Fern Persons: A Remembrance
July 24, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
Imagine living for over a century. Imagine being a successful performer in eight different decades. Imagine being a successful leader of national labor unions for over four decades.
That was Fern Persons, one of Chicago’s film and theatre community’s most beloved members. She passed away in her sleep on July 22, 2012, in Denver, Colorado, five days short of her 102nd birthday, and she was a joy to all who knew her. She was born as Fern Ball in Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 27, 1910. She earned a B.A. in Drama at Kalamazoo College and went on to earn a B.F.A. of acting from Carnegie-Mellon. She graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from both schools. She was also awarded the Otto Kahn Prize for excellence in acting at Carnegie.
When she married Max Persons, she became Fern Persons. When Fern moved to Chicago, it was a center for radio. She joined AFRA (This was before television, so there was no “T” yet) on December 5, 1937. She began a long and successful radio serial career in shows like Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy, Girl Alone, The Barton Family, Help Mate, and Silver Eagle Mountie. She played Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Raymond Massey in The Story of Abe Lincoln. In recent years, she still performed in broadcasts on Unshackled (The longest running drama series on radio) and the AFTRA/SAG Radio Players. When the Chicago Screen Actors Guild office opened in 1953 she was the fifth member to join the newly formed branch office. An early success came in 1955 when she appeared on the Mickey Mouse Club in an eight part series of Films called “Adventure in Dairy Land”.
Fern became a member of Actors Equity Association in 1955 and appeared in theatrical productions in some of America’s great theatre companies like the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She was nominated twice as Best Actress for the Joseph Jefferson Award. In 1981 she was nominated for “The Gin Game” and in 1982 for “Les Belles Souers”, both productions of North Light Theatre. Fern’s film resume was filled with many memorable roles including Hoosiers in 1986, Field of Dreams in 1989, Risky Business in 1981, Married To The Mob in 1992, Prelude to a Kiss in 1992, Grandview USA in 1986, and On the Right Track in 1981. She also did in many television series including Early Edition, E.R., Jack & Mike, The Untouchables, Chicago Story, Missing Persons, and Unsolved Mysteries.
Fern Persons was one of Chicago’s most prominent and respected members of the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA and Actor’s Equity Association. She served on the SAG council for forty-four years. As a member, she worked hard to improve the status of Chicago’s Branch and succeeded in establishing a national voice for Chicago. She was Chicago’s first National Vice President on SAG’s National Board of directors. In recognition of her contributions to SAG, she was one of the two first recipients of the Howard Keel Award in 2009 for the critical role she played in gaining a national voice for Chicago’s SAG Branch office. Fern also served on many AFTRA committees, and she was also awarded AFTRA’s Founders Award in 2006 for her many years of service. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s proclamation declared July 27, 1999 to be Fern Person’s Day in honor of “her dedication to improving the lives of Chicago actors and broadcasters, her contributions to the arts and enhancing the profession of acting.”
As a personal note, I would like to say that I always admired Fern Persons. It was always a pleasure to direct her. The last time she came to my studio, she was 99 years old. And she still had “it”. When I was at Northwestern in graduate school, I got a job selling Fuller Brushes door to door in northwest Evanston where Fern lived. At the time, I didn’t know Fern, but her house was on my route, and I knocked on her door more than once. Then one day, I realized who she was. She was the woman I saw on Mickey Mouse Club! Eventually I came to know her as one of the most amazing leaders SAG ever had. I always voted for Fern. Eventually I came to know her as an actress, and I then had the honor of directing her on and off for the past 25 years. Fern will always be an incredible role model for all actors. She always worked hard. Her devotion to making the union a better organization was inspirational addressing issues that needed to be addressed. In Mayor Daley’s speech he pointed out “Chicago SAG and AFTRA members have the highest per capita earnings in the nation.” Fern fought to make our voices heard, and in doing so she brought work to Chicago.
Fern Persons was a remarkable person. Upon retirement she donated $100,000.00 to the KMRC Endowment fund, a resource center for actors and broadcasters. The Video Suite has been named The Fern Persons Video Suite in her honor.
On behalf Chicago’s SAG, AFTRA and Actor’s Equity members, we extend our condolences to Fern’s Family. Thank you for sharing her with us.