Archive for October, 2009

The Pride of Racine by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 28, 2009 by mchoffman

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One of America’s finest and most famous actors grew up not more than 60 miles from where I live. Having recently created the Fredric March Film Society, it seemed a good time to visit Racine, Wisconsin. This city had been his home– over a hundred years ago.

The “Bickel House” was originally built in 1878 and is an example of the Italianate architectural style. The home is located within the Southside Historic District of Racine.
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The first stop was the actual childhood home of Fredric March, which is located at 1635 College Avenue. The original section of the home had been built by a blacksmith by the name of William Crawford. In 1890, the residence became the property of Thomas Marcher, whose daughter, Cora Bickel, moved in sometime in 1900. Cora’s husband, John, was the head of the Racine General Manufacturing Company.

It was here where Fredric grew up with his brothers, Harold and John, and their sister, Rosina Elizabeth. Of course, in that day, young Fredric March was known as Frederick Bickel, and the only starring roles he did were in the “Wild West Circus” performances the neighborhood kids put on in the backyard. His “College Avenue gang” of friends are long gone, as is the barn where the Bickels had kept a pony, but the red-brick lined street (dating back to 1897) is still there along with the many Victorian homes that border the avenue. And there remains the old tree in the front of the home. One can imagine a young Freddie playing near that tree on a fall day in 1902.
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In Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second, Deborah Peterson writes, “Racine pedestrians had to be careful when walking past the Bickel household or they would soon see a three-and-one-half-foot caricature of themselves. Luckily for some of the men and women, they never knew what went on behind their backs as they passed a certain group of children huddled in front of the massive Victorian on College Avenue. For among them was a young boy with a keen eye for oddities who would spot peculiar walks and nasal voices and tiny quirks of conduct. Once, Cora actually had to spank seven-year-old Frederick for imitating a tottering old man passing their residence.”

A walk around the block reveals a neighborhood lush with backyard vegetation with homes containing long-forgotten memories. Fredric’s home is two blocks west of Lake Michigan. His College Avenue friends must’ve spent many summer days at the lakefront. It was a brisk fall day when I toured the shoreline after first descending a hill.
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At 716 College Avenue, one can find the First Presbyterian Church built in the Greek revival style. The church dates back to 1851. It was here where Fred’s father, John, held a deaconship. Author Deborah Peterson writes that it was Florence Eldridge, whom March married in 1927, who managed to “swerve Fred away from his Presbyterian upbringing and membership in the Republican Party.” Though March never became a minister, he would play one so memorably in 1941’s One Foot in Heaven.

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Closer to home is Winslow School at 1825 Park Avenue where March attended grammar school. It was originally built in 1856 and is one of the oldest school buildings in the city. Fred started his education here at age four.

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Though many of the homes still remain, the city has changed a great deal. It’s a more mixed population in Racine today. Many of the old homes are now up for sale, but College Avenue remains a beautiful, well-maintained section. We hope that one day the “Bickel House” will be given the landmark status it deserves.