CHICAGO — Terry Donahue, an infielder-turned-catcher for the Peoria Redwings women’s professional baseball team, met Pat Henschel in 1947 while spending the off-season in Canada. They fell in love and lived together in the Chicago area for nearly six decades before coming out to their families in 2009, when they were in their 80s.
“They just started telling us their story, dating back from the 1940s,” Donahue’s great-nephew, Chris Bolan, told the Tribune. “I was just absolutely amazed, and at the end of it they started dancing in the living room together. I remember thinking, ‘Ohmigod, I have to tell this story.’”
Bolan teamed up with producers Alexa L. Fogel and Brendan Mason for “A Secret Love,” which is due out Wednesday on Netflix. The 82-minute documentary follows the couple as they debate getting married after many years of telling family members they were just good friends who lived together because they feared the reaction if they told the truth.
The film recalls Donahue’s time in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the inspiration for the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” and gives a special peek at the couple’s budding romance. Bolan said this footage, shot decades ago, was discovered after production on the documentary had already started.
“They had all these cassette tape recordings and all these photos. And so I asked them, I said, ‘Did you guys ever do any kind of filming with any of the 8-millimeter cameras?’ (They said,) ‘No, no, we don’t have anything.’ And I was in their basement one day, and I came across this suitcase. I opened up the suitcase and all these reels and reels of 8-millimeter film fell out, and I remember just being like, ‘Ohmigod,’” Bolan said.
“Having that 8-millimeter footage, I remember thinking, ‘If I screw this film up, I’m a terrible, terrible director.’”
This is the film directorial debut for Bolan, who worked as an actor and theater director. Bolan said he and Donahue shared a deep connection — he even wrote a paper about her for his seventh-grade English class — but he had to work to get Henschel to open up. They eventually both became comfortable with the small crew, who hope their love will inspire young LGBTQ people.
“They were so game to be sharing this story that we usually had to say at the end of the day, ‘Guys, we need to stop. We’ve been doing this for eight hours.’ They truly were so enthusiastic once they understood what we were trying to do,” Mason said.
Filming began in August 2013 and lasted four years. Much of the documentary was shot in the Chicago area. A camera crew follows the couple as they return to the former John Hancock Center, which once housed the Watson & Boaler interior design firm, where they said they worked together for many years.
The pair are also shown leaving their longtime St. Charles home for the nearby Delnor Glen Assisted Living facility, where they wed in 2015, on Donahue’s 90th birthday.
“I think the wedding day was so emotional for all of us because at this point we had gotten to know and love them for so many years. And then for that day to actually happen in front of you, you’re trying to work and you’re having this kind of profound emotional reaction to seeing these two women come together,” Mason said.
Donahue and Henschel, both natives of Saskatchewan, moved back to Canada in 2017 to be closer to family. Donahue suffered from Parkinson’s disease. She died last year at the age of 93.
Bolan said Henschel, now 91, still lives in Canada and has spent her days going to casinos and movie theaters and playing bingo. She also frequently sees Bolan’s mom, Diana, who is Donahue’s niece. Diana Bolan and Henschel shared some tense moments in the film as Diana Bolan expressed concern about her aunt’s care.
The crew faced its own challenges. The documentary was supposed to premiere in March at South by Southwest, but the festival was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Fogel said the team kept running out of money during production, but always found “angels” at the last minute to help out. “Get Out” producer Jason Blum is an executive producer, while hit maker Ryan Murphy is a producer. Murphy signed a major deal with Netflix in 2018.
“All we wanted to do is tell Pat and Terry’s story, and all we ever dreamed about — I think I can speak for all of us — is hopefully having the fortune of having as many eyes on this film as possible,” Bolan said. “It’s just a dream come true.”
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