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

Following in the footsteps of Carol Burnett, Ann B. Davis, Dody Goodman and Imogene Coca, Jo Anne Worley – another beloved television comedienne – made her first Melody Top appearance in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. Local audiences were so taken with this warm and generous performer that she was asked back numerous times: ANYTHING GOES (1978); HELLO, DOLLY! (1980); ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1982); and GYPSY (1984). Very rare photographs of the clever set and costumes pieces from ONCE UPON A MATTRESS were furnished by Didi Hitt (Kathleen Alton), Jo Jean Retrum and Gary Bruski. This family-friendly production began with an elaborate pop-up book on the stage, and a fairy tale theme was further enhanced with stars, flowers and bright colors in an extravagant costume design. More about the Top's talented costume team is featured on this page. Black-and-white images, from various sources including Richard Brodzeller, are part of the webmaster's personal collection.

Zany's the Word On and Off TV

By Beth Slocum of the Milwaukee Journal staff

The famous laugh punctuates her remarks, and thoughts left unspoken are eloquently expressed by that flexible face.

Jo Anne Worley in person, posturing with a long, black cigarette holder and batting her almost equally long, black, false eyelashes, is just about as zany as she is on television.

And that very funny lady has brought her cheerful countenance to Milwaukee to play Winnifred the Woebegone in the Melody Top production of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS.

The play, which through television exposure has become closely identified with another comedienne, Carol Burnett, will open Tuesday and run through Sunday, Aug. 11.

"It's a musical I've been wanting to do for just a-a-ages," said Miss Worley after her first of seven days of rehearsal.

"It's just charming. It's a musical version of THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA fairy tale, you know. I just love doing the show – it's like wearing a comfortable glove." It is one that she wore only once before, a few weeks ago in a Sacramento, California theater production.

Those who remember Miss Worley's antics from TV's LAUGH-IN a few years back well may wonder whether the raucous cackler has the ability to carry off a musical.

"I have the facility to sing opera," said Miss Worley, puffing on her well-filtered cigarette. "I have a three-octave range."

Her vocal talents were developed to sing loud to their present point of vibrato by "a marvelous voice teacher I had who also made out astrological charts and was a chiropractor."

"If the voice lesson didn't help, you could always get your back cracked," wise-cracked Miss Worley.

Contrary to some published stories, Worley, who does a comic takeoff on an opera singer in her nightclub act, insists she never had any aspirations to become an opera star.

"I think it would be the most boring existence in the world. It's such hard work. And you don't experience the big joy of getting a belly laugh from the audience, which I would rather have than polite applause," she said.

"I guess comedy always has been my bent. I was very introverted as a child. I mean really little," she said, measuring about three feet off the floor. "But in adolescence I broke out of my shell. I discovered it's very heady stuff to be able to make people laugh."

That discovery sent her scurrying from a waitress job in her hometown of Lowell, Indiana to New York and later Hollywood, where she played in small theater productions and polished her comedic talents.

"You really don't study comedy," she explained, "you study drama. I did attend something called the Jerry Lewis Comedy Workshop. But it really turned out as sort of a toy for Jerry Lewis."

She left after three or four months when she was offered a nightclub stand at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

"It's very hard to teach comedy," she said. "You can show joke formulas and routines to a degree, but real comedy comes from the belly."

Jerry Clark and Jo Anne Worley in Once Upon a Mattress

It is that gut reaction that led the tall brunette (who tartly responds to age queries with a "That's none of your business!") to write most of her own material for her now occasional nightclub acts.

"I've gone the Las Vegas route where you hire the big guns," said Miss Worley. "But I ended up throwing it all out and doing my own. A lot of comics and comedians write their own things because comedy is much more honest now. It is based on very truthful situations. Of course you extend and twist them a bit, but first you have to have a feeling for it."

She feels it was her nightclub act that led her to the LAUGH-IN ranks in 1967, where she stayed for three-and-one-half years. "Thank God for LAUGH-IN," said Miss Worley. "There is no doubt that TV gives you the most exposure. But my agents and manager decided the show had done all it could for me and it was time to get out. A lot of people thought all I could do was 'Eee, Hee, Hee.' They didn't know I could speak regular words."

Looking back, Miss Worley thinks she got out at just the right time. "The show was at its peak. People were getting used to it and a lot of other shows were beginning to copy it."

Since then she has been a regular on several TV daytime game shows and does guest spots on various comedy series. She even has made dental appointments pay off.

"I was in the dentist's office and this guy said, 'My God, you're perfect for my movie!'" She rolls her eyes sideways and continues, "To which I said, 'Sure, fella.'"

But it turned out he was the for real producer-director of the film, HORACE AND FRED, which just premiered on the West Coast.

It is a comedy (what else?) about two clowns who kidnap performers to raise money for charity. Miss Worley plays a nightclub entertainer who is one of their victims.

"The script was written long before this terrible rash of kidnappings," says Miss Worley. When asked to name other cast members, she rattles off names like Tige Andrews (of MOD SQUAD, remember?) and Dick Shane, formerly a stuntman on THE VIRGINIAN.

"And there's a huge lion in it," says Miss Worley. "No, tiger; see how bad I am about names? Anyway, there was this tiger, and he just hated hats and glasses so none of the cast or crew could wear a hat or glasses."

After completion of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, Miss Worley will return to Los Angeles and her "very close friend. I'm not married – legally." Also a nephew she is raising and her two "terrific" dogs.

There she is in the middle of contractual negotiations for a "fabulous" movie. As far as another TV series, she says "There is one in the works – there always is – but it is always such a long shot, even if it gets on the air."

In the meantime, she is content with occasional theater, nightclub and game shows.

"I like to be able to do a lot of different things," she says.

Once Upon a Mattress Rehearsal Picture

Jerry Clark and Jo Anne Worley study a script while in rehearsal for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1974) at Melody Top Theatre. Photograph originally published in the Milwaukee Journal.

Miss Worley Leads Melody Top Winner

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, July 31, 1974

Jo Anne Worley, the whirlwind from the old LAUGH-IN show, swirled into the Melody Top Theatre Tuesday night with all the subtlety of a squall-lined storm.

Somehow, all of that energy works just fine, when she turns it into the unlikely charms of Princess Winnifred the Woebegone for the Top's delightful production of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS.

The musical adaptation of the child's tale of THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA has proved to be a durable product that is approaching its age of majority without losing any of its appeal.

Enacting the story is a good company of character actors led by the overpowering Travis Hudson as the talkative queen and mime Felix Shuman as the mute king.

The secondary love interest is handled with great dash and aplomb by Didi Hitt and David Rupprecht, while the narrative is spun out between the velvet-voiced Dan Webber as the minstrel and Clyde Laurents as the jester.

The object of Winnifred's attention is Prince Dauntless, who is given a grinning, simpering but thoroughly likeable portrayal by Jerry Clark.

Director-designer Stuart Bishop has splashed the stage with color and the action with storybook grace, which music director Donald Yap and choreographer James Smock have cooperated beautifully.

Nevertheless, the real star of this rather spectacular production must be Jan Valentine, whose skill as a costume designer once more raises the visual values of the show nearly to a dream level.

Jo Anne Worley in Once Upon a Mattress

Jo Anne Worley as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, performing "Song of Love," in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1974). Milwaukee Sentinel photograph by Richard Brodzeller.

Beautiful Faces Need Beautiful Clothes…

This article (written by John Fricke) was taken from Melody Top's "magazine," which was given to patrons prior to each performance.

That old Irving Berlin song epitomizes the creed of Melody Top's costume staff...and seemingly the opinion of our audiences as well. This summer, more than ever before, the wardrobe seen on stage under the "big top" has been paid constant attention and well-deserved praise by local fans and newspaper and broadcasting critics. Giving credit where it is most assuredly due, we'd like you to meet three major forces behind this aspect of Melody Top's color, style and glamour:

Jan Valentine is in her second year of designing and constructing wardrobe for Melody Top performers. Her earlier seven-year tenure in a local costume shop saw her spend over half that time working on our shows. Jan plans the concept and creation of the clothes after consultation with director Stuart Bishop. She has two full-time and two part-time people aiding her in "building" the clothes for each production – a monumental task in that some twenty-five to thirty people have to be provided with a complete wardrobe every two weeks! Jan also worked at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre for three years and has designed for Alverno College, the Wauwatosa Village Playhouse and Lake County Players. An art major graduate of Milwaukee State Teachers' College, she is married with five children and three grandchildren.

Robert Berdell works under Jan's direction, following her designs and concepts and specifically coordinating men's wardrobe for the theatre. A graduate in costume/scene design from Carnegie-Mellon University, Rob has created costumes for the Kennedy-King Professional Company and the Ivanhoe Theatre, both in Chicago. Last season, he was assistant scene designer at Melody Top.

Ann Bruskiewitz is Melody Top's wardrobe mistress and is involved in all phases of costume preparation and, once a show opens, upkeep. She supervises the apprentice dressers and all repairs and alterations – as well as laundry and dry-cleaning maneuvers. Ann also started at a local costume shop and has been with Melody Top for five seasons. She has designed several of our productions, including WEST SIDE STORY; HOW NOW, DOW JONES; and DAMN YANKEES. Her costumes for OKLAHOMA and MY EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES were seen at the Centre Stage Dinner Theatre. Ann has served as general theatrical coordinator for the Pellman and in various stages of costume design and production at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

A well-earned salute, please, for these three – and their assistants Radovinka Pavlovic, Ruth Bruskiewitz and Betty Bluhm – who make every Melody Top show literally something to see!

Dan Webber and Zale Kessler in Once Upon a Mattress

Dan Webber (as the Minstrel) and Zale Kessler (as the Wizard) in a scene from ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1974). Photo courtesy of Gary Bruski.

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS Cast of Characters

Minstrel (Prologue):Patrick Bucher
Prince (Prologue):Paul Lehmann
Queen (Prologue):Lisa Dentici
Princess (Prologue):Jodie Rapkin
The Minstrel:Dan Webber
The Wizard:Zale Kessler
Princess Number Twelve:Joan Carvelle
Lady Rowena:Tracy Friedman
Lady Merrill:Susan Rush
Prince Dauntless:Jerry Clark
Queen Agravain:Travis Hudson
Lady Lucille:Nancy McCloud
Lady Larken:Didi Hitt
Sir Studley:Roy Neuner
King Sextimus:Felix Shuman
The Jester:Clyde Laurents
Sir Harry:David Rupprecht
Princess Winnifred:Jo Anne Worley
Sir Luce:Robert Alton
Lady Mabelle:Jo Jean Retrum
Sir Gilbere:Alan Gilbert
Lady Christina:Chris Sallach
Sir Marford:Marius Hanford
Lady Mellisande:Melliss Kenworthy
Lord Barre:Barry Thomas
Lady Beatrice:B.J. Hanford
The Nightingale of Samarkland:Tracy Friedman
Jo Anne Worley in Once Upon a Mattress

Jo Anne Worley as Princess Winnifred, trying to get some rest, in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1974). Photo courtesy of Jo Jean Retrum.

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