A Story of the American Dream, Female Empowerment, Kansas City Mobsters and… Pink Gingham, with Ruffles
Nell Donnelly Reed is going from the history books to center stage with the world premiere production of “Nelly Don: The Musical” at MTH Theater in March.
It’s a tale that digs into a significant figure in Kansas City’s past: a story of the American dream, female empowerment, Kansas City mobsters and . . . pink gingham, with ruffles.
Her story is “a great American business success story and I think what distinguishes it is that it surrounds beauty,” said Terence O’Malley, Nell’s great nephew and biographer, and author of the musical’s book.
From 1916 to 1978, the Donnelly Garment Company made dresses that were not only practical, but also looked good. In the first half of the 20th century, this Kansas City-based company was the largest dress manufacturer worldwide, selling approximately one dress every 15 seconds.
But Nell’s story is not your average rags-to-riches narrative (not that Nell ever wore rags). Her tale has “a bizarre dark side to it,” O’Malley said: heartbreak, subterfuge, an affair, kidnapping.
To turn this idea into a musical, O’Malley got in touch with local composer and music director Daniel Doss. “When most people look back, who know of Nell Donnelly Reed, the focus is put on the vibrant and colorful dresses,” said Doss, “but our musical takes a look at the bigger picture of her story. There’s an even more colorful palette in regard to her relationships, the love and compassion she had to give, and her achieved aspirations.”
O’Malley didn’t intend to become Reed’s biographer. He’s an attorney and spent his early career as a journalist and filmmaker, but growing up he was just part of family, Nell’s youngest great-nephew. His grandfather ran the company’s production plant for more than 30 years. “Within the family, she was like royalty . . . everybody loved her and she was highly regarded,” said O’Malley.
Nell died in 1991, at the age of 102, outliving her siblings, her husbands and many of her contemporaries. “I knew it was a great story and I knew it was a story that was slowly but surely being forgotten over time,” said O’Malley. As kids, he and his cousins would flip through scrapbooks of newspaper clippings detailing Nell’s life and business, including her 1931 kidnapping, which horrified and thrilled them.
With the blessing of David Reed, Nell’s son, O’Malley made the documentary “Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time” and wrote the accompanying book in 2006. He even renewed the Nelly Don trademark.
This isn’t the first time Nell’s life was dramatized. In 1950, NBC broadcast a radio play based on her story: “The Golden Needle: The Story of Nelly Don,” though it skims over some of the more controversial topics.
O’Malley’s film ran in performance for more than six months at the Tivoli Theatre and revealed many facets of Nell’s story. Throughout the next decade, filmmakers approached O’Malley to turn her story into a feature film, but he declined. A story of this caliber needs large financial backing, and significant financial backing would mean giving up creative control of Nell’s narrative.
Nell grew up in Parsons, Kansas, the 12th child of Irish immigrants. She moved to Kansas City when she was 16, and met and married Paul Donnelly at 17, but on the condition she could attend college, an unheard-of opportunity for a woman in the early 1900s.
As a young housewife, she was dissatisfied with her options for day-to-day wear and designed her own, as well as making garments as gifts for her family and friends. She sold her first dress in 1916 and before Paul left for World War I he set her up with a loan, two sewing machines and a line of credit. By the time Paul returned in 1919, the business was debt-free and growing.
Just as Nell had seen a need in her own life, she and the company provided for women all over the world, designing and manufacturing stylish, affordable clothes for all shapes, sizes and occasions for the next six decades. She was also socially minded, providing life insurance, on-site medical care and scholarships for her employees.
But her relationship with Paul soured and Nell became pregnant by her married neighbor, the politician James A. Reed. Under the guise of a trip to Europe, she traveled to Chicago, where she gave birth to David in 1931. To avoid social scrutiny, she legally adopted him, and when she returned to Kansas City presented him as an adopted child.
A few months later she was kidnapped, along with her chauffeur George Blair. Reed orchestrated their safe return, with the help of the mob.
A year later she divorced Paul and the following year married James.
Talk About Intrigue!
Even though Doss is a Kansas City native, he didn’t know about the legacy of Nelly Don. As he learned more, though, he realized her significance. “It’s a story that’s not really well known, but Kansas City is full of clues that put the story line together.”
For instance, the company’s first factory was in the Coca-Cola building, now known as the Western Auto Building. For a time, the Donnellys lived in a Crestwood mansion, now the home of the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. From 1927 to 1948, the company occupied the Corrigan Building at 18th and Walnut, which now houses office space and the Corvino Supper Club, with live music every night. Near the end of her life, Nell lived in The Walnuts, luxury apartments south of the Country Club Plaza.
When Doss started working on the musical, he focused on the colors and the fashions, but as he dug into the character of Nell and the range of decades in telling her story, his perspective shifted.
“I see Nell as a bright light shining in a dark world,” Doss said. “My goal is to compose a sound for her and her story that is constantly striving to find joy in every circumstance.”
Doss had already written two musicals when O’Malley approached him about this project, though his primary compositional focus was in film scoring. Instead of reviving the music from each era of Nell’s life, he focuses on the emotions of each moment to weave a throughline, though he does pay tribute to Kansas City’s jazz scene of the 1920s and ’30s.
“My hope is that over the course of the musical the audience will have the opportunity to hear as many colors of the musical spectrum as they will see in the fashions onstage,” Doss said.
It’s been a process of over three years, including a semi-staged reading in the summer of 2017 that drew significant attention.
Since the musical follows Nell’s life from child to revered matriarch it requires a large cast, headed by Ashley Pankow as Nell and Robert Gibby Brand as James A. Reed, Arthur Clifford as Paul Donnelly, and Darrington Clark as George Blair.
For this production, they brought in director and choreographer Morgan Dayley and costume designer Sarah Oliver, charged with recreating the fashions of Nelly Don through the decades as the story unfolds.
“There’s a lot of hope that Nell has from the beginning of the play on,” Doss said. “There’s something different about her that carries her story through to the end. She won’t settle for less.”
Nelly Don Theatrical, LLC presents “Nelly Don: The Musical,” March 14 – 31, at MTH Theater at Crown Center. For tickets, www.mthkc.com or 816.221.6987.
Above: A sampling of Nelly Don fashion photos through the decades from the Terence O’Malley Archives. Many of them appeared in “Vogue,” “Good Housekeeping,” “Vanity Fair” and “Woman’s Day.” (courtesy Terence O’Malley Archives)