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

Featuring an exceptionally large and ethnically diverse cast, Melody Top's production of FINIAN'S RAINBOW opened on a stormy night in 1974. Wisconsin natives Barbara Williams and David Holliday handled the romantic leads, while Madison native Tracy Friedman danced the role of Susan the Silent. At the end of the first, rain-soaked performance, Mr. Johnson summed up a very nervous evening inside the tent with his quick sense of humor; read his funny quote in links to the newspaper reviews near the bottom of this page.

Finian's Rainbow Wedding Scene

The wedding of Sharon McLonergan and Woody Mahoney near the end of FINIAN'S RAINBOW at Melody Top Theatre. Photo by Richard Borgeson, courtesy of Sally Marks.


Cast Biographies for FINIAN'S RAINBOW (1974)

ARTE JOHNSON (Og)

Arte JohnsonArte Johnson first came to Melody Top Theatre two years ago to play seven hilarious characters opposite Karen Morrow in LITTLE ME. Two weeks and fourteen standing ovations later, he found himself eagerly adopted by tent audiences who probably never laughed louder or longer at any "big top" show. Since that auspicious debut, he returned to Milwaukee to host – brilliantly – a Variety Club epilepsy telethon, as well as a testimonial dinner for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Tyrone Horneigh, Pyotr Rosmenko, Wolfgang Busch, Rabbi Schanquar and many others were all born at the same moment in Chicago and collectively given the name Arte Johnson. His parents, Abraham Lincoln Johnson, an attorney, and his mother, whose maiden name was Edith MacKenzie Goldberg, saw that Arte had instruction in music, and he now plays violin, saxophone, clarinet and all the woodwinds.

He attended the University of Illinois in pursuit of a lifelong desire to be an ichthyologist, one devoted to the study of fish; but since no such major was available there, Arte was forced to content himself with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in history. He was continuing on his circuitous road toward a greater knowledge of fish when he interrupted his schooling to go to New York to work in public relations for a publishing house.

On a dare, he tried out for the road company of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and, to his amazement, he found himself a working actor. It is interesting to note that this, his first professional part, had him playing a 60-year-old man. The tour led to small but increasingly prestigious night clubs such as the Ruben Bleu and the Blue Angel, where his musical comedy act, which featured beginning sketches of several characters that would later make him famous, was extremely well received.

Impressed with his singing talent, the producers of the television series "It's Always Jan" brought him to Los Angeles to do a continuing part in the show. From the time he first set foot on the sound stage to the time he walked out of the show some months later, he was never allowed to sing a note; he left Hollywood less than fulfilled.

LeprechaunThe next stage in his career was one he remembers as a turning point: a resort-with-theatre in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania called Tamiment. Tamiment was a demanding training group; a place where a new show went on every week, played for two nights, and was retired while a new one was written, rehearsed and ready for the week following. Among the successes who came out of Tamiment prior to Arte's arrival were Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and many others.

Arte was in residence at Tamiment for three seasons during which he played a wide variety of characters and exercised all of his talents for singing, dancing, acting and improvisation. Working with him at that time were Dick Shawn, Carol Burnett, Larry Kert, Jack Cassidy and Pat Carroll.

From Tamiment Arte went straight to Broadway, replacing Roddy MacDowell in NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS. The play ran, and then he returned to California to work in yet another television series. This one, starring Joan Caulfield, was called "Sally." It lasted exactly nine weeks.

After a brief interlude working as a clothing salesman, Arte began to come into demand for commercials, in which his ability to do varied and complete characterizations was an inestimable asset. In addition to over 200 radio and television commercials, he appeared in four or five movies, invariably playing psychotics, including THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST and THE THIRD DAY.

At this point, he decided to take a cut in pay and go into his third television series, "Laugh-In." Here many of his characters became widely known for the first time, and after four nominations, he won an Emmy, the only individual performer on the show to do so. During his tenure on the NBC hit, he did his own special, as well as dozens of guest appearances on literally all of television's top variety shows.

Since leaving "Laugh-In," Arte's pace only accelerated. He popped up as a guest star on "The Dean Martin Show," "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," "The Carol Burnett Show," "Love American Style," "The Super Comedy Bowl" and many others. His total TV appearances are approaching the 500 mark. Immediately after leaving Milwaukee he begins work on his own TV series for the fall.

He also went back to night clubs on a bigger scale, with a smash hit appearance at the Riviera in Las Vegas.

In his spare time, Arte is a voluminous reader and rare book collector, a sports nut and an antique buff. With his wife, Gisela, he lives in an elegant Wilshire Boulevard apartment and still dreams of the day he will travel to Micronesia, net in hand, studying fish.

Until that day, he remains one of show business' most versatile performers and one of its brightest stars.

BARBARA WILLIAMS (Sharon McLonergan)

Barbara WilliamsBorn and raised in the Welsh Hills of Genesse Depot, Wisconsin, Barbara Williams' parents, the Chet Williams, have been keeping the Wisconsin dairy farming tradition alive at Wern Farms since 1848 – five generations of Welshmen.

Showing an early interest in music, Barbara started playing piano at age three. Besides recitals at the Waukesha Women's Club, singing for weddings, funerals, the Rotary Club and the PTA, she even pumped the organ for hymn singing on Sunday at the Presbyterian church and soon began vocal lessons with Milwaukee's man of music, John Anello. Armed with this musical background, Barbara began her professional career as a teenager with a weekly radio show on WTMJ.

She was shortly off to New York and Broadway, in the chorus of THE MUSIC MAN. Her very own Cinderella story happened within two years and Barbara became leading lady – Marian the Librarian – to Robert Preston's Harold Hill.

She became the favorite leading lady of many stars. From coast to coast, she appeared opposite John Davidson in CAROUSEL, Leonard Nimoy in CAMELOT, Darren McGavin in THE KING AND I, Robert Horton in ZORBA, Forrest Tucker (again) in THE MUSIC MAN, Edward Mulhare in MY FAIR LADY, and the Broadway company of MAN OF LA MANCHA with her favorite leading man – then and now – David Holliday. Not only has her career led her to a host of stars but also to the great writers of the theatre. Barbara was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be a soloist in his MASS, the great work that opened the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC; he first heard her as a soloist in Philharmonic Hall. Alan Jay Lerner, of MY FAIR LADY and CAMELOT fame, recently invited Barbara to appear with him as soloist in a concert of his music. Richard Rodgers, no less, recently applauded some of her compositions. Composing and writing take a fair share of Barbara's time and are becoming more and more a part of the night club act she performed in the finest hotels from Aruba to Los Angeles and during several engagements in the Pfister's Crown Room.

"But it's always nice to be home," she says, grinning, "where Welshmen and Irishmen and the bees give certified milk and honey."

DAVID HOLLIDAY (Woody Mahoney)

David Holliday"There's no business like show business," David Holliday discovered when he sang this rousing bit of Irving Berlin musical comedy Americana along with the show's other smash songs in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN for six months. The production was staged in Copenhagen, in Danish, with an all-Danish cast, with Mr. Holliday as the only American in the show in the role of its swaggering hero, Frank Butler. This "Danish Cowboy," not knowing the language, learned it phonetically. He says he thrives on meeting such challenges.

It was a challenge when he quit Carthage, a small Lutheran college in Illinois after his third year, determined to "make it" in New York and in the theatre. He was 19, green in experience except for high school plays in Milwaukee where he was raised, and at Carthage where he was an English major. His actor's heritage? None. Both his grandfather and his uncle were Lutheran ministers, and though the theatre was rather removed from family tradition, his mother helped him make the final decision: if the theatre would give him great joy, then the theatre is what he should do. He was in Manhattan two weeks, with barely enough money to get by, and sleeping on the floor in a friend's apartment, when he went to an understudies' audition for the hit musical WEST SIDE STORY. As it was his very first audition, he brought no music but had learned the songs from the show album and asked which ones he should sing. His brazen innocence paid off. A few weeks later, to his amazement, David Holliday found himself in London with the British company of WEST SIDE STORY playing the part of Gladhand, the social worker, as well as one of the "Jets" and understudying Tony, the hero. He eventually became Tony for four months of the West End run and for the national tour, covering most of England and Scotland.

While in Scotland with the show, he was telephoned by Noel Coward who offered him the romantic lead opposite Elaine Stritch in the London version of his new musical, SAIL AWAY, which he was directing himself. Mr. Holliday was able to accept, once the Scandinavian tour to Denmark, Norway and Sweden with WEST SIDE STORY was over. Later in London, he was a highlight of the British staging of Richard Rodgers' New York success, NO STRINGS. He also played the hero in THE WAYWARD WAY, a musical version of that classic American melodrama, THE DRUNKARD. On English tours, he was seen as Starbuck in THE RAINMAKER, Nick in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and Tommy in BRIGADOON; in A LOVE FOR JAMIE he played the title character. He won a role in the BBC London series, "Coronation Street," being one of the few Americans to play in the longest-running television show in English history. He was in DEAREST DRACULA, the first horror musical at the Dublin Theatre Festival in Ireland and starred in South Africa for six months as Macheath in THE BEGGAR'S OPERA. Back in London, he auditioned for the London company of the world famous hit, MAN OF LA MANCHA, but was rejected because of his youthful appearance. He traveled back to his native America and, after devising a Don Quixote make-up, auditioned for the New York company. This time "the gods" were with him as he won the dual role in the production at the Martin Beck Theatre, being Don Quixote at matinees and Dr. Carrasco at evening performances. He considered this assignment the high point of the challenges he faced so far. He was last seen on Broadway in COCO with Katharine Hepburn, for which he won a Theatre World Award.

Mr. Holliday's homecoming appearances at Melody Top last summer won him new fans with his performances in APPLAUSE and BRIGADOON. He first appeared at Melody Top in 1968 in FANNY and WHERE'S CHARLEY?

This past winter, Mr. Holliday appeared in several productions of OH, COWARD and in several additional episodes of "Coronation Street." He comes to Milwaukee straight from a cruise to Acapulco.

CHARLES WELCH (Finian McLonergan)

Charles WelchMr. Welch has extensive experience on Broadway and in summer stock, as well as on television. He is equally at home in musicals, drama and comedy. On Broadway he was in FOLLIES with Alexis Smith, DEAR WORLD with Angela Lansbury and as the valet Henry Leek in DARLING OF THE DAY with Vincent Price. He also appeared in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, GOLDEN BOY with Sammy Davis, DONNYBROOK and MAKE A MILLION. His favorite role is Littlechap in STOP THE WORLD, one of his many stock assignments. His TV credits cover well over 400 shows, from soap operas to "Hall of Fame" to "Route 66." Mr. Welch is also very busy in the TV commercial world and has several ads running currently. Off-Broadway he played the Boy's Father in the New York company of THE FANTASTICKS.

ZALE KESSLER (Senator Billboard Rawkins)

Zale KesslerNo stranger to Melody Top audiences, Zale Kessler appeared here in a variety of roles over the years including last season's PROMISES, PROMISES and BRIGADOON. His Broadway shows include featured roles in THE NERVOUS SET, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER AND HIS WIFE, DEAR WORLD and GANTRY. His TV appearances include playing Phyllis Diller's husband Fang on her special "An Evening with Phyllis Diller," and Mel Brooks fans will remember Zale's appearance in the movie THE PRODUCERS. In the last year he moved his base of operations from New York to San Francisco, where he spent the winter appearing in THE TRAIL OF JAMES McNEIL WHISTLER and the opening production of KISS ME, KATE at John Raitt's San Francisco Dinner Theatre.

Some of his noteworthy performances at Melody Top have been in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, KISS ME, KATE, 1776 and MAN OF LA MANCHA. He did a 155-city tour of PROMISES, PROMISES. Some of his other outstanding credits include CALL ME MADAM with Ethel Merman, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING with Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee and KISMET with Anna Maria Alberghetti and John Raitt. Zale was featured in the American premiere of Brecht's ST. JOAN OF THE STOCKYARDS at Philadelphia's Annenberg Theatre Center, where he recently starred in Julie Bovassos' Obie Award-winning play, GLORIA AND ESPERANZA.

CLYDE MILLER (The Sheriff)

Clyde MillerAnother Melody Top regular, Clyde Miller returns for his seventh summer at the tent. His characterizations have brightened such past "big top" hits as KISS ME, KATE, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1776, KISMET, GEORGE M!, DAMN YANKEES, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, MAME, HOW NOW, DOW JONES, LI'L ABNER, FUNNY GIRL and SHOWBOAT. His other Melody Top appearances include roles in CARNIVAL, PAINT YOUR WAGON, SONG OF NORWAY, SWEET CHARITY, HIGH BUTTON SHOES, SILK STOCKINGS, IRMA LA DOUCE, WHERE'S CHARLEY?, PAL JOEY and OF THEE I SING.

Clyde also appeared at many other Milwaukee theatres, including the Pabst, Fred Miller, Skylight, Riverside and Swan, and he worked as writer, director or actor (and sometimes all three) in over 150 community theatre, U.S. Army and semi-professional productions. He was featured in EQUITY SHOWCASE from Chicago's Ivanhoe Theatre and made frequent appearances on Milwaukee television. Since his last roles during the 1972 season, Clyde worked extensively in local TV and radio commercials.

TRACY FRIEDMAN (Susan Mahoney)

Tracy FriedmanAn alternating member of Melody Top's ensemble and supporting casts, Tracy brought down the tent with her comic portrayal of "Winnie from Washington" in this season's opener, NO, NO, NANETTE, especially in the comic "Telephone Girlie" number she shared with Clyde Laurents, Joan Carvelle and Susan Rush.

Madison-born, she began her formal training in dance at the age of seven. At thirteen, she became a member of Milwaukee's Florentine Opera Company ballet under the direction of former Melody Top producer/choreographer, Robert Simpson. This began a long and fruitful association with Simpson that included productions at Washington Park, a year in the HITS OF BROADWAY revues at Fazio's on Fifth, a tour as one of the original members of the Brothers and Sisters, and, some recent choreographic chores.

As a choreographer, Tracy's work has been seen all over the city. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has studied acting and directing, she choreographed John Gay's THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, MAN OF LA MANCHA and THE COUNTRY WIFE. Recently, she choreographed and performed in PROMENADE at Alverno College.

Miss Friedman joined the Melody Top ensemble in 1968. The following year, she left for a nine-month national tour with the hit Broadway musical CABARET, returning just in time to perform in the same show at Melody Top. Some of Tracy's outstanding tent performances included Chava in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Kathy in COMPANY, Ruth in WONDERFUL TOWN and the Moorish Dancer in MAN OF LA MANCHA. At UWM, she was featured in a number of productions including BLACK COMEDY, THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and Lady Fidget in THE COUNTRY WIFE (a role she subsequently repeated on educational TV).

This year at UWM, she played the "divinely decadent" Sally Bowles in CABARET, as well as a role in THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. The latter was chosen as one of the ten best college shows in the United States and was honored by a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She also played the title role in PHAEDRA. This winter, Milwaukee audiences saw her at the Center Stage dinner playhouse as Ellie in SHOWBOAT as well.

CLYDE LAURENTS (Buzz Collins)

Clyde LaurentsThough he had many outstanding moments on stage at Melody Top, Clyde Laurents' greatest triumph under the Milwaukee tent came with this season's opening show, NO, NO, NANETTE. Local critics raved and fans cheered his dancing-singing portrayal of Billy Early in the "new 1925 musical hit."

A highly valued asset both on stage and on staff, Clyde returns for his sixth season as combination performer and assistant choreographer. Since his show-stopping portrayal as Gretchen Wyler's hairdresser Duane in APPLAUSE and other featured roles last summer, Clyde appeared on Broadway in Lerner and Loewe's GIGI.

He started his career in show business as an ice skater under the tutelage of the late Sonia Henie. He retired from the ice at age 14 and moved on to Broadway for a series of hit musicals. His New York credits include VINTAGE '60, IRMA LA DOUCE, CELEBRATION, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, PICKWICK and HELLO, DOLLY! For PICKWICK, he was hired to do rewrites on the book and lyrics during out-of-town tryouts.

Melody Top audiences will recall his sensational performance as Will Parker in OKLAHOMA in 1969 and his specialty dance with Elaine Cancilla to "Who's Got The Pain?" for DAMN YANKEES in 1971. One of the highlights of the 1972 season was his comic and touching portrayal of the Courier in 1776.

Finian's Rainbow Scene

Arte Johnson making his remarks to the audience after a performance of FINIAN'S RAINBOW. Stars often addressed audiences after a Top show. Photo by Richard Borgeson, courtesy of Sally Marks.


Other cast members included Tom Mula (Sunny), John Hartman (Henry), Dale Vernon (Howard), Robert Alton (First Geologist), Gregory Adams (Second Geologist), Dan Webber (Preacher John), Wanda Vernon (Honey Lou), Bob Fink (Mr. Robust), John W. Bohan (Mr. Shears) and Barry Thomas, Marius Hanford (Deputies).

The Passion Pilgrim Gospeleers: Dale Vernon, Gregory Adams and Dwain Thompson.

Sharecroppers and Children were Joan Carvelle, Ronny Cohen, Judith Ann Conte, Alan Gilbert, B.J. Hanford, Marius Hanford, Didi Hitt, Nancy McCloud, Roy Neuner, Jo Jean Retrum, David Rupprecht, Susan Rush, Chris Sallach, Barry Thomas, Dan Webber, Gregory Adams, Andrea Brown, Kevin Golligher, Marvin Gunn, Emlee Hilliard, Phyllis McNeail, Andy Mueller, Juanita O'Kelley, Mary Schmittner, Ruth Smith, Dwain Thompson, Julie Valentine and Dale Vernon.


Arte Rates Our City High

By Alex Thien, The Milwaukee Sentinel, June 14, 1974

Arte Johnson propped a foot on the coffee table and said it was only a few days ago he and his lovely wife Gisela were in the Bahamas.

"She was stretched out in the sun, getting a great tan," Johnson said, "when she rolled over and said how great it would be to be in Milwaukee in a few days."

And with the area's absolutely rotten weather when compared with the Bahamas', a logical and honest question seemed to be why anyone would want to leave that sunny, delightful clime for our totally unpredictable isobar formations.

"It's easy to understand, really," Johnson said. "We like Milwaukee. In fact, this is our fourth trip here so far this year."

Johnson said the first time was for an affair to honor Oscar Robertson of the Milwaukee Bucks, next the Variety Club telethon, one of the pro basketball playoff games and now his appearance in FINIAN'S RAINBOW at the Melody Top.

His stage appearance in town will be his only summer theatre performance of the year. Immediately after the play closes, he returns to TV production for a series coming up this fall that will be made for children.

Johnson and his wife have, more or less, adopted the city as their own. They've been members of the Milwaukee Zoological Society for almost three years, never miss a trip to the zoo when they're here, think the museum is great and do more local sightseeing and visit more places around town than the natives do.

"It's nice to come back to a place you've been to that gives you pleasure," Johnson said.

Johnson, who plays the part of the leprechaun who comes to America to retrieve a stolen pot of gold, also likes to show off his Marquette University T-shirt and a UWM booster jacket. He also delights in staying at the Astor Hotel, dining at Sally's and the Fox & Hounds and visiting Holy Hill.

He said he came up with the "Arte" spelling for his first name after he saw it that way in print.

"It was a typographical error; but it was different, and I liked it, and I decided to keep it," he said. "It's a part of show business."

Johnson said he classifies himself more as an actor who is good in comedy roles than as a comedian.

"I'm not a standup guy who says 'A funny thing happened to me on the way to the office this morning' or something," he said, "but I can take a role and play it for all the humor in it."

The comedian idea, of course, is a holdover from his many days on the old "Laugh-In" television show, but the classification wasn't quite accurate then – or now.

"But I'm certainly not offended if people think of me as a comedian," he said. "I like them to think about me."

Though he and Gisela don't have children (they say they've made a conscious decision not to, one that they arrived at after many hours of soul searching), both enjoy working with youngsters more than anything.

"The new TV series will be for children," Johnson said, his eyes lighting up, adding that the concept was still a bit vague but was certainly intelligent.

"We've been lucky," Johnson said, giving Gisela a hug.

Finian's Rainbow Cast Party Invitation

Clyde Miller's invitation to the opening night cast party, hosted by Arte Johnson. Arte's handwritten note states, "Sheriff: Don't head toward Missitucky or you gonna get yo' haid busted, cause it's too real. Thanks for a hell of a job. Arte." According to the invite, the party was held June 18, 1974, 8:30 p.m., at Glocca Morra (or Melody Top). Courtesy of Sally Marks, from Clyde Miller's collection.

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