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

In a production that was originally intended to star Milwaukee native Charlotte Rae as Miss Hannigan, Melody Top scored a huge commercial and creative hit with ANNIE during the summer of 1983. After a contract with Rae could not be finalized, the starring role of the orphanage's matron went to veteran character actress and game show personality Peggy Cass. Cass generated national publicity for the show after she visited a local dairy farm and was photographed with a cow! This production of ANNIE was so successful that it was revived post-season with a slightly different cast.

Color Photos from ANNIE, June 21 – July 3, 1983

Annie 1 Annie 2 Annie 3 Annie 4 Annie 5

Peggy Cass in Grafton, Wisconsin

Grafton, Wisconsin. June 28, 1983. Actress Peggy Cass made her first visit to a dairy farm Tuesday. Miss Cass, in the area to appear in Melody Top's current production of ANNIE, visited the Stone-Wall Holstein Farm in this Milwaukee suburb. AP Laserphoto by John Sleezer.

Tara Kennedy Vacations Here After Playing ANNIE

By Gene Brislin, The Scrantonian, Sunday, August 21, 1983

Tara Kennedy, a long blonde-haired wisp of a girl who packs a powerful punch as an actress, was in Scranton last week to relax after playing the title role of ANNIE in Milwaukee – and to celebrate her 12th birthday with her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Barnes, 1736 Monsey Ave.

It was her first experience in summer stock and with theater in-the-round. "I enjoyed it very much. It was like doing a whole new show," she said in an interview, "the choreography and staging were so different." She described Melody Top, Milwaukee's prestigious summer theater, as having a hard top with tented sides and a seating capacity of 2,100.

More than 30,000 enthusiastic theatergoers saw the show during its two-week run. "The audience is very near, unlike Broadway shows where they are below the stage and you feel apart from them – just play to a sea of faces at a distance," Tara commented. "There were some dance routines where you had to be careful not to accidentally kick some of the spectators."

Asked what impressed her most, the young superstar replied: "Becoming so friendly with Peggy Cass," one of television's most renowned ad-libbers and a Tony Award winner for her portrayal of Agnes Gooch, the myopic secretary in AUNTIE MAME. Cass played the role of Miss Hannigan, the mean-tempered spinster who runs the orphanage.

Tara met Peggy at La Guardia Airport in New York while awaiting their flight to Milwaukee. "I was with my parents (her dad, Frank Kennedy, is a videotape editor for NBC and her mother, the former Mary Lou Barnes, was a Rockette) and we all recognized Peggy," Tara related. "I especially recalled seeing her on THE LOVE BOAT, my favorite TV program, so I went up to her to introduce myself as the ANNIE who would be playing with her."

They developed an instant rapport. "What are you going to do with all that long hair?" Cass asked the child. "Just flatten it all down under the short, curly red wig," Tara responded. When she mentioned having family roots in Scranton, Peggy asked if she knew Jean Kerr, and commented that they were very close friends as a result of her being in the playwright's show TOUCH AND GO.

During the week's rehearsal preceding the opening of the show, the Kennedy-Cass friendship blossomed, with Peggy often joining Tara and her mother during the lunch break, whenever she wasn't brushing up on her lines. "The rehearsal schedule was something like going to school," Tara explained. "I was up every morning at 7:30, had breakfast in the coffee shop of the hotel where we stayed, then rehearsed from 9:00 to 12:30, and again from 1:30 to 5:30."

Once the show opened, however, the routine eased off, so Tara had time to see some of the city. "Milwaukee is beautiful," she said. "My mom and I would sit on the shores of Lake Michigan in the afternoons. Dad went back to New York after he saw that we were settled. People were very friendly, and members of the resident company were great."

Tara said the 12 orphans in the play were talented, local youngsters with whom she palled around. "I write to three of them regularly, and hope to see them again," she commented, adding that she has been invited to play ANNIE for a week's command performance when Melody Top Theater decided to extend its season to September.

"On closing night, the cast formed an honor guard, the servants all in their livery costumes, for Peggy Cass and me," Tara said. "They applauded like mad, and we had to make a speech. We were thrilled that they paid us such an honor. Then Peggy took my mom, dad and myself out to dinner at the most fashionable restaurant in Milwaukee."

Tara Kennedy and Sandy in ANNIE at Melody Top

Tara, who thrives on the demanding role of ANNIE, related that after the show each night, she and Peggy would go to the VIP Lounge, a tent adjacent to the theater, to meet their public and sign autographs. "There were always a lot of children in the audience," she said, "and we got such a charge out of so many of them wearing ANNIE dresses – and some complete with red wigs!"

After the show closed, Tara flew to Cincinnati where she played the starring role in ROSIE, a television movie which NBC will present in October on its Young People's Specials series. The touching story concerns the resentment of the older sister of ROSIE, played by Tara, over her parents' partiality toward the five year-old leukemia victim.

Tara made her Broadway debut at the age of 7, originating the role of Dagmar opposite Liv Ullman in I REMEMBER MAMA. Her second Broadway credit came with the role of Kate and subsequently the title role in ANNIE.

The youngster made her film debut in FORT APACHE, THE BRONX. She appeared opposite Maureen Stapleton in the NBC television movie THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER and was nominated for a Youth in Film Award for her role as Agatha. Most recently, THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER, a Peacock Showcase Film, received the prestigious Peabody Award.

Other television appearances include THE TODAY SHOW and the 1979 TONY AWARDS. Tara also enacted the role of Alice in the off-Broadway production of LOOKING GLASS.

The rave reviews which Tara received in the Milwaukee papers were evidence of her excellent portrayal of ANNIE. Damien Jaques, Journal drama critic, wrote: "The Top has never seen a more professional performer. Her timing was perfect, her acting was convincing, her energy was boundless and she projected her voice far better than many adult actors and singers."

"Beyond that, she displayed an incredibly cool presence in a difficult situation. The dog that plays her mutt, Sandy, is a 7 month-old puppy that never appeared on stage before. . . and was not the mild-mannered, cooperative canine we have come to expect. Kennedy controlled the boisterous pup without missing a beat."

In a feature story in the Journal, Tina Maples wrote: "Tara is a typical preteen without any affected mannerisms. Petite and pretty with long blonde hair, she quickly made friends with the crew of orphans. Tara became a sort of reachable idol, alternately a playmate and an adored actress."

Wally Meyer, in his column The Big O of Ozaukee County, said: "In Melody Top Theater's current musical, ANNIE, the star of the show, Peggy Cass, as well as the entire cast must feel overshadowed by the presence of a 12 year-old superstar, Tara Kennedy."

When Tara vacated her dressing room, it was taken over by Eddie Mekka of LAVERNE & SHIRLEY fame, who was appearing in the title role of GEORGE M!, the high-powered musical that followed ANNIE.

On her flight back to New York, Tara ran into another friend with ANNIE affiliations, who was seated across the aisle from her – Albert Finney, who played Daddy Warbucks in the movie version with Aileen Quinn, one of Tara's best friends.

Despite the exciting summer Tara spent, she'll return to Annunciation School in Yonkers in the fall where she'll be in the seventh grade. Asked how she is treated by her classmates, she replied: "Quite normally – because they're accustomed to it now. I'm just another one of the kids."

Totally unspoiled, Tara said she thoroughly enjoys the Scranton area, and "loves to visit my grandparents." She and her long-time friend, Bobbi Ann Bowen, a student at Central, went shopping for back-to-school clothes at The Globe. "It was the first time that my mother permitted me to select my own wardrobe," she revealed, "and it was fun."

Other highlights of her vacation in Scranton were a tour of the Court House, arranged by Bobbi Ann's mother, Eileen Bowen, who is secretary to Judge James Munley; having lunch at McDonald's and acquiring Snoopy glasses; visiting all the stores at Viewmont Mall – and eating her fill of Bavarian pretzels!

Peggy Cass in Melody Top's production of ANNIE

Peggy Cass starred in Melody Top's production of ANNIE. Sentinel photo by Michael Sears.

Bubbling ANNIE Wonderful

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, June 22, 1983

She's done it again! ANNIE has filled an audience with hearts that brim with tender joy. This time she's doing it in-the-round at the Melody Top Theater.

Producer Guy Little has returned the compliment with a production that misses very few beats.

His dozen little girl orphans all are heart-stealers. They are all individuals and not cloying cartoons. Above all, they bubble over with such energy and fun that they stop the show and earn a legitimate encore for their wonderful spoof of the less-than-exciting radio show.

Director Robert Baker keeps the youngsters and their adult colleagues well in hand, and John Calvert's choreography is imaginative and fresh.

Peggy Cass' mean Miss Hannigan needs a bit more time to become comfortable with the movement. However, her belting rings and her acting keeps reminding the audience that the show is really not real.

Philip K. Courington (as Warbucks) and Ann Arvia (as his efficient secretary) preside over the splendidly staffed mansion with heart and aplomb.

David Perkovich has reason to crow as Rooster, and it is good to have Susan Rush back at the Top playing his Lily.

Alas, Sandy has more heart than discipline, and Robert D. Soule's sets fall short of the occasion.

However, everything falls into place whenever the personable Tara Kennedy turns on her charm as the bright, sweet ANNIE who deserves the very last word.

Susan Rush, David Perkovich and Peggy Cass in Melody Top's production of ANNIE

Susan Rush (Lily), David Perkovich (Rooster) and Peggy Cass (Hannigan) posed for this photograph during a rehearsal of ANNIE on the stage of Melody Top. Photo from the collection of Guy Little.

ANNIE Cast of Characters

Annie:Tara Kennedy
Miss Hannigan:Peggy Cass
Molly:Becky Henning
Pepper:Kelsey Kirsch
July:Stephanie Beschta
Tessie:Leslie Lorusso
Kate:Shannon Murray
Rosie:Abigail Lawrence
Jane:Linda Perlstein
Trixie:Jennifer Schneider
Duffy:Genny Parmentier
Sue:Kristin Redfield
Bessie:Mina Shalit
Noel:Angela Woosley
Bundles McCloskey:Bill Bickford
Apple Seller:Mark Vitale
Dog Catcher:James Michael
Lt. Ward:Ray McLeod
Sophie, the Kettle:Loretta Janca
Grace Farrell:Ann Arvia
Drake:Clarence Sheridan
Mrs. Pugh:Reisa Sperling
Mrs. Greer:Linda Leonard
Cecille:Patricia Lupo
Annette:Loretta Janca
Oliver Warbucks:Philip K. Courington
A Star to Be:Patricia Lupo
Rooster Hannigan:David Perkovich
Lily:Susan Rush
Bert Healy:James Michael
Fred McCracken:Bill Bickford
Jimmy Johnson:Mark Vitale
Sound Effects Man:Bill Bickford
Bonnie Boylan:Loretta Janca
Connie Boylan:Patricia Lupo
Ronnie Boylan:Linda Leonard
F.D.R.:William Leach
Ickes:Bill Bickford
Howe:Mark Vitale
Morgenthau:Ray McLeod
Hull:James Michael
Perkins:Reisa Sperling
Honor Guard (Marine):Leigh Catlett
Justice Brandeis:Ray McLeod

Hooverville-ites, Policemen, Warbucks' Servants, New Yorkers: Bill Bickford, Leigh Catlett, Loretta Janca, Linda Leonard, Patricia Lupo, Ray McLeod, Dawn Merrick, James Michael, Michelle O'Steen, Clarence Sheridan, Reisa Sperling, Mark Vitale, Gregg Willis. Annie Understudy: Leslie Lorusso.

ANNIE Orchestra. Trumpets: Philip J. Ruecktenwald, Thomas Schlueter; Trombones: Kenneth C. Howlett, William Rose; Reeds: John Hibler, Joe Aaron, Ron Carr; Violin: Eric Segnitz; Bass: Thomas Alan McGirr; Drums: Robert Kriefall; Piano: Jay Alger; Contractor: Ed Mumm.

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