A Northwoods Hollywood Star

Mar 31, 2021

Dennis Morgan and his wife, Lillian Vedder, at Ciro's in 1946
Credit Wikipedia Public Domain

Many talented people have lived in the Northwoods, and every now and again one of them achieves national fame.  One such person was Stanley Morner from the town of Prentice in Price County.  Although few people today recognize his name, in the 1940s under the stage name of Dennis Morgan, Stanley Morner was considered an    A-list star and one of Hollywood’s leading men. 

Stanley Morner was born in December 1908 in Prentice.  His father was employed at the Roddis Lumber Company, and when Stanley was old enough, he learned the lumber business from the bottom up.  His father had him sawing trees and blowing out stumps.  He liked to fish, got into frequent fights,and earned the nickname “Toughy.”

Morner was more than a tough kid fighting in the lumber yard.  He had a natural singing voice, and his parents made certain he took piano and singing lessons with Mrs. Nellie Kelley in Prentice.  He attended grade school in Prentice and three years at Prentice High before his parents moved to Marshfield.  Morner finished his final year of high school at Marshfield, which is where he met his future wife, Lillian Vedder.  He continued his music studies at Marshfield and won the State High School Singing Contest in his senior year.

Morner attended Carroll College in Waukesha and graduated in 1930.  He worked for a time at WTMJ radio in Milwaukee while studying at the Wisconsin Music Conservatory, but in 1933 the couple moved to Chicago.  Nineteen thirty-three was the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago, and Morner had an engagement singing at the Palmer House.  He also appeared on stage under the direction of Thornton Wilder in the Handel opera, “Xerxes.”  His singing caught the attention of opera star Mary Garden, who subsequently introduced Morner to Hollywood executives.

Morner signed with MGM Studios under his own name and starting in 1936 performed small parts in a series of films.  In 1938 he signed with Paramount as Richard Stanley and in 1939 moved to Warner Brothers, this time as Dennis Morgan.  Morner’s roles remained small until 1940 when he was loaned to RKO Studios to star with Ginger Rogers in the film “Kitty Foyle.”  The film earned Rogers an Academy Award and made Dennis Morgan a star.

As Dennis Morgan, Morner stared as leading man alongside some of the most famous actresses of the 1940s, including Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, and Doris Day.  He became one of the top ten salaried performers in Hollywood.

Despite his fame, he never forgot his Northwoods roots and frequently returned to visit friends and family.  However, one particularly memorable return took place in 1951.  In October Morner, accompanied by Western screenwriter Adele Buffington, came to Rhinelander as part of a special luncheon for “Movietime USA,” which was hosted by Rhinelander’s leading political, news, and theater professionals.  Morner was at the height of his fame, so hundreds of fans gathered outside the old Hotel Fenlon seeking his autograph.

What made this trip memorable for Morner was that he was reunited with Nellie Kelley, his music teacher from Prentice.  She reminded the crowd that “Toughy” Morner used to have frequent fights and wore knickers to his lessons.  The two performed at the piano together, after which Morner and Buffington were presented with keys to the city.

As the actor Dennis Morgan, Morner retired in 1956, although he continued appearing in small roles in movies and television until 1980.  He died in 1994.