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

One of the most impressive casts assembled at Melody Top was for its 1970 production of the rarely revived musical comedy LI'L ABNER. Reading like a "who's who" of summer stock theatre, the cast was headed by Milwaukee's own Peter Palmer. In addition to starring in the original Broadway production and film version of this satirical show, Mr. Palmer appeared regularly in stock productions of plays and musicals with his talented wife, Aniko Farrell. All the images below are from Clyde Miller's scrapbooks, courtesy of Sally Marks.

Cast and Creative Team Biographies for LI'L ABNER (1970)

PETER PALMER (Li’l Abner)

Peter PalmerHaving been born in Milwaukee, and living here much of his life, Peter Palmer is truly no stranger to this city. Mr. Palmer's great-grandparents, grandparents and parents were all born and lived in Milwaukee. Peter Palmer is probably the only performer who has the distinction and honor of singing for the last four Presidents of the United States. While in high school he sang for President Truman. He also began the inaugural weekend in 1957 for President Eisenhower. In 1963 he performed BRIGADOON in the east wing of the White House for President Kennedy. He also performed OKLAHOMA for President Johnson on the White House lawn. Since his critically acclaimed introduction into show business in the title role of LI'L ABNER (on both stage and screen), the versatile star appeared on virtually every top TV variety show and headlined in the most famous supper clubs, including New York's Waldorf Astoria, Chicago's Drake Hotel, the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico and the Chevron Hilton in Sydney, Australia. In addition to his two-year success on Broadway, Palmer starred in BRIGADOON, OKLAHOMA, GUYS AND DOLLS, THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, MR. ROBERTS, THE DESERT SONG, 110 IN THE SHADE, GIRL CRAZY, NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS and many other stage hits in leading theatres throughout the country. This summer alone, he did THE STUDENT PRINCE and THE DESERT SONG before coming to Milwaukee. After his engagement here, Mr. Palmer will be doing BRIGADOON in Sullivan, Illinois, and then he will be going to Newfoundland with his wife, Aniko. The handsome, 6 foot – 4 inch, 210 lb. actor-singer made his debut as a non-singing, dramatic actor, co-starring in ABC-TV's "Custer" series. Because of his popularity throughout the world, Palmer was selected by the U.S. State Department in 1967 to tour for 11 weeks in nine different South American countries, under the auspices of the cultural exchange commission. He and wife Aniko Farrell, the beautiful Miss Canada of 1965 and an outstanding singer in her own right, starred in SHOW BOAT and CAROUSEL and received high acclaim in every country. Following his South American tour, Palmer headed a group of entertainers on a 26-day tour of military bases in Vietnam and Thailand, bringing top entertainment to our service men and women. Peter, who studied voice with the late Nelson Eddy, actually got his professional start toward stardom while in the service. Winning an all-Army entertainment contest earned him an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show, which was seen by LI'L ABNER producers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who quickly put him under contract. His primary distinction until that time had been as an athlete. Peter played football while attending the University of Illinois and was a member of the "Big 10 Championship" teams of 1951 and 1953, and the Rose Bowl victors of 1952. While earning his letters, he opened every game singing the national anthem in full football regalia. It didn't take long for him to earn his letter as an entertainer.

JOY GARRETT (Daisy Mae)

Joy GarrettMiss Garrett comes to Melody Top with an abundance of education and practical experience in all phases of theatre. She received her B.A. degree in drama from Texas Wesleyan College and is also an ABC-TV scholarship graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Melody Top audiences will remember her portrayal of the fetchingly winsome Dow Jones girl, Cynthia Pike, in HOW NOW, DOW JONES starring Robert Q. Lewis and Selma Diamond. Her most recent theatrical appearance before coming to Melody Top was in the off-Broadway production of THE DRUNKARD at the 13th Street Theatre. Also off-Broadway she was seen in GERTRUDE STEIN'S FIRST READER at the Astor Place Theatre. Stock appearances include the Kate Montgomery role in HOW NOW, DOW JONES at Casa Manana, Ft. Worth, Texas; and roles in SWEET CHARITY, GYPSY, WILDCAT and THE WIZARD OF OZ. She also appeared in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, CAROUSEL, BELLS ARE RINGING and numerous others. Her broad range of credits include doing industrial shows for Hess Oil, Admiral, Compress, Inc. and General Electric; being the anchor M.C. on the state telecast of the Miss Texas pageant for KTVT-TV; being the M.C. of her own interview show for KTVT-TV; and the co-host of a morning radio program, "On Broadway," for WBAP-FM in Fort Worth. Miss Garrett has a number of unique credits, including being voted Miss Fort Worth and being a featured vocalist aboard the S.S. United States.

HASKELL GORDON (Marryin’ Sam)

Haskell GordonHaskell Gordon is no stranger to Milwaukee Melody Top audiences. He was seen here this season in HOW NOW, DOW JONES starring Robert Q. Lewis and Selma Diamond. He is also remembered for his roles here in ANYTHING GOES with Gretchen Wyler, THE VAGABOND KING and CAMELOT with Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt, BELLS ARE RINGING and THE PAJAMA GAME with Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, LITTLE ME and HOW TO SUCCEED… with Gabe Dell and Karen Morrow, WILDCAT with Martha Raye, KISS ME, KATE with Howard Keel, CAN-CAN with Monique Von Vooren and CALL ME MADAM with Margaret Whiting. He has also appeared in the Washington Park production of SOUTH PACIFIC with Karen Morrow and Morely Meredith. Mr. Gordon recently toured nationally with Gloria Swanson in REPRISE, Tom Ewell in HARVEY, Ann Miller in GLAD TIDINGS, Betty Grable in BORN YESTERDAY and June Havoc in IN ANY LANGUAGE. He is currently seen and heard in several national television and radio commercials and in the film MICKEY ONE with Warren Beatty and Franchot Tone. Mr. Gordon is a native Chicagoan who lives in New York City and holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University.

DON POTTER (Pappy Yokum)

Don PotterVersatile Don Potter, actor, comedian, singer and dancer, is at home in practically every phase of the entertainment medium. He has appeared on radio and TV, in burlesque, in nightclubs and on the legitimate stage. Don toured the nation in CARNIVAL portraying the role of the assistant puppeteer, Jacquot. His initial entry in the legitimate theatre, however, came when he was cast for the 40-week, cross-country production of LI'L ABNER, in the same role that he will be performing here (Pappy Yokum). Additional credits include THE STUDENT PRINCE, RAIN, WILDCAT, BELLS ARE RINGING, THE VAGABOND KING, MILK AND HONEY and an east coast tour of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, to name just a few. Mr. Potter also portrayed the role of Snoopy in the prize-winning YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLEY BROWN. During this presentation, he took a leave of absence to do the world premiere stage production of Walt Disney's film classic SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in the role of Doc, the leader of the dwarfs, at the fabulous 12,000-seat outdoor theatre, the St. Louis Municipal Opera.

SUSAN RUSH (Mammy Yokum)

Susan RushSusan Rush, a native of Mansfield, Pennsylvania, received her B.S. degree in music from her hometown college and began her theatrical career there, playing roles as varied as Luisa in THE FANTASTICKS and Daisy Mae in LI'L ABNER to Amanda in THE GLASS MENAGERIE and Meg in BRIGADOON. This past season she made her off-Broadway debut in THE DRUNKARD, receiving rave reviews for her role of Julia, a five-year old, "freckled, bawling brat right out of ALICE IN WONDERLAND," according to the N.Y. Post. She also appeared at Radio City Music Hall and with the Pixie Judy Troupe, who perform children's musicals throughout the New York metropolitan area. In New York, Susan studied acting at the Herbert Berghof Studios, voice with Donald W. Johnston and dance at the American Academy of Ballet. She was recently seen in a guest appearance with Joe Franklin, on his television show originating in New York. In addition to her theatrical career, Susan taught music for four years in the public schools of New York and New Jersey. As one New York critic so aptly put it, "Susie's the one!" Previously this season at Melody Top, Miss Rush was seen in MAME, CABARET and HOW NOW, DOW JONES.

ZALE KESSLER (General Bullmoose)

Zale KesslerMr. Kessler's role in LI'L ABNER marks his fourteenth appearance at Melody Top. His most recent appearance here was as the girl-loving but marriage-shy peddler Ali Hakim in OKLAHOMA starring John Raitt. Mr. Kessler appeared as The Inventor in the Broadway company of Peter Ustinov's THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER AND HIS WIFE, in several roles in THE DARLING OF THE DAY, and he recently made his film debut in THE PRODUCERS starring Zero Mostel. His credits include, among others, eleven years of stock appearances with major theatres from Maine to Florida and coast to coast; the recent road tour of WHERE'S CHARLEY?; the off-Broadway hit revue, O OYSTERS; the role of Phyllis Diller's legendary husband Fang in her TV special, "An Evening with Phyllis Diller;" and the role of The Sewerman opposite Angela Lansbury in DEAR WORLD. Mr. Kessler is a collector of operetta and musical comedy scores and is currently working on a projected recording of FLORODORA.

STEVE STEPHENSON (Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale)

Steve StephensonA versatile performer who divided his time between the stage and nightclubs, Steve Stephenson is much sought after as one of the top singing pianists on the nightclub scene. He just completed a highly successful tour of the eastern Holiday Inn hotels. Previously this summer, Mr. Stephenson was seen in the role of the southern Beauregard in MAME; Max, the jealous male companion of Sally Bowles (Elaine Cancilla) in CABARET; and as Walter L. Bradbury in HOW NOW, DOW JONES. Other credits include off-Broadway's HAMLET OF STEPNEY GREEN; numerous seasons of stock in which he appeared in over fifty plays and musicals; the touring companies of ONCE MORE WITH FEELING and THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO, both with June Havoc; and in LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL. Television audiences saw him on "The Untouchables" series where, true-to-form, he appeared as a nightclub singing pianist. Mr. Stephenson began his acting career in his native North Carolina, which provides him with a strictly legitimate southern accent.

JERRY CLARK (Evil Eye Fleagle)

Jerry ClarkJerry Clark continues his stay at Melody Top after his brilliant portrayal of Charley Matson in HOW NOW, DOW JONES apposite Robert Q. Lewis and Selma Diamond. He previously appeared here in 1968 in THE DESERT SONG. Mr. Clark graduated from Yale University with a bachelor of arts degree in drama; since then he has been involved in all phases of the entertainment field. He was seen twice on the "CBS Repertoire Workshop," and won the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences talent hunt for 1969. His nightclub engagements included stints at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Manhattan’s Upstairs at the Downstairs and the Madeira Club on Cape Cod. Stock appearances include: THE FANTASTICS, IRMA LA DOUCE and ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. Off-Broadway he was seen in MACBIRD and, most recently, in THE WAY IT IS.

TOM WOODWARD (Earthquake McGoon)

Tom WoodwardMilwaukeeans can point with pride to Tom Woodward if anyone should ever belittle or question the abilities or staying power of native Milwaukeeans. There is little Mr. Woodward has not accomplished, in addition to holding a full-time position as vice president of Milwaukee Seasoning Laboratories and earning B.S. and M.A. degrees. Mr. Woodward was previously seen at Melody Top in THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT…, CARNIVAL, IRMA LA DOUCE, FANNY and TAKE ME ALONG. It is understandable why Mr. Woodward was cast as Earthquake McGoon in LI'L ABNER: he held the 1967 Wisconsin heavyweight judo championship. He is also a certified, black-belt judo instructor. Mr. Woodward appeared with the Shorewood and Mequon Players before coming to Melody Top two years ago.

CLYDE MILLER (Senator Jack S. Phogbound)

Clyde MillerMilwaukeean Clyde Miller is a familiar face to Melody Top audiences. Previously this season he was seen as Dwight Babcock in MAME, and as both Senator McFetridge and A. K. in HOW NOW, DOW JONES, as well as being featured in numerous others since 1967. In competition with Chicago-area actors, Mr. Miller was chosen as one of the finalists to appear in the Equity showcase at Chicago's Ivanhoe Theatre. Mr. Miller actively participated as actor, director or writer – and sometimes all three – in over 150 community theatre, U. S. Army and semi-professional productions. Mr. Miller also appeared at Milwaukee's Pabst, Riverside, Swan, Skylight and Fred Miller Theatres.

SUZAN SIDNEY (Appassionata von Climax)

Suzan SidneySuzan Sidney began her career in 1962 doing children's theatre at John B. Kelly's Playhouse in the Park in Philadelphia. Following this she studied acting at Carnegie Tech. She was seen professionally in stock productions as Barbara in MILK AND HONEY, Agnes in GYPSY and appeared in such diverse shows as DAMN YANKEES, SHOW BOAT, THE MERRY WIDOW, SOUTH PACIFIC, CAMELOT and WHERE'S CHARLEY?, to name a few. Her credits also include the 1965 New York City Center production of OKLAHOMA and the Broadway production of CANTERBURY TALES.

STUART BISHOP (Director-Designer)

Stuart BishopStuart Bishop returns to Melody Top for his fourth summer after a successful season on the east coast. His most recent assignment was THE APPLE TREE with Dorothy Collins at the Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre. He also directed a production of HIGH SPIRITS. In addition to directing, Mr. Bishop re-wrote an original script which was produced in Pennsylvania recently. Mr. Bishop served as Melody Top's scenic designer for two years before adding the position of director to his title in the 1967 season. His work at Melody Top was acclaimed by Milwaukee critics and audiences alike. As a director-designer, Mr. Bishop served in many theatrical areas. Considering Mr. Bishop's youthful, articulate nature, people find it difficult to believe the number of years he spent in summer stock, college, community theatre and off-Broadway. In New York he directed the off-Broadway production of MY DEAR MISS TRILBY. In addition, he co-authored and assistant-directed SHE SHALL HAVE MUSIC and SWEET MIAMI. In previous seasons, he was with the New London Players in New Hampshire. As a designer, he worked with St. John Terrell's Music Circus and three musical tents on Cape Cod. He also held the position of director-designer at Houston Musical Theatre. In numerous community and college theatres, such as Rider College, Dennison University, the Triangle Players of Boston and the Rhode Island School of Design, he was guest director, artist-in-residence and lecturer.

JAMES SMOCK (Choreographer)

James SmockJames Smock returns for his second season at Melody Top and continues his association with director Stuart Bishop. Mr. Smock worked with director Bishop a year ago at the Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre in New Jersey and this resulted in his coming to Melody Top last summer. Again this past winter, Mr. Smock choreographed the season at Meadowbrook, keeping the Bishop-Smock team intact. Melody Top audiences easily recall last season's exciting musical numbers and can look forward to another summer of the same. Mr. Smock's work at the Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre includes productions of SONG OF NORWAY, PAINT YOUR WAGON, WISH YOU WERE HERE, PAJAMA GAME, PLAIN AND FANCY and FUNNY GIRL. Mr. Smock choreographed the Las Vegas version of FUNNY GIRL, which starred Phil Ford and Mimi Hines. He was once again reunited with Mr. Ford and Miss Hines when they came to the Melody Top for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT... Prior to choreographing the Ford and Hines FUNNY GIRL, Mr. Smock performed in the play's Broadway version. As a performer on Broadway, he was fortunate in working with some legendary personalities of the theatre. He worked with Judy Holliday in BELLS ARE RINGING and Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker in GIRLS AGAINST THE BOYS. NOTE: Clyde Laurents co-choreographed this production of LI'L ABNER with James Smock.

DONALD YAP (Conductor-Musical Director)

Donald YapMelody Top's new conductor-musical director, Donald Yap, comes to Melody Top for the remainder of our season directly from a production of THE APPLE TREE directed by Stuart Bishop at Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre. Mr. Yap attended Punahou School (Honolulu) and studied piano with Marion Kerr. After receiving B.M. and M.A. degrees at Eastman, he returned to Honolulu and was on the music faculty at Punahou Music School and the University of Hawaii for three years. During this time he conducted his first musical comedy (1955) at the Honolulu Community Theatre. Josephine Flanders, now at the Hawaiian Hilton, was responsible for this new Interest. Since 1959 he has been musical director at Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre in New Jersey, except for the leaves of absence he took to do engagements elsewhere.


Others in the cast included Mark Mathews (Lonesome Polecat), Dennis Dohman (Hairless Joe and Dr. Krogmeyer), Miche Priaulx (Romeo Scragg), John McEvoy (Clem Scragg and Dr. Schleifitz), Larry Kenton (Alf Scragg), Eugene Rubenzer (Herbert McDirt), Judy Blasi (Moonbeam McSwine), Robert Baker (Mayor Dawgmeat), Jay Schelble (Government Man), Tedd Carrere (Available Jones), B.J. Hanford (Stupefyin' Jones), Craig Jacobs (Colonel), Mark Schumerth (Cedric Softwicke), Clyde Laurents (Speedy McRabbit) and Marius Hanford (Creighton).

Muscle Beach Dads were Michael Czarnecki, Paul Kiel, Richard Mintken and Andrew Szczerba.

Dogpatchers, Secretaries and High Sassiety were Judy Blasi, Tedd Carrere, Joan Carvelle, Dennis Dohman, Marlissa Griffin, Marius Hanford, Larry Kenton, Coline Morse, Clyde Laurents, Mark Mathews, Jo Jean Retrum, John McEvoy, Miche Priaulx, Judith Ann Matheis and Mark Schumerth.

The Visiting Scraggs were Paul Griebl, Mike Griebl, Jim Arnold, Sheldon Jorgensen, Joey Makovec, Anne Baravella, Mark Mickelson, Debra Derderian, Craig Radi, Marcy Olivi and Dan Gilman.

Li'l Abner Characters

Backstage at Melody Top Theatre, Peter Palmer as Li'l Abner and Clyde Miller as Senator Jack S. Phogbound posed for the camera. Photo by Sally Marks, from the scrapbooks of Clyde Miller.


LI'L ABNER Moves in with Style

By Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 5, 1970

A collection of seedy characters has taken over the Melody Top Theatre for the production of LI'L ABNER that opened Tuesday night.

While they may be short on policy and subtlety, they draw on a long suit of earnest good fun to slam home an evening of what has been billed as family entertainment.

The big name, and man, in the production is Milwaukee's own Peter Palmer, who has made a career of playing the show's type of role.

His good looks, superlative physique and pleasing singing voice proved to be an effective fulcrum on which the show swings.

As his ever-patient sweetheart, Daisy Mae, Joy Garrett perfectly complements his masculinity with winning pulchritude plus plenty of stage savvy and a sweet voice.

The irrepressible Haskell Gordon as Marryin' Sam rounds out the effective members of the Dogpatch citizenry, which, by the way, has been augmented by director Stuart Bishop with a goodly number of livestock.

Susan Rush and Don Potter make Al Capp's comic strip characters come alive as Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and Clyde Miller turns in his best performance this summer as oratorical Jack S. Phogbound.

In the Washington scenes, Zale Kessler makes a most welcome return visit to Milwaukee as the greedy General Bullmoose, and Jerry Clark, fresh from his engaging triumph in HOW NOW, DOWN JONES, turns into a marvelous zoot-suited menace as Evil Eye Fleagle.

All of the cartoon strip characters make appearances in this animated version of Capp's social satire. Their familiarity helps the audience suspend its judgment of the performance — which had unaccustomed first-night jitters.

W. Steven Graham has given the show some interesting, gimmicky settings, and Donald Yap and his pit orchestra do well with the Mercer-de Paul score.

Li'l Abner Cartoon

Taken from the cover of a souvenir program with an original Al Capp drawing, Daisy Mae is about to catch Li'l Abner during Dogpatch's annual Sadie Hawkins Day race. Program courtesy of Sally Marks.


LI'L ABNER's Big at Melody Top

By Michael H. Drew of The Milwaukee Journal Staff

Peter Palmer reversed the hometown-to-Broadway success pattern Tuesday night at the Melody Top. The Milwaukee native, who entered show biz in the original LI'L ABNER, brought that Dogpatch Tarzan and his hillbilly hippies home for a two-week run.

A near-capacity audience gave Palmer's local premiere a deserved ovation.

Despite one of the tent's best efforts in several years, the huzzahs must be somewhat muffled. For one thing, the Norman Panama-Melvin Frank satire is as broad as Palmer's back (which could replace the tent poles in a high wind).

And midway through Act 2 the plot got so convoluted — something about an A-bomb headed for Dogpatch, magic potions and business greed — that your agent got lost. But, as it turned out, that hardly mattered.

That's because director Stuart Bishop, conductor Donald Yap and choreographers James Smock and Clyde Laurents kept pumping ABNER back to heroic size with antic, frantic dance routines. Both orchestra and chorus breezed along in midseason form.

After two weeks of monotone music in HOW NOW, DOW JONES, the company had a bright, sprightly score to sink its vocal cords into (namely, "Namely You," "Jubilation T. Cornpone" and "If I Had My Druthers").

Bishop kept Al Capp's innocents and an animal menagerie rushing on-stage and off- with un-Dogpatch dispatch. Since the characters were, literally, cartoon caricatures, their mannered acting style was appropriate.

As Abner, Palmer personified boyish naivete. Now that his hometown has finally discovered him, the Herculean thespian and his form-fitting baritone have earned an encore visit. His Daisy Mae (Joy Garrett) was at least as comely as the Broadway original — one Edie Adams.

The supporting characters included the biggest collection of weirdos this side of Capp's fertile brain (see the Green Sheet).

They included: Marryin' Sam — Haskell Gordon, who stayed inside his character this time; General Bullmoose — Zale Kessler, reliably farcical as ever in his 14th tent visit; Evil Eye Fleagle — Jerry Clark, who wrung extra laughs from a brief bit; Senator Jack S. Phogbound — Clyde Miller; and Pappy Yokum — Don Potter, from ABNER’s national company.

A few players (Susan Rush as Mammy Yokum and Tom Woodward as Earthquake McGoon) struggled so hard over their accents that we had to struggle to understand them.

(NOTE: For readers not familiar with Wisconsin newspapers, the Green Sheet was The Milwaukee Journal's comics section. It was printed on light green newsprint.)

Senator Scene Li'l Abner

Clyde Miller as Senator Phogbound, explaining to the citizens of Dogpatch, U.S.A., the government's plans for their beloved part of the country. Photo by Richard Borgeson, courtesy of Sally Marks.

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