Staging the Nelly Don Story



   The Nelly Don story is heading for a new platform: the musical stage.

   After the popularity of a documentary film and book celebrating the life of the pioneering Kansas City woman who created a fashion empire, the creator of those two works has a deal to turn the saga into a musical.

   Terence O’Malley plans to write “Nelly Don — The Musical” within the next two years based on agreements signed with Daniel Doss, a Kansas City native and music composition graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music. Doss just finished an 18-month gig as the associate conductor for the touring company of “The Adams Family.”

   The pageantry of fashion and the dramatic life of the home seamstress-turned-multimillionaire is ripe for such a venture, says O’Malley, a Kansas City-area lawyer.

   “It’s such a celebration of a successful woman in an era when women were rarely the CEO of a major corporation,” he says of Nelly Don, who was his great-great aunt.

   Butch Rigby, owner of Screenland Theatres, showed O’Malley’s documentary, “Nelly Don: A Stitch In Time,” from May 11 through Dec. 31, 2006 — the longest-running film in Kansas City that year.

   He predicts O’Malley’s plans will be successful.

   “If Terence O’Malley says they’re going to turn Nelly Don into a musical and it’s going to be entertaining and interesting, I have no doubt that it will be,” he says. “Terence himself is so musically talented that I have no doubt this is going to be a very interesting project.”

   Doss agrees, saying the musical will showcase not only the fashion icon but Kansas City.

   “Musicals are by nature supposed to be entertaining,” he says. “I can’t think of a more entertaining spectacle than an entire stage full of these beautiful Nelly Don fashions surrounded by the taste of the legendary Kansas City jazz music that we’re also known for. So there are elements there that can be combined to pay tribute to both her life and the rich cultural legacy of Kansas City itself.”

   O’Malley, who has produced two other documentary films about Kansas City historical figures, is also a gifted pianist in his own right. He says there was much discussion after the Nelly Don book and DVD were released about how to project the story to a national and international audience.

   “A lot of people had a lot of different ideas, but my wife, Heather, is actually the one who initially threw out the notion that maybe it could make a musical,” he says. “As soon as she said that, the bells started going off in my head and I thought, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’”

   Through a friend, he was put into contact with Doss. He says they plan to create a show that is light entertainment providing a couple of hours of escapism.

   “I was talking to Daniel and I said I really want the Nelly Don musical to be upbeat and a happy musical,” O’Malley says. “Obviously, we need to have some storyline tension in it and there’s plenty there, but at the end of the day, we want it to be fun, toe-tapping and maybe even borderline campy in some ways.”

   After the musical is written and scored, O’Malley and Doss plan to find a production partner who “wants to have the world premiere of Nelly Don staged at their theater,” O’Malley says.

   “Frankly, if done correctly, with all of the splendor of the fashion through the years, it really should provide a fantastic opportunity for choreography, for costuming, for featuring great voices,” he says. “The acting talent, the directorial talent, lighting, the whole thing — it should just have this wonderful pageantry to it and the music should also be reflective of Kansas City, because Kansas City does have its own distinctive brand.”

   Marla Day, senior curator of Kansas State University’s Historic Costume & Textile Museum and an apparel production instructor, says the museum has a permanent display of about 70 Nelly Don dresses that were acquired after the DVD and book came out.

   She says a possible collaboration could happen between KSU and O’Malley and Doss in terms of staged readings or some portion of the play production.

   “It was such a fascinating story, and Terence has been able to find so many details about Nell and her line,” Day says, adding that her students are often in awe at how well the garments were constructed.

   “He makes things happen. He’s has such success. I think he really enjoys all the research that he’s done and the lives and the stories of these people in Kansas City history. They’re fascinating.”

 

 Vintage Style Experience

   Want to take a look at a Nelly Don dress up close and personal? The Garment District Museum, 801 Broadway in downtown Kansas City, has about seven of them on display. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays or by appointment by calling curator Ann Brownfield at (913) 205-8520.

 

Nell's Story In Short

 

Highlights of Nelly Don’s remarkable life:

 

·         Born in 1889 in Parsons, Kan., the 12th of 13 children.

·         At 17, marries Paul Donnelly.

·         At 19, attends college, a rare event for women then.

·         In 1916, with her husband creates the Donnelly Garment Company. Assumes the persona of “Nelly Don” by inverting her husband’s last name.

·         From 1916 to 1956, the Donnelly Garment Company sells millions of stylish dresses by inviting customers to “just try one on.” It becomes the largest dress maker in the 20th century.

·         Innovative employment policies include highest wages in the industry, pension plan and scholarship funds.

·         In 1931, returns from a trip with an “adopted” son, later revealed to be her child by retired Sen. James A. Reed.

·         Later that year, survives a kidnapping from the driveway of her home, now the Kansas City Toy and Miniature Museum. She is soon rescued by Kansas City gangsters.

·         In 1932, divorces Donnelly, buying his interest in the company.

·         In 1933, 44-year-old Nelly marries the 72-year-old Reed, who formally adopts their son. The marriage lasted until Reed’s death in 1944.

·         In 1956 sells the company, 38 year after making her first million dollars.

·         In 1991, dies at age 102.