The story of the annual Donna Reed Festival
There was a strong bond between Denison, Iowa, and its most famous resident
Denizens of Denison, Iowa have a hometown hero fit for festivities. That's because Denison is the birthplace of America's great TV mom, Donna Reed. Along with her role on The Donna Reed Show, Reed is well-remembered to this day for her role opposite James Stewart in the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life.
"Actors are used to leaving their hometown and never coming back," Reed's lifelong friend Anne McCrea told the Rutland Daily Herald back in 1993. "But you didn't have to be with Donna very long to hear all about Denison and Iowa."
The pride Reed took in the place from which she came was reciprocated by the town and its people. When Reed passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1986, it was her wish that the Oscar she received in 1953 was returned to Denison and its citizens. The Academy Award, which she won for a role in From Here to Eternity now resides in a glass case in the William A. McHenry House, Denison's one-and-only designated landmark.
But that is hardly the only way that Donna Reed is honored by her hometown. In 1986, the citizens of Denison, along with Reed's husband Grover Asmus and some Hollywood friends launched the annual Donna Reed Festival & Artists Workshops. Shelley Fabares, who played Reed's daughter on her eponymous sitcom, said the connection between the town and its most famous resident was immediately palpable. "A lot of what Donna Reed was about is what this town is about. The idea was to combine Donna's two lives. What she did in Hollywood was act. We decided to bring that to Denison."
With that, the arts festival was founded. Originally, the event lasted two days. Then it swelled to four, then five, then eight. While Asmus and co. originally tried to lower workshop instructor expectations, eventually, the festival attracted upwards of 10,000 participants, including 400 students from 15 states. Those instructors would go on to include Gene Reynolds, producer, and director from M*A*S*H. Workshops were led by several Emmy and Grammy recipients.
"Our goal," said Asmus, "[was] to make Denison a recognized center for performing arts. For people in the Midwest, it is so much cheaper to come here than New York or Los Angeles."
But the festival wasn't exclusively for the performing arts. There was the Donna Reed Celebrity Golf Tournament. Attendees enjoyed the Donna Reed Flight Breakfast. Some ran in the Donna Reed Festival 10k Run or walked in the Two-Mile Fun Walk. There was a Donna Reed Festival Downtown Street Fair, a Donna Reed Festival Gala, and even an official Donna Reed Lip-Sync Contest. Best of all was the ways the festival yearly invested in its Donna Reed Scholars, regularly contributing to college scholarships.
"Donna was always so proud of this town," said Asmus. "I think she would've been touched by all this. Touched and surprised."