Actor Spencer Tracy made a home in Freeport for part of his life. The upcoming annual Tracy Film Festival will honor his success.
Spencer Tracy was one of Hollywood’s major film stars during the “Golden Age of Cinema.” During his 37-year career on screen, Tracy appeared in 75 films, was nominated for an Academy Award nine times – a record he shares with Sir Lawrence Olivier – and won two Oscars.
Tracy’s parents, John Edward Tracy and Caroline “Carrie” Brown, were both born in Illinois, met in Freeport and were married there in 1894. They’re buried side by side in Calvary Cemetery near the entrance from Stephenson Road. Spencer was born in Milwaukee, Wis., but often visited his family in Freeport during his lifetime. To celebrate this Hollywood connection to Freeport, a Spencer Tracy Film Festival has been held each year since 2012 at the Lindo Theatre, 115 S. Chicago Ave., Freeport’s Classic Cinemas gem.
“The Tracy Film Festival was our attempt to keep the Classic Film Series folks interested during the summer months,” says Dr. Ed Finch, former executive director of the Stephenson County Historical Society. “It’s scheduled over one long weekend, Aug. 22-24, this year, with four shows in three days, and is planned to avoid conflicting with major movie releases or other events.”
The festival is co-sponsored by the Stephenson County Historical Society, and the Freeport/Stephenson County Convention & Visitors Bureau. A grant from Illinois Tourism helps fund advertising for the event. This year’s films include Man’s Castle (1933), Edison the Man (1940), Malaya (1949), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
“Last year, Tracy’s great grandson, Sean Tracy, who lives in California, attended the festival,” says Finch. “He’s a student at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., where Spencer started his acting career.”
According to Finch’s research, Tracy’s parents moved to LaSalle, Ill., shortly after their wedding, but were back in Freeport within a year.
“For a while, they lived with John’s parents at 437 S. Liberty Ave.,” says Finch, “but the Tracy house was too crowded, so they moved in with Carrie’s family at 255 W. Stephenson. The house is no longer there.”
Spencer’s older brother, Carroll, was born in Freeport in 1896, and by 1899 the family moved to Milwaukee, Wis. There, Spencer Tracy was born on April 5, 1900. He proved to be a difficult child and a poor student. In 1918, he enlisted in the Navy and went for training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, where he was discharged in 1919, after the end of World War I. He never went to sea.
In 1921, Tracy entered Ripon College in Wisconsin, intending to major in medicine. He joined the debate team and started acting in plays. His success on the stage led to enrollment in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1922; he graduated from the academy in 1923, the same year he met and married actress Louise Treadwell.
The couple had two children, son John, born in 1924, and daughter Louise, born in 1932. When John was 10 months old, they discovered he was deaf. According to biographer James Curtis, Tracy felt a lifelong sense of guilt over his son’s deafness. He later formed the Tracy Institute, with locations in California and Florida, to help parents of deaf children.
From 1923 to 1930, Tracy performed in several plays on and off Broadway, including some by George M. Cohan.
“Tracy’s father died in August of 1928,” says Finch. “Tracy came to Freeport for the funeral on Aug. 25, but was expected to open in a Cohan show in Chicago that night. He made it to the theater in time, only to find that Cohan had the marquee changed to list Spencer Tracy’s name above the title of the show – an indication that the actor was the ‘star.’ It was the first time Tracy saw his name up in lights.”
Tracy began his film career in 1930 in a film called Up the River, debuting with Humphrey Bogart and signing with Fox Studios. During his years with Fox, 1930-1935, Tracy drank heavily and gained a reputation as an alcoholic, a struggle which persisted throughout most of his life and one which he shared with his father.
After terminating his contract with Fox in 1935, Tracy went to work for MGM Studios. During the next 20 years, he appeared in almost 50 films, including Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938), for which he received back-to-back Oscars. In 1942, he starred in Woman of the Year with Katherine Hepburn, starting a collaboration which lasted through eight more films, and an off-screen relationship that persisted until his death in 1967. He never divorced his wife, Louise.
“Tracy’s mother died on Jan. 23, 1942, and Tracy attended the funeral in Freeport,” says Finch. “He and his entourage stayed in the Freeport Hotel, now the Hampton Inn. It was probably the last time he was in our city.”
In 1956, Tracy left the studio system to become an independent actor, starring in several films by director Stanley Kramer, including Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). His last film was Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Tracy died 17 days after completing his part in that film and was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
About Lindo Theatre’s Classic Film Series
The Classic Film Series at the Lindo began in 2011 with the showing of several films about the Vietnam War, as an adjunct to an exhibit of artwork by Vietnam War veterans at the Freeport Art Museum. The series is presented twice annually, in spring and late fall to avoid summer and holiday releases, and includes four films of a particular theme, genre, or director, and one “bonus” musical.
“The films are shown twice on one Wednesday of each month, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., because it’s not a heavy show day at the theater,” says Finch.
Each film is preceded by a brief introduction and ends with a Q & A session conducted by Finch and Alan Wenzel, retired film and speech communications instructor at Highland Community College. The college co-sponsors the series with the Stephenson County Historical Society.
“We pick a theme such as Westerns, Film Noir, or Hitchcock thrillers, then book the films based on availability and running times,” says Wenzel. “We try to avoid Fox films, since not all their archives are digitally preserved.”
“Next spring, we’ll collaborate with the ‘One Book – One Freeport’ program, in which Freeport residents will be encouraged to read and discuss Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, Jr.,” says Finch. “We’ll show the film October Sky, which is based on the book, and then follow it with a series of Cold War films.”
The fall 2014 series will feature films starring Sidney Poitier, including the musical Porgy and Bess, and will run from September through December. Titles will include The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, To Sir with Love, and In the Heat of the Night.
About Lindo Theatre
The original Lindo Theatre was built in 1922. It opened with one projector screen, seating for 1,200 in the auditorium, a vaudeville stage and a Bennet pipe organ to accompany silent films.
“The name was chosen from a contest of public nominations,” says general manager Jami Spelman. “It was a combination of Lincoln and Douglas, whose second debate was held just a couple of blocks from here, in 1858.”
In 1939, new owners renamed the venue The Freeport.That remained its name until it was purchased by Classic Cinemas of Downers Grove in 1984, which restored the original name. A major renovation that year divided the theater into three auditoriums and revealed beautiful plaster work and original terrazzo tile flooring in the lobby, all now restored.
Expansions in 1997 and 2007 brought it to its current configuration of nine screens, six with stadium seating, while preserving the art deco flavor of the original building. A replica of the original outdoor vertical sign was installed over the marquee in 2007, complete with neon lettering and 670 chasing lights. The historic flavor belies the fact that projection and sound equipment are state-of-the-art, including 4K digital projection, digital 3-D on three screens, and Datasat sound processors. “We can even receive films via satellite feed for projection,” says Spelman.
About Classic Cinemas
Classic Cinemas, a division of Tivoli Enterprises, is a family owned business, run by Willis and Shirley Johnson and their son, Chris. Begun in 1978 with the restoration of the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, today the business owns and operates 13 movie theatres in 12 communities in Northern Illinois, mostly in the Chicago suburbs.
Several of their acquisitions, like the Lindo, involved the restoration of older theatres, while retaining as much of the original architecture as possible, and equipping them with the most modern projection and sound equipment available. Because of their commitment to preserving the past while restoring older downtown buildings, the Johnsons’ efforts have often been called “engines of downtown redevelopment.”