Historical Albion Michigan
By Frank Passic

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Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.


Morning Star, January 14, 2018, pg. 4

Occasionally we come across some obscure information that opens up a new research project about Albion history. Albion has had numerous persons who were born here, but became famous elsewhere. This week we'd like to feature one of them: actor, dancer, and "bathing beauty"Donna Montran (1893-1976).

Madonna "Donna"Montran was born in Albion on February 20, 1893, the daughter of John F. and Ida (Barber) Montran. Her maternal grandparents were Franklin and Sarah (Blackhurst) Barber. Franklin was a painter and operated a paint shop on E. Cass St. just east of the "White Mill."Madonna's mother Ida was married several times during her lifetime and left Albion around 1897, raising Madonna in various locations.

Madonna attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada and learned to sing and play the piano. Her expertise landed her a job in a music store where she played the pianos in the store window, thus helping to sell the instruments. Following that she began playing the accompaniment music for the silent movies in Rochester, N.Y. In 1914 she shortened her name to "Donna"and moved to California, where she became a "bathing beauty"for noted film director Mack Sennett. She would continue that role in the future.

It was during this period in 1915 that Donna appeared (uncredited) as one of the "Belles of 1861"in the epic silent-film "Birth of a Nation"by D. W. Griffith. This film was released in February, 1915, and was placed on the National Film Registry in 1992. It is three hours, fifteen minutes long. As part of a publicity stunt to promote the film, Donna flew in a Biplane over Revere Beach in Boston on July 22, 1915. She dropped 200 pennants that had the film's promotional artwork on it, to waiting spectators below. Thirty-five of the pennants contained free tickets to the show.

It was back to being a "bathing beauty"in 1916, when Donna won a competition in Madison Square Garden, five years before the "Miss America"pageants began. Her beauty was at its prime, for she successfully modeled for the cover of the sheet music "In the Heart of a Fool" published in 1919. She also sang for the recording of that song. It contains those memorable lyrics, "In the heart of a fool that is broken, and tossed like a ship at sea, there's a story old, that's never been told, of the wreck you've made of me." Touching, isn't it?

Also in 1919 she began her live stage acting career in the cast of the shows "Bonnets," and "Chin Chin." In 1920 and 1921 she starred in the vaudeville show "California Bathing Girls." She continued to perform in various acts throughout the 1920s, and changed her stage name to Donna Darling.

When the Great Depression hit in late 1929, work dried up and Donna moved to various places over the next two decades, finally settling in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She went through several marriages as her mother had done, and during the 1950s was working as a seamstress there in Minneapolis.

Donna passed away on September 14, 1976 in Minneapolis. At her request, her body was donated to the University of Minnesota for their medical cadaver program. She was subsequently cremated in 1979, and her cremains were interred in Lakewood Cemetery (Minneapolis) in the University of Minnesota Anatomy Bequest Program gravesite.

From our Historical Notebook this week we present the cover of the sheet-music "In the Heart of a Fool,"picturing Donna Montran on the cover. Original copies are available on Ebay today. Special thanks to Doe Massino on Facebook for alerting me about Donna. Biographical information comes from the research of Don Taylor, a grandson of Donna whose findings are published on the internet.

Montran sheet music "In the Heart of a Fool"


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