with thanks to Tom Battinelli.