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

It is not difficult to imagine that Titus Maccius Plautus, who wrote the original material on which the musical is based over 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome, may have been delighted to see A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM performed "in the round" and under a tent by two of the most gifted television comedians of the twentieth century. Arte Johnson and Dave Madden, fresh from their legendary television success on LAUGH-IN, opened Melody Top's fourteenth season to capacity crowds and box office records.

Cast Biographies for A FUNNY THING...FORUM (1976)

ARTE JOHNSON (Prologus/Pseudolus)

Arte JohnsonArte Johnson first came to Melody Top four years ago to play seven characters opposite Karen Morrow in LITTLE ME. Two weeks and fourteen standing ovations later, he found himself eagerly adopted by local audiences who had probably never laughed louder or longer at any tent show. His return in 1974 as Og the Leprechaun (amidst choruses of "It's Not That Easy Being Green") in FINIAN'S RAINBOW saw Arte break every existing tent attendance and box office record and, since then, he and his lovely wife Gisela have more or less taken Milwaukee and its zoo, museum, restaurants, shops – and, most importantly, the annual Variety Club epilepsy telethon – into personal "protective custody." The feeling on the city's part for them is decidedly mutual.

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, attorney Abraham Lincoln Johnson and Edith MacKenzie Goldberg, provided for early instruction in music and Arte now plays violin, saxophone, clarinet and all the woodwinds. But, when entering the University of Illinois, his goal was a career in ichthyology (the study of fish)! As no such major was available there, he was forced to content himself with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in history. He was continuing on this somewhat circuitous road toward a greater knowledge of fish when further schooling was interrupted by a trip to New York and a job 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, found himself a working actor. (His first professional part had him playing a 60-year old man.) The tour led to bookings at small but increasingly prestigious nightclubs, including the Ruben Bleu and the Blue Angel, where his musical comedy act was extremely well received and featured sketches of several of the characters who would later make him famous.

Impressed with Johnson's singing talent, producers of the television series IT'S ALWAYS JAN sent Arte 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, leaving Hollywood somewhat less than fulfilled.

PseudolusThe next stage in his career, however, provided a turning point with three seasons at Tamiment, a resort-with-theatre in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. This demanding training ground required a new show every week which played for two nights and was then retired while a new one was written, rehearsed and prepared for the week following. Among the stars and writers who came out of Tamiment prior to Arte's arrival were Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and many others; during his tenure, he worked with such other young hopefuls as Carol Burnett, Dick Shawn, Jack Cassidy, Pat Carroll and Larry Kert, and exercised all of his talents for singing, dancing, acting, comedy and improvisation.

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

After a brief interlude working as a clothing salesman, Arte began doing commercials for which his ability to do highly unique characterizations was an inestimable asset. In addition to over 200 radio and television spots, he also appeared in four or five movies. "Invariably," he says now, "playing psychotics," including THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST and THE THIRD DAY.

At this point, he took a cut in pay to go into his third television series, LAUGH-IN. His many eccentric characters became nationwide hits within weeks and, after four nominations, Arte won an Emmy, the only individual performer from the LAUGH-IN crew to do so. He also had his own television special and made guest appearances on literally all of the top variety shows.

Since leaving the innovative LAUGH-IN, Arte's pace accelerated. He visited the Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and Glen Campbell shows, LOVE AMERICAN STYLE, THE SUPER COMEDY BOWL and many others; his total TV appearances have surpassed the 500-mark. He has gone back to nightclubs on a bigger scale with a smashing appearance at the Riviera in Las Vegas. And he starred in the aforementioned stage shows.

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

Until then, however, he remains one of show business' most versatile performers, one of its brightest stars and one of Melody Top's finest favorites.

DAVE MADDEN (Hysterium)

Dave MaddenDave Madden first came to national recognition when his devastating wit made him one of the favorite cut-ups on Rowan and Martin's LAUGH-IN; this led to a four-year costarring assignment as personal manager to THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. In addition, Dave was a regular on the short-lived CAMP RUNAMUCK and guest-starred on BEWITCHED, HOGAN'S HEROES, HAPPY DAYS, PASSWORD, THE TONIGHT SHOW and THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW. He made his film debut last winter in the Roger Corman production THE CAR and his stage debut last summer here at Melody Top. As the faithful, tolerant Herbie of GYPSY, Dave maneuvered Margaret Whiting, Linda Kaye Henning and a variety of vaudeville acts around the tent stage in a splendid portrayal acclaimed by local audiences and critics.

The Madden show business career began while he was stationed in the Air Force in North Africa: his magic and comedy routines made him the hit of the camp-show circuit. Prior to the service, he practiced magic as a hobby and performed at schools while growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana (he was born in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada).

Dave's plan to major in education at Indiana State Teachers College, and even an eventual bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Miami, fell to second place when performances as a stand-up comic at local clubs and parties throughout the South made him realize that entertainment was his field. In 1961, he auditioned for Beverly Hills' famed showcase Ye Little Club and made such a hit he was signed to a long-term contract. He followed this initial success with a Palm Springs nightclub date where he attracted the attention of Frank Sinatra. The latter was so impressed he recommended Dave for THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, the first of several appearances on that CBS series.

Summer of 1973 saw Dave as a headliner with Rowan and Martin at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. The unanimous acclaim that greeted him led to club dates at other Vegas nightspots as well as in Reno and Lake Tahoe. With his ever-increasing popularity as a comedian, Dave continues to expand his professional horizons with a busy schedule of television, theatre, movies and tours.

He is married to the former Nena Arnold; the Maddens make their home in Van Nuys, California.

HASKELL GORDON (Lycus)

Haskell GordonHaskell Gordon returns to Melody Top having just completed the opening season of the Hartman Theatre Company in Stamford, Connecticut. He was featured in their productions of THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, THE HOSTAGE and a new musical adaptation of TOM JONES directed by Alan Arkin. He is no stranger to classical repertory theatre, as his past credits include work for the Long Wharf, the Washington Arena, the Alley, the Guthrie and the Cincinnati Playhouse in works by playwrights ranging from William Shakespeare to Neil Simon.

Mr. Gordon was seen off-Broadway in the successful revival of Tennessee Williams' PORTRAIT OF A MADONNA, directed by Mr. Williams, and in Brecht's ARTURO UI directed by Al Pacino.

His Broadway credits include the award-winning, original production of 1776. He toured in Neil Simon's THE LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS and THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, and in Terrence McNally's NEXT.

With great pride, Haskell refers to Melody Top as his "home away from home" as he appeared with Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt in the very first season's production of THE VAGABOND KING. His roles this summer in FORUM and 1776 bring his total tent appearances to eighteen.

THOMAS RUISINGER (Senex)

Thomas RuisingerTom Ruisinger made his initial Melody Top appearances three seasons ago as Mayor of the River Citizens of THE MUSIC MAN, the magical Mr. Lundy of BRIGADOON and one of the apartment-seeking executives in PROMISES, PROMISES. He returned last summer to deliver a series of polished, highly diverse performances as (alternately) the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, Ann Blyth's titled husband-to-be in BITTER SWEET, father of THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, grandfather of GYPSY, Mavrodani in ZORBA and the bemused King Pellinore of CAMELOT.

He spent the winter on tour with Nancy Kulp (remembered as secretary Jane Hathaway on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES) in an English murder mystery, BUSY BODY, and has just completed a role in the new Sean Connery film THE NEXT MAN for release next winter.

Mr. Ruisinger is familiar to Broadway, off-Broadway and national tour audiences for his performances in such notable shows as THE LARK, THE WARM PENINSULA, A SHOT IN THE DARK (all with Julie Harris); THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS; THE ODD COUPLE; FRANK MERRIWELL; HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING; HADRIAN VII; THE BALCONY; UNDER MILKWOOD; SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR; NO, NO, NANETTE; and PROMISES, PROMISES. For two seasons, he was a member of the company of the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford. Among his many co-stars are such acclaimed actors and/or personalities as Robert Cummings, Lee Grant, George Gobel, Bill Bixby, John Davidson, Jean Stapleton, Martha Raye, Molly Picon, Donald O'Connor, Robert Morse, Helen Gallagher, Tab Hunter, and – at Melody Top – Van Johnson, Jane Powell, Orson Bean, Karen Morrow, John Raitt, Mimi Hines, Peter Palmer, Giorgio Tozzi, Ed Evanko, Margaret Whiting, Dave Madden, Linda Kaye Henning, Ed Ames and Linda Michele.

Tom was also seen in over twenty-five television commercials, extolling the merits of American Airlines, Betty Crocker, Sony TV and Lee's Carpets – among others! – and was one of eight actors flown to Wakiki Beach in Hawaii to participate in the show commemorating the 100th anniversary of Schlitz Beer.

His other film credits include FAIL SAFE, P.S. I LOVE YOU and A NEW LEAF, co-starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May. He was a year-long participant in the Jackie Gleason AMERICAN SCENE MAGAZINE TV show and also appeared on THE HALLMARK HALL OF FAME, ARMSTRONG CIRCLE THEATRE, OMNIBUS and ONE LIFE TO LIVE.

The Ruisinger home in New York City is a nineteenth-century Federal townhouse which he renovated and restored; it was designated a historical landmark.

NEVA RAE POWERS (Philia)

Neva Rae PowersThis production marks Neva Rae's third Melody lop appearance; last summer, she was victorious as the shy but ultimately lucky-in-love bookworm who tutored the campus football hero to astronomical success in GOOD NEWS starring Dorothy Collins and Carl Betz. Her introduction to local audiences came three seasons ago as the truly Darlin' Eileen of WONDERFUL TOWN.

Since last year, Miss Powers starred as Polly Browne in THE BOY FRIEND on tour throughout New England. She also appeared as Antonia in a production of MAN OF LA MANCHA and made her concert debut as guest soloist with the Senior Concert Orchestra of New York City. Over the winter, she toured the country in industrials to literally sing the praises of Canada Dry soft drinks, Burlington-Klopman fabrics and A.C. Delco air filters. Neva Rae will perform with her mother's swing choir in Washington, DC after this Melody Top engagement as part of the entertainment surrounding the celebration of our Bicentennial. She will later sing at two of the Catskill Mountains' finest resort hotels, The Concord and Grossinger's.

As a recipient of the prestigious Jane Froman Voice Scholarship at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, she trained in voice, dance, drama and with famous flautist Robert Cavally. An operatic career is one of Neva's eventual goals – with a self-admitted desire to sing French and Mozartian roles. Her other credits range from JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS to Neil Simon's THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL and Sigmund Romberg's operetta MARYLAND, MY MARYLAND (as the legendary Barbara Frietchie). She also appeared off-Broadway again, as Polly Browne, in the Equity Library Theatre production of THE BOY FRIEND.

DAN WEBBER (Hero)

Dan WebberA member of our resident company for the past three seasons, Dan Webber returns to featured prominence in FORUM – a fact sure to please the fans he won as the Minstrel in Melody Top's ONCE UPON A MATTRESS two summers ago.

Since that performance, he toured with Top favorite Dorothy Collins in APPLAUSE, appeared locally in CAROUSEL and the Marion Marlowe revue A TOAST TO BROADWAY (both at Center Stage), and just completed a Montreal cabaret booking with the Brothers and Sisters.

Dan's stage career came after three years of teaching vocal music and one year of special education. He has his bachelor's degree from Indiana State University and a master's from DePauw University; he also studied vocal training at Indiana University.

In addition to several other Center Stage shows, he was seen in Milwaukee with the Florentine Opera Company. In Indianapolis, he appeared in both Starlight and Footlight Musicals, as well as with the Terre Haute Sycamore Theatre; in New Jersey, he did DAMN YANKEES at the Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre with Robert Morse and Ed Evanko. The spring 1974 season saw Dan as a member of Arie Crown Music Theatre company in Chicago.

His representative roles include Mr. Snow in CAROUSEL, Charlie in BRIGADOON, Cornelius in HELLO, DOLLY!, George Nowak in SHE LOVES ME and Fyedka in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. His other credits are highlighted by productions of AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS, IL TROVATORE, THE UNCONVENTIONAL REHEARSAL and THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN.

Dan was honored as artist-in-residence at Michigan's Bay View Conservatory of Music.

ROBERT ALTON (Miles Gloriosus)

Robert AltonRobert Alton won happy recognition from Melody Top audiences over the last two summers as both a member of our regular ensemble and – more importantly – as Lancelot in CAMELOT (1975) and Lun Tha in THE KING AND I (1974). Since that first Melody Top appearance, he co-starred with Eve Arden in the long-running UNDER PAPA'S PICTURE at the Chicago Drury Lane Theatres, performed (also in Chicago) in the United States premiere of the classic British musical ROBERT AND ELIZABETH, and created comic havoc with Bob Denver in THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL at Milwaukee's Center Stage Dinner Theatre. Most recently, he led the cast of THE FANTASTICKS at Chicago's Forum Theatre and sang in the Arlington Park Hotel cabaret musical revue.

Rob has an impressive list of musical, dramatic and comedy credits at theatres all over the United States. His enthusiasm for show business – in all of its facets – extends back to a fascination with the complex puppet and marionette work he did while still in a Chicago-area grade school. He followed this with a junior high career as a magician and then, as a freshman in high school, won the lead in DAMN YANKEES.

His major musical roles include Billy Bigelow in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic CAROUSEL, Tommy Albright in BRIGADOON and Tony in WEST SIDE STORY. Dramatic performances arrived as Timmy in THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, Atahuallpa in THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN and three diverse, demanding characterizations in SHAKESPEARE, NOW!: Romeo, Petruchio and Ferdinand. The latter two shows came under the auspices of the colleges where Rob received his B.F.A. and M.S. degrees in drama and theatre: Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State, respectively. New York audiences saw him as Happy in a showcase production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN. His other work includes the roles of Paul in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, Charles in BLITHE SPIRIT, Axel Magee in DON'T DRINK THE WATER and John Harker in DRACULA.

In stock, Rob did three shows at the St. Louis Municipal Opera (THE STUDENT PRINCE, ANYTHING GOES and SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS), two shows on the Ohio/Michigan Kenley circuit (GUYS AND DOLLS and SOUTH PACIFIC) and the revival of EL CAPITAN at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. The latter production was also presented at historic Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC. Milwaukee audiences first saw Rob in Center Stage Dinner Theatre edition of OKLAHOMA! He also directed Center Stage's highly successful children's show, MY EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES, winning enthusiastic response from local critics and patrons alike.

On television, Rob was featured male soloist on the ABC special ILLINOIS SINGS and sang the CAROUSEL "Soliloquy" on NBC-TV's IT'S ACADEMIC.

MEME WOLFF (Gymnasia)

Meme WolffMeme Wolff originally appeared as Gymnasia at Cincinnati's Beef 'n' Boards Dinner Theatre and at Plantation Dinner Theatre in her home town of St. Louis. The latter also saw her in editions of THERE'S A GIRL IN MY SOUP, FINISHING TOUCHES, THE LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Earlier this year, she had the privilege of appearing in the first professional production of a new play, NOT WITH MY DAUGHTER.

In her spare time, Meme has been seen training dolphins at the Six Flags Over Mid-America amusement park.

DOLORES ROTHENBERGER (Domina)

Dolores RothenbergerDolores Rothenberger is one of the Midwest's most admired and respected performers. She won the 1970 Joseph Jefferson Award as Chicago's Best Actress for her performance as Aldonza in the long-running Candlelight Theatre production of MAN OF LA MANCHA and garnered a nomination for that city's prestigious Sarah Siddons Award in 1972. Her other Candlelight Theatre roles included Golde in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and Nancy in OLIVER! She also created the character of Sis Daley in the controversial Chicago Forum Theatre production of BOSS.

Throughout Illinois and Michigan, Miss Rothenberger was seen in another production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Babe in THE PAJAMA GAME, Mrs. Paroo in THE MUSIC MAN, Lady Thiang in THE KING AND I, Bloody Mary in SOUTH PACIFIC, and leading roles in FLOWER DRUM SONG, FIORELLO, DAMN YANKEES, THE BOY FRIEND and TAKE ME ALONG. Among her other awards are two best actress citations from the Chicago Encore Theatre for her work as Rosie in BYE BYE BIRDIE and Anita in WEST SIDE STORY.

Dolores also appeared extensively in children's theatre and with the CHUCK LARGENT REVUE on tour in the Midwest.

CLYDE MILLER (Erronius)

Clyde MillerAnother Melody Top regular, Clyde Miller returns for his ninth summer at the tent. His characterizations have brightened such past-season hits as ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, GYPSY, GUYS AND DOLLS, FINIAN'S RAINBOW, 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 PAINT YOUR WAGON, CARNIVAL, SONG OF NORWAY, SWEET CHARITY, HIGH BUTTON SHOES, SILK STOCKINGS, IRMA LA DOUCE, WHERE'S CHARLEY?, PAL JOEY and OF THEE I SING.

Clyde performed at many other Milwaukee venues including the Pabst, Fred Miller, Skylight, Riverside and Swan Theatres, and he worked as writer, director or actor (and sometimes all three) in over 150 community theatres, 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. Clyde can currently be seen in area newspapers and magazines as Gilbert in the Marshall and llsley Bank's "strong partner" advertising campaign.

Forum Rehearsal

A very rare shot of an open rehearsal for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, taken on Sunday, June 6, 1976, between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Fans of the theatre were invited to this free event (via a newspaper article) featuring refreshments, a backstage tour and an opportunity to see the newly installed turntable, recently purchased for $5,000. Photo by Sally Marks.

Forum Scene One

Arte Johnson as Prologus/Pseudolus and Clyde Miller as Erronius, in an early scene from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1976) at Melody Top. Photo by Richard Borgeson.

Forum Scene Tow

A frantic scene near the end of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FOURM (1976), featuring Clyde Miller as Erronius, Dave Madden as Hysterium and Robert Alton as Miles Gloriosus. The man behind Mr. Madden is Thomas Ruisinger as Senex. Photo by Richard Borgeson.


A Sampling of Newspaper Reviews for FORUM

In the June 9, 1976 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, Michael H. Drew reported, "Before, during and after delivering his lines, Johnson kissed performers (male) and a ringsider (ditto), moved scenery with a customer and applauded his co-stars. For 150 minutes, he trotted around the tent, wearing a rainbow toga, horn-rimmed glasses and yellow sneakers."

In the Milwaukee Sentinel, Jay Joslyn commented, "Johnson, that elfin refugee from LAUGH-IN's Wehrmacht, leaps into this early demonstration of great promise and makes the evening completely his own. The burlesque of the Forum is thickly coated with the burlesque of Minsky. Ancient jokes and even more archaic gimmicks tumble about the stage and prove the dangerous derangement of 'dog days' by laying the audience in the aisles. Director Stuart Bishop wisely let Johnson have his head and the clown repays his trust with a performance that keeps well within bounds."

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