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

Gretchen Wyler made her final Melody Top appearance as MAME in 1979, a role she was to have played in Milwaukee almost a decade earlier. A scheduling conflict prevented her from playing the world's most famous aunt in 1970, and she was replaced by Kaye Stevens. Returning to the city one last time in a 1993 tour of 42nd STREET at the Riverside Theatre, she spoke fondly of Melody Top to the local press. She retired from the stage in 1997, after playing Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi at St. Louis Muny Opera — where her career began in 1950.

Cast and Creative Team Biographies for MAME (1979)

GRETCHEN WYLER (Mame)

Gretchen WylerGretchen Wyler returns to Melody Top for her fifth starring engagement, having previously been a smashing success in productions of SWEET CHARITY in 1967, ANYTHING GOES in 1969, COMPANY in 1972 and APPLAUSE in 1973.

Miss Wyler, a triple-threat entertainer, first came to prominence as a singing-dancing star of Cole Porter's SILK STOCKINGS. In 1977 she made her Broadway debut as a dramatic actress in SLY FOX with George C. Scott, winning a Drama Desk Award nomination, and repeated her role in the L.A. company this past summer.

Born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Miss Wyler started studying ballet at the age of three and left her hometown to join a ballet company at the age of 17. She danced with the St. Louis Municipal Opera corps de ballet later in her teens and then moved directly to the Broadway chorus of WHERE'S CHARLEY? It was at this time that the star of the show, Ray Bolger, predicted a big future for Gretchen Wienecke and suggested she change her name to Wyler. With her new name she joined the chorus of GUYS AND DOLLS and eventually took over the role of Adelaide in the show's national company.

SILK STOCKINGS came next. Gretchen won the Outer Critics Circle Award for her creation of the shameless Hollywood star in this show and became a favorite performer on Broadway ever since. Her name went up in lights when she replaced Gwen Verdon as Lola in DAMN YANKEES. Soon she was tagged by David Merrick to star in the national company of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and she co-starred with Eddie Foy Jr. in RUMPLE. Miss Wyler returned to Broadway for another starring role as Rosie in BYE BYE BIRDIE. In London, Miss Wyler starred as SWEET CHARITY and appeared at a Royal Command Performance before Queen Elizabeth.

Her dramatic credits include, among others, Anna Reardon in AND MISS REARDON DRINKS A LITTLE on tour; as a guest artist at the University of Miami in THE GINGERBREAD LADY; opposite Robert Lansing in CRYSTAL CRYSTAL CHANDELIER at the Berkshire Festival; and in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER at the Williamstown Festival.

Miss Wyler appeared in every outstanding musical summer theatre. She handled with aplomb such roles as the plain, man-shy Lizzie in 110 IN THE SHADE, the cockney spinster in REDHEAD and featured roles in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, HERE'S LOVE, SAY DARLING and CALL ME MADAM. She tried her talents in dramatic roles and selected BUS STOP, HATFUL OF RAIN, RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN and BORN YESTERDAY.

Gretchen Wyler was featured last season as Toni McBain on the CBS series "On Our Own" and recently guest-starred on "Charlie's Angels." TV viewers saw her as a regular on the NBC soap opera "Somerset" and "The Mike Douglas Show." She also appeared on countless variety and game shows, had her own syndicated show "Step This Way" in the mid-sixties and was the hostess in the late 1950s on Perry Como's summer series.

Miss Wyler performs in town halls throughout the country with her own one-woman concert, "Broadway Greats and the Songs that Made Them Famous." Her film work includes the only female role, in a cast headed by William Holden, of THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE. She appeared in major supper clubs across the country and, in 1971, she produced an off-Broadway musical, THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY POT.

Off-stage she is an activist for the rights of animals, having founded and still managing an animal shelter in upstate New York. She is also vice-chairman of Cleveland Amory's Fund for Animals.

Mame and Patrick Mame on Moon

SANDY SPRUNG (Vera Charles)

Sandy SprungMs. Sprung makes her Melody Top debut in MAME, but is no stranger to the world of theatre. She performed in national and international companies of MAME, LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS and ANY WEDNESDAY. Other stage credits include the Los Angeles productions of EQUUS, which was directed by and starred Anthony Hopkins. Ms. Sprung appeared in the revue TALENT!, which played on Broadway and was directed by Charles Nelson Reilly. New York City saw her again in off-Broadway revivals of SHOESTRING REVUE, OF THEE I SING and GOLDILOCKS. She received critical and audience acclaim for her multi-roles in LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS, playing opposite Barry Nelson at the Circle Repertory Company.

Television viewers saw her as a guest star on most major situation comedies including "Mary Hartman," "Barney Miller," "All's Fair," "Doc," "Snip" co-starring David Brenner and the Emmy Award-winning show, "The Big Blue Marble." She performed in television pilots for CBS, ABC and NBC. Ms. Sprung also starred in the show "It's My Body, It's My Life," which won the 1976 Peabody and SFS awards.

A published author, Ms. Sprung's latest book is a funny account of her 100-pound flight down the scale entitled "Candy, Chocolate, Ice Cream and How to Lick 'Em." Ms. Sprung, a native New Yorker, now lives in Los Angeles where she also writes for television.

SUSAN RUSH (Agnes Gooch)

Susan RushSusan Rush made her first Melody Top appearance ten seasons ago as Pegeen in MAME and happily spent the next seven summers playing roles ranging from Indians to ingénues to strippers. She made her Broadway debut two years ago in KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY starring Richard Kiley. Susan began her professional career as Julia in THE DRUNKARD, a successful but short-lived off-Broadway show, whose composer and musical director was an unknown musician named Barry Manilow. She received rave reviews for her role of the five-year old Julia. The New York Post called her "a freckled, bawling brat, right out of Alice in Wonderland." Around the country, Susan played such diverse roles as Golde and Hodel in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Mammy Yokum in LI'L ABNER with Peter Palmer, Gooch in MAME with Kitty Carlisle and Don Ameche, Petra in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt and a TWA stewardess in BOEING-BOEING with Van Johnson. BOEING-BOEING, Susan's first straight play, was directed by Melody Top's own Stuart Bishop.

Ms. Rush just finished an eight-week tour of the Southeast, singing and skating in JUBILEE ON ICE, a show which she renamed HOLIDAY ON TEFLON.

She also made several commercials and voice-overs in the New York area. Susan studied acting at New York's Herbert Bergdorf Studios and took dance at the American Academy of Ballet. She owns her own Brownstone in Brooklyn, New York, where she bakes (and eats too much of) her own bread.

CHIP PIPER (Young Patrick, Peter Dennis)

Chip PiperChip's first exposure to Melody Top audiences was in last year's production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, when he played Kurt, one of the von Trapp children. In auditions for the role of Younger Patrick, Chip faced stiff competition from thirteen other young men, including his own nine year old brother, P.J.

Not only does Chip love to sing, but he also plays alto saxophone. When he's not singing or playing the sax, Chip listens to his new and ever-growing record collection. Chip's favorite songs in the collection are performed by none other than Barry Manilow.

His interests are not confined solely to music. Chip is an avid sportsman and can often be found out on the baseball diamond, in the swimming pool, on the basketball court or out at the old fishing hole. Chip makes sure he has plenty of time to hit the dirt trails with his mini-bike. He isn't the only one in the Piper family with an interest in sports or theatre. All of the Pipers spend part of their leisure time pursuing any one of a variety of outdoor activities. Waterskiing, fishing, canoeing, hunting and swimming are some of their favorites. Performing is nothing new to any of the Pipers either. P.J. appeared at Melody Top last season also, in the production of PETER PAN with Alan Sues and Nancy Dussault. Mrs. Piper, a music teacher, was featured in SHOW BOAT at Centre Stage Theatre in Milwaukee and appeared in many other musical theatre productions throughout the area. Mr. Piper, a mechanical contractor, and the Piper's two dogs have their interest in theatre as well; they are dedicated fans of their favorite home talent!

Chip is presently in the sixth grade and attends St. Mary's in Pewaukee.

JIM FREDERICKS (Older Patrick)

Jim FredericksJim comes to Melody Top after finishing an engagement of BRIGADOON at the Darien Dinner Theatre in Darien, Connecticut. Last fall he toured the eastern and southern U.S. as tenor soloist with SERENADE: AN EVENING OF OPERETTA and was also featured in CAMELOT, SHOW BOAT and THE BEST OF OPERETTA at An Evening Dinner Theatre. In addition to touring the country on the community concert circuit with Songs by Six, the Lee Evans Orchestra and the Normal Luboff Choir, Jim also appeared with Phyllis Curtin and Anita Darian in AN EVENING OF GERSHWIN.

Before moving to New York, Jim was chairman of the speech and drama department at Sullins College in Bristol, Virginia. During the summer breaks at Sullins, Jim performed lead roles in the musicals 1776, SHE LOVES ME, MY FAIR LADY, SWEET CHARITY and APPLAUSE at the Wagon Wheel Playhouse in Warsaw, Indiana.

Jim's vocal talents also led him to appearances with the Bel Canto Opera in Rossini's LA CAMBIOLE Dl MATRIMONIO and Victor Herbert's BABETTE. While in New York City, Jim sang concert and oratorio work.

YOJI MORIMOTO (Ito)

Yoji MorimotoMr. Morimoto is making his second appearance here at Melody Top. He is repeating the role of Ito he played in other companies, including productions opposite Kitty Carlisle, Edie Adams and Kaye Stevens.

A native of Japan, Yoji began his singing career in Tokyo. He continued to build his repertoire doing concert tours throughout his homeland. The tours included a jazz concert and a U.S. base camp tour in Japan, Okinawa and Taiwan. Mr. Morimoto made several television commercials while in Japan.

In New York, Yoji was involved in theatrical performances, voice dubbing for films, voice-overs and documentaries. He is also seen and heard on a television commercial promoting products of the Dow Chemical Corporation.

During his free time Mr. Morimoto operates and owns a shop specializing in antique toys.

THOMAS RUISINGER (Mr. Upson, Uncle Jeff)

Thomas RuisingerMr. Ruisinger is familiar to Broadway and national tour audiences from performing 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 and as a regular here at Melody Top. The notable stars he was featured with include Robert Cummings, George Gobel, Bill Bixby, John Davidson, Jean Stapleton, Martha Raye, Molly Picon, Donald O'Connor and Tab Hunter.

Off-Broadway he appeared in THE BALCONY, SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, UNDER MILKWOOD, THE THRACIAN HORSES and PAPERS. For two seasons Mr. Ruisinger was a member of the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. His professional career also includes many stock, television, commercial and motion picture credits.

His home, in New York City, is a 19th century federal townhouse. He just completed restoration and renovation, and it was recently declared a historical landmark.

CLYDE MILLER (Mr. Babcock)

Clyde MillerMr. Miller played more featured roles than any other performer in the history of Melody Top. He was seen in a variety of shows such as CARNIVAL, ANYTHING GOES, SONG OF NORWAY, SHENANDOAH, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, HIGH BUTTON SHOES and PAINT YOUR WAGON.

In other Milwaukee theatres throughout the years, Clyde performed with such show business "greats" as Don Ameche, Harvey Korman, Margaret Whiting, Anne Jeffreys, Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt and Anna Maria Alberghetti.

He began his career in show business as a writer, director and narrator for two Army revues in Greenland. From 1969 through 1971 Mr. Miller wrote and narrated his own radio show, "The Charcoal Rainbow," which aired on the Public Broadcasting Network. He also wrote scripts for a radio series that featured nostalgia, dramatic presentations and music.

Over the years Clyde recorded numerous radio and television commercials promoting anything from beer to banks. Mr. Miller also made sporadic appearances at the Milwaukee Water Department calling it his "regular job."

Others in the cast included K. David Short as Ralph Devine, Clyde Laurents as M. Lindsay Woolsey, David Whitaker as Beauregard, Didi Hitt as Sally Cato and Pegeen Ryan, Mary Broussard as Mother Burnside, Eddie Dudek as Junior Babcock, Sandra Dehner-Wheeler as Mrs. Upson and Ann Arvia as Gloria Upson. Friends of Mame were Ann Arvia, Mib Bramlette, Jill Deerey, Eddie Dudek, Jim Fredericks, Annette Griebl, Didi Hitt, Terry Lacy, Nancy McCloud, Wayne Meledandri, Diane Nicole, Robert Pachette, James Seibel, K. David Short, Robert V. Smith and Victoria K. Ver Hoven.


In the June 6, 1979 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel critic Jay Joslyn wrote, "Swinging out as the free wheeling, broad spirited Mame is Gretchen Wyler, belting the songs, high kicking the kicks and melting hearts with the part's moments of tenderness. It's a one-woman show with the right woman in charge." Later in his somewhat mixed review, he also stated, "The bouncy Susan Rush, of many past Top triumphs, is on hand as the antic Miss Gooch. When she and the irrepressible Miss Wyler get a chance to work together, sparks fly. It isn't just because it is a polka that 'We Need a Little Christmas' late in the first act stirred up the best response."

Melody Top Mame Production Shot 1

Thomas Ruisinger as Mr. Upson, Sandy Sprung as Vera Charles, Sandra Dehner-Wheeler as Mrs. Upson and Clyde Miller as Dwight Babcock during the last party scene of MAME (1979).


Gretchen "can pop the corn right off the cob"

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Friday, June 1, 1979; sketch by Luis Machare

More than the weather changed when Gretchen Wyler headed east from her Los Angeles home.

"We New Yorkers are so polarized to the theatre that we don't think about television," one of Melody Top Theatre's most popular stars explained. "But on the West Coast it's all television. I don't blame them. I'm not terribly fond of the theatre here. There isn't anything like the great theatre you see in the East."

The expressive voice rattled on, switching subjects like a push button radio at the fingertips of a bored listener.

Miss Wyler is coming back to Milwaukee to open the Melody Top season Tuesday in MAME, which she did last in 1969 at the Kansas City Starlight — "a terrible 10,000 seater."

"Oh, I'm in love with Mame. Now she is all of the musical theatre ladies rolled into one," she enthused during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "Actually, that's why I'm here looking to do TV features — just to get enough money to bring Mame back to Broadway."

The musical theatre ladies she mentioned have played a big part in her life for some time.

"About 2-1/2 years ago, that darling Celeste Holm told me, 'You really ought to get in the concert market.' I didn't know what she meant. To me, concert meant rock or string quartets and what do they have to do with me?" she asked.

When she discovered that programs of words and songs also qualify for concerts, she employed Stuart Bishop, Melody Top's perennial director, to write her a show.

"It's an hour show about musical theatre ladies with bits about 12 ladies and pieces of 36 songs," she said. "Stuart wrote it with me — and did all of the research. We became very close and I'm so proud of it. It's a hit because it is so well produced."

After she had staged her show three or four times, Bishop came to see her.

"I introduced him to the audience and told them how he had worked writing it," she said. "Oh, Stuart was furious! He told me never to let anyone know I hadn't written it."

The "Town Hall circuit" Miss Wyler and her ladies are playing calls for many early morning performances.

"Even if it is at 10 in the morning, I wear a black dress all glistening with jets," she laughed. "You really can't be glamorous in slacks and sensible shoes."

Mame CaricatureThe conversation was interrupted as Miss Wyler hurried away from the telephone to close a door.

"That big, old golden retriever just walked in," she explained. "When I moved out here, I left all of my animals with my housekeeper in Warwick (New York). I couldn’t be without animals. Luckily, Gloria de Haven had a lot of cats and I was able to borrow two of them."

Miss Wyler is one of the nation's strongest supporters of the Humane Society and keeps a kind of private shelter of her own in her New York home.

"Oh, I'm going to be the television spokesperson for the Gaines products (pet food)," she said. "How life does take different turns."

SLY FOX, a smash Broadway hit, brought Miss Wyler to Los Angeles from her beloved New York. It opened on Broadway in October 1976, and closed last September (1978) in Los Angeles.

"Since I was out here anyway I decided to try living here. Now I have a country house, an apartment in the city and now this house," she said. "It gets complicated. You have to have three of everything — irons, television sets."

Another member of SLY FOX had close Milwaukee ties. He is Jeffrey Tambor, a long-time member of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

"We're so proud of Jeff," Miss Wyler said. "When he started, he was something like a valet — a servant with one line. We were nice to him, but he was nothing — just a servant. And then they saw his work and he was elevated from part to part until he was a featured player by the time we got here. His brilliant work got him where he is today."

Tambor is now a regular in the new series, "The Ropers."

"Where mediocrity can succeed — you know what I mean. I'm not knocking anything. It's the way it happens — it's exciting to see someone like Jeff doing well," she said. "He has such craft!"

Miss Wyler had a swing at a television series of her own. She did "On Our Own" while playing in SLY FOX.

"I don't let anyone here fool me about their terrible schedules," she laughed. "I was working 76 hours a week and loving every minute of it. I'd love to have another serial."

In back of the television wish, however, Broadway beckons.

"The capitalization of shows is terrible now. When I did GUYS AND DOLLS, it was staged for $240,000. Now no musical gets on Broadway for less than a million," she said. "The exposure is here in television. If I get more of the right exposure, then maybe I'll be more attractive to the money guys."

In the meantime, Gretchen Wyler is in town and when they sing that she can "pop the corn right off the cob" who can say whether they're talking about Gretchen or Mame.

Melody Top Mame Production Shot 2

The cast of Melody Top's MAME, captured right before Gretchen Wyler took the stage for her bow.

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