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

Voted Melody Top's favorite star performer at a 2017 reunion of the venue's personnel, Jo Anne Worley triumphantly returned to the role – Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi – she first accepted as a standby for Carol Channing in the original Broadway production of HELLO, DOLLY! Embraced by fans during her five appearances at the Top, Worley became part of Milwaukee lore when she stopped a performance of HELLO, DOLLY! because a baby skunk made an appearance under the domed tent. Below are several reminders of how well summer stock audiences appreciated this classic musical comedy.

Photos from HELLO, DOLLY!, July 15 – 27, 1980

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Director Puts Spark Into DOLLY!

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, July 16, 1980

Director Stuart Bishop returned to the Melody Top Theatre Tuesday night with the best-looking show of the season.

In his 13 years at the Top, Bishop made smart ensemble and eye-pleasing patterns his hallmark, and the first of his two 14th season offerings has the undeniable Bishop touch.

The HELLO, DOLLY! that opened for two weeks Tuesday sparkles, thanks to Bishop's sense of timing and, to a great degree, the energetic, bouncy, elegant, irrepressible choreography of John Montgomery – the best Melody Top dance exhibition since Tommy Tune was collaborating here with Bishop more than a decade ago.

Producer Guy S. Little, Jr. has again done his job splendidly by providing his staff with the kind of solid cast that has become his hallmark.

Jo Anne Worley's not blonde and she certainly is not light-headed. But she is as much of a Dolly as any – and that any is emphasized – actress who has appeared in the role.

Her big voice has soul in it. She moves with assurance and her mercurial mind matched every mishap that popped up Tuesday night.

Grumping at her side with a consummate sense of understatement and pure comic timing is Victor Raider-Wexler, adding Horace Vandergelder to his substantial gallery of character portraits.

The pair takes over the stage but leaves enough room for the coquettery of Valerie Lee as the milliner, the uninhibited energy of Laura Soltis as her assistant and the well-matched gaucheries of clerks Dennis Warning and Thomas L. Hanson.

The drought of visual treats at the Melody Top this season is broken with the brilliant parade of Mathew John Hoffman III costumes in the "Dancing" and "Before the Parade Passes By" numbers that are energized by Montgomery's choreography and Bishop's taste.

Tuesday night's audiences could not keep from cheering. This HELLO, DOLLY! will affect you the same way.

Jo Anne Worley at Northridge Mall in Milwaukee

Jo Anne Worley promoted HELLO, DOLLY! (1980) at an event inside Northridge Mall, which was located three miles north of the Melody Top site. Photo from the collection of Mr. Guy S. Little, Jr.


DOLLY! Star No Longer Just a Standby

by Laura Sumner, the Milwaukee Journal, Friday, July 18, 1980

No booming voice or uncontrollable eyelashes accompanied Jo Anne Worley into the room for an interview the other day.

With her TV appearances, one might have expected those things to be second nature. But the comedian, who is starring in the Melody Top production of HELLO, DOLLY!, proved that conception wrong.

In a perfectly normal voice, the old LAUGH-IN regular said:

"I was quite introverted as a little girl. As I grew, I broke out in more ways than one. And it seems I have always used comedy."

"Two years ago, I heard someone say: 'Oh, she's so loud.' There are loud and soft people. I guess I'm one of the loud ones."

When she began her career, Worley was a standby for Carol Channing as Broadway's Dolly. Now, as the musical's star, she said:

"I can play the role and people won't go, 'Oh, no!' when they see me on stage instead of Carol. They'll come to see my version."

"The transition from standby to stand-up hasn't changed anything I am. But my name now goes above the title in the theater, nightclub or whatever, instead of below in small letters. I guess I'm not an unknown commodity anymore."

A "baby 'roo" has a lot to do with Worley, the known commodity.

"I'm always on the lookout for funny props and things that tickle my fancy. I look for things that I might use later in the act . . . One of the most profitable props I found I used on a children's TV special in Chicago. I was dressed as a kangaroo and had a baby 'roo I tucked inside the pouch. I worked it with my hand . . . That's what got me on LAUGH-IN."

Worley, a 42-year old from Indiana, said she didn't want to sound "metaphysical" as she explained her work:

"I really think it's a calling, particularly comedy. You can learn some things, but basically you either know how to be funny or you don't."

"I mainly wanted to make my living making people laugh. I promised myself when I started that if I didn't make it in the business by the time I was 21, I would quit. But once I started working, I kept on."

Plans for the future include "more of the same," she said, adding that comedy isn't her only concern.

The way the business is now, she said, you can't depend on doing just one thing; you should be able to do almost anything.

"It's ironic then," she added, "that I am an entertainer. One of the reasons I wanted to go into show business was because I didn't want to go to school, and I'm still going to school. I'm always learning more about my craft."

Although she's always learning, Worley is careful about what commitments she makes. She said her ideas about "doing Broadway," which she did once very briefly, have changed.

"You have to uproot and disrupt your lifestyle for the run of the show. I don't want to do that. It would have to be something I'm very proud of in order to uproot and leave my family."

She also said that the three weeks she would be spending in Milwaukee, through rehearsals and performances, would be the longest time spent away from her husband, Roger Perry.

HELLO, DOLLY! will run through July 27. All shows are at 8:00 p.m., except for a special matinee at 3:00 p.m. July 20. Tickets range from $6.50 to $8.75 and are available at the Melody Top box office, 7201 W. Good Hope Rd.

Hello, Dolly Graphics

People Making the News

Associated Press, Saturday, July 19, 1980

"There's a critic in the audience this evening," said Jo Anne Worley, starring in HELLO, DOLLY! at the Melody Top Theatre. "I think that maybe what we should do is stop."

The critic she referred to wasn't a heckler or a writer. It was a baby skunk that wandered into the tent theater just before intermission.

At Miss Worley's suggestion, the audience of about 2,000 filed out Thursday night and waited for the skunk to be removed.

John McDowell, a Humane Society supervisor, said the animal was trapped near some shrubs, and two more skunks were found nearby. The animals did not leave a calling card, and the show went on.


HELLO, DOLLY! Cast of Characters

Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi:Jo Anne Worley
Ernestina:Mib Bramlette
Ambrose Kemper:Phillip Courington
Horace Vandergelder:Victor Raider-Wexler
Ermengarde:Debra Dominiak
Cornelius Hackl:Dennis Warning
Barnaby Tucker:Thomas L. Hanson
Irene Molloy:Valerie Lee
Minnie Fay:Laura Soltis
Court Clerk:Jim Fredericks
Rudolph:Bob Quint
Judge:David Larson

Dolly's Friends: Ann Arvia, Ken Ellis, Jim Fredericks, Rudy Hogenmiller, Terry Lacy, David Larson, Nancy McCloud, Nancy Mueller, James K. Seibel, K. David Short, Deborah Woodhouse and Debra Spencer.

Melody Top Orchestra. Conductor: Donald Yap; Reeds: John Hibler, Joe Aaron and Arthur Ulichny; Brass: Norm Wegner, Phil Ruechtenwald, Jeff Pietrangelo, Ken Howlett and Jeff Lemke; Keyboard: Steve Bates; Bass: Tom McGirr; Percussion: Roy Schneider.


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