Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Melody Top offered a successful Bicentennial celebration with the second production of its 1976 season – a revival of 1776 that starred Ross Martin in his summer tent debut. Ross presented a formidable John Adams, a role he played again at Sacramento Music Circus the following summer. Recreating his Benjamin Franklin part from the Top's 1972 production of 1776 was Stubby Kaye. Displaying strong delivery of his dramatic lines, Stubby proved he was far more versatile on stage than the comedic roles he created on Broadway. Local reviews also pointed out the heart created by Didi Hitt and Joan Carvelle, the only women in a cast that included 25 men.

Tally board created by Stuart Bishop for 1776 at Melody Top Theater.

The historic tally board inside Philadelphia's Continental Congress building, created by director-designer Stuart Bishop for a 1976 production of 1776. Photo from the collection of Gary Bruski.

1776 Revives Birthday Spirit

By Michael H. Drew of the Journal Staff, Wednesday, June 23, 1976

Unless you've had enough Bicentennial to last you to the Tricentennial, the Melody Top just might be the ideal spot for wishing a happy birthday to US. Opening a two-week run Tuesday night before a capacity audience of 2,156, the tent reassembled the Continental Congress in 1776, an appropriately timed revival of the 1969 Broadway hit.

Although not yet up to the tent's 1972 production, it catches much of the patriotic fervor, historical pertinence and theatricality of the Tony-winning original. With speaking roles for more than two dozen players, the tent's most exacting dramatic undertaking does include some rather uneven performances.

Under director-designer Stuart Bishop, the principles are solid enough replicas of our founding fathers and mothers. Several supporting players, however, contribute to pacing sags.

As in 1972, part of the problem is sporadic immobility, caused partly by an unaccountably elevated revolving set. At times, it had whole sections of the audience feeling as left out as if they were watching from K-Mart next door. Bishop does construct a stirring closing tableau of the July 4 events.

In the central John Adams role, Ross Martin admirably impersonated the Boston terrier who needled and wheedled his colleagues into putting their John Hancocks on the Declaration of Independence. How pleasant it is to find a TV star who can sing and project!

One of the relatively few 1972 returnees, lovable Stubby Kaye has aged winningly into an even finer resurrection of Ben Franklin, the comic relief. As southerner Edward Rutledge, whose ardent objections killed the Declaration's antislavery clause, tenor John Stewart stunningly acted to music.

Other memorable moments came from Sam Stoneburner as John Dickinson, Adams' chief tormentor; Douglas Mellor as the gluttonous Samuel Chase; Clyde Laurents, surprisingly effective as a high tenor Jefferson; handsome Robb Alton as the bouncingly egocentric Richard Henry Lee; Thomas Ruisinger as the equivocating James Wilson; Haskell Gordon, from the Broadway cast, as John Hancock; Joan Carvelle as Abigail Adams; Didi Hitt as Martha Jefferson; and tenor Jay Lowman, singing sad news from Gen. Washington at the front.

At times, librettist Peter Stone and composer-creator Sherman Edwards are too obvious about compressing history and brightening the mood with a Franklin gag from Poor Richard's Almanac.

But they've also created some gripping debates and put grit, gristle and some grime on historical portraits of men who were courageous visionaries, but not saints. And whose historic language, sometimes, was far from saintly.

1776 Done in True Spirit

by Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, June 23, 1976

The essence of the Bicentennial is the core of Sherman Edward's magnificent history lesson in his 1776: The United States was launched by men of spirit, aspirations and wonderfully human feet of clay.

This truth and a finely honed production have certainly made the Melody Top Theater's presentation of 1776 one of the most worthwhile observances of our 200th birthday to be enjoyed hereabouts.

Director Stuart Bishop and his fine cast have found the golden mean between pretentious ancestor worship and cute contemporary paraphrasing of history.

On stage practically all of the time, Ross Martin keeps John Adams as the focal point of the show by his energetic presence.

However, the hearts of the audience – as is the case with most historians – are won by Benjamin Franklin, perfectly impersonated by Stubby Kaye, who can throw away a line more effectively than most actors can say one.

Edwards and librettist Peter Stone's most telling touch of humanity is their introduction of Adams and Thomas Jefferson's wives.

Quoting from the famed Adams letters, Joan Carvelle, in splendid voice and presence, relates the service of those who stand and wait.

Didi Hitt proves to be a graceful impediment to the writing of the Declaration of Independence as Jefferson's wife.

Clyde Laurents, promoted from the courier role of four years ago, gives the Jefferson role a straightforward dignity.

The opposition party is given magnificent representation in the person of Sam Stoneburner, eloquent as the archetypical conservative, John Dickinson, and John Stewart, raising the cast's finest voice in defense of Southern institutions as Edward Rutledge.

The common people are beautifully represented by young Jay Lowman, with his moving musical report from the bloody battlefields, the show's most effective moment.

Stubby Kaye as Benjamin Franklin, outside Melody Top Theater in Milwaukee during the summer of 1976.

Stubby Kaye, in costume and make-up as Benjamin Franklin for his part in 1776, posed with a record album from one of his Broadway successes – LI'L ABNER. Photo from the collection of Gary Bruski.

Recollections from the Altons

From Robb Alton, who played Richard Henry Lee:

Working with Ross Martin and Stubby Kaye on this production of 1776 at Melody Top was an unforgettable experience. We performed the show during the 1976 season and on the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which made it extra special.

Casting Ross as John Adams was a brilliant move by producer Marty Wiviott and director Stuart Bishop.

Ross brought the requisite intelligence along with the appropriate amount of bluster and megalomania that makes the character such a fascinating and compelling champion to his supporters – and a real thorn in the side of his adversaries. We all were fans of him from his work on "The Wild, Wild West" TV show and knew what a great actor he was, but we were happily surprised that he could sing so well and, like the character, with such authority.

It was a wonderful cast from top to bottom, and I wish we could have toured for months and months together. Ross was friendly and helpful to everyone and just a sensational John Adams.

From Kathleen Alton, formerly known as Didi Hitt, who played Martha Jefferson:

Heck, what can I add? Robb sums it up. The only thing I would say is that "The Wild, Wild West" is one of my all-time favorite shows so I was a bit star struck and thrilled to have the opportunity to play in a scene opposite him!

Robb mentioned his singing and acting abilities, but I can attest to his dancing – which was divine!

Additionally, he was involved and generous with the cast and crew both on- and off-stage. What a consummate pro!

Production Photos from 1776

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1776 Cast of Characters, June 22 - July 4, 1976

John Hancock, President:Haskell Gordon
Dr. Josiah Bartlett, New Hampshire:John Bohan
John Adams, Massachusetts:Ross Martin
Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island:Clyde Miller
Roger Sherman, Connecticut:Chris Groenendaal
Lewis Morris, New York:Roy Neuner
Robert Livingston, New York:Charles Koehn
Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon, New Jersey:Tom Zinos
Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania:Stubby Kaye
John Dickinson, Pennsylvania:Sam Stoneburner
James Wilson, Pennsylvania:Thomas Ruisinger
Caesar Rodney, Delaware:Robert Ingham
Colonel Thomas McKean, Delaware:J.J. Johnston
George Read, Delaware:Andy Hostettler
Samuel Chase, Maryland:Douglas Mellor
Richard Henry Lee, Virginia:Robb Alton
Thomas Jefferson, Virginia:Clyde Laurents
Joseph Hewes, North Carolina:Eddie Dudek
Edward Rutledge, South Carolina:John Stewart
Dr. Lyman Hall, Georgia:Barry Thomas
Charles Thomson, Congressional Secretary:Dennis Dohman
Andrew McNair, Congressional Custodian:Dan Webber
Abigail Adams:Joan Carvelle
Martha Jefferson:Didi Hitt
A Leather Apron:Barrett Hong
A Courier:Jay Lowman
A Painter:Jeff Hagedorn

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