Lemmon calls on community to preserve its history

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Chris Lemmon has never lost track of his past. It’s one he embraces, even the bumps and bruises that go along with being the son of famous parents. And part of his past is part of Peoria’s past, as well. He hopes the community is ready to embrace it.

“My message to the community would be to not let this grand old dame go to seed. We really don’t want to lose this kind of history,” said Lemmon while standing inside the Pettingill-Morron Historical House Museum on Moss Avenue in Peoria.

Lemmon said that while standing just outside the parlor where a wedding took place in May 1950 that had it been just a few years later would have made headlines in Hollywood. It was the wedding of his father, Academy Award-winning actor Jack Lemmon, to his mother Cynthia Stone in the home that at the time was the Stone family home. She was the daughter of John Boyd and Dorothy Stone of Peoria and was raised in the house that is now owned and maintained by the Peoria Historical Society.

The wedding took place before Jack Lemmon became a big star and before he and Stone would appear together on television during what was a brief acting career for Stone.

The house, built in 1868, is for the most part in good shape, particularly inside. But it needs some things done to shore it up, including a paint job and work on the roof and eaves to plug a hole that has allowed a raccoon to take up residence in the attic.

The Historical Society needs money to get those things done and Lemmon, in Peoria to perform his one-man theatrical tribute to his father, called “A Twist of Lemmon,” pledged on Wednesday to get the ball rolling.

“This is a personal thing, of course, but this house is truly one of the jewels of Peoria and it needs some attention so it can stay that way,” he said.

The Historical Society hosted a small gathering for Lemmon and some of its supporters on the porch of the house on a warm, perfect day. He took the occasion to talk about his memories of Peoria, where he spent much time during the summers while growing up. By the time he was a child his grandfather had sold the Moss Avenue house to Jean McLean Morron and had moved to a house on Grandview Drive.

“I spent a lot of summers here. I have a lot of memories of Grandview Drive. I knocked out my teeth while in Peoria jumping on a trampoline one summer. It’s been fun while here for the show to catch up with a lot of the people I knew then,” he said.

His parents divorced when he was only two years old, around the time Jack Lemmon started to hit it big. Cynthia Stone later married actor Cliff Robertson, who went on to gain fame himself, including one Academy Award. Lemmon said even after his mother and Robertson divorced he maintained a strong relationship with his step-father. “He was a good man. We stayed friends until he died. He was always respectful of my relationship with Pop, but we had a wonderful relationship,” he said.

Stone’s third husband was Robert McDougal, who also happened to be a native of Peoria. What is strange about it, however, is that Stone and McDougal met after she left Hollywood and moved to Miami, Florida after her divorce from Robertson. “She said, that’s it, I’m finished with Hollywood and she moved to Florida. She married a Culligan Water salesman and was happy as a clam the rest of her life,” he said.

Her life, however, was cut short by cancer when she was only 62. She is buried in the Stone family plot at Springdale Cemetery. “Mother was an angel on Earth; just an incredible woman. A lot of her generation had strength and dignity. An example of that was that she was diagnosed with cancer and told she only had a few months to live. But she said she was going to live long enough to spend one more Christmas with her family. And she did. She died the day after Christmas (in 1988). Even in death she was teaching us blessings,” he said.

Lemmon made another trip to Springdale Cemetery nearly three years ago, his last time in Peoria before now. It was to bury his Uncle Henry Dayton Stone, his mother’s brother. Uncle Dayton, as he called him, went to live with Lemmon and his family in central Connecticut shortly after being diagnosed with melanoma and being given only months to live.

Dayton expected to die quickly after arriving. “I told him he was going to make it until Thanksgiving. He didn’t think so but on Thanksgiving morning he thanked me for telling him he was going to make it to Thanksgiving. So I told him he was going to make it to Christmas,” Lemmon said.

He then showed those gathered a photo he took of his Uncle Dayton on Christmas morning, 2012. “About 20 minutes after that picture was taken he fell asleep and never woke up. He died a few days later (on Dec. 28, 2012),” Lemmon said.

He told of stumbling while leaving Springdale the day Uncle Dayton was buried, but not falling, as if somebody caught his arm and held him up. “I think Pop was right there. He grabbed my arm and held me up. It’s just like now, I feel like he’s with me during the 90 minutes I’m on stage,” Lemmon said of his show, “A Twist of Lemmon.” The show is being performed nightly through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and also at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Apollo Theatre. Tickets are $42 and can be purchased by visiting www.jaytv.com.

During the show Lemmon speaks in his father’s voice and in reciting some of the dialogue on the Pettingill-Morron porch on Wednesday, he sounds just like the man people came to know from the silver screen. With a certain expression or twist of his head, he looked just like him, as well.

“A Twist of Lemmon,” which is based on Chris Lemmon’s book by the same title, tells the story of the relationship between Chris and Jack Lemmon, including a rough patch when they didn’t see each other and how they came back together to become best friends before Jack Lemmon died in June 2001 at the age of 76.

He loves to tell stories of that friendship, especially the later years when they went on annual fishing trips to Alaska or playing golf together.

Besides learning the movie business and getting to know a lot of famous people because of his father, Lemmon said he learned many life lessons from Jack Lemmon. One of them is the motto of the show and his own life: “Go to the people you love and tell them you love them, because you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

For more information about the Pettingill-Morron Historical House Museum, including touring hours,  visit the Peoria Historical Society website at www.peoriahistoricalsociety.org or call (309) 674-1921.  

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).