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

October of 2015 provided me (webmaster of this site) the opportunity of meeting Robb Alton and Kathleen Alton (formerly Didi Hitt) in Chicago for a conversation about their time at Melody Top, where they performed a wide variety of roles: chorus, supporting and lead. They also shared numerous photographs from their personal collections, which are all included in the following gallery. The newspaper article below, from the summer of 1977, is an excellent summation of their summer stock careers in Milwaukee. During Melody Top's 1978 season, Robb performed the role of Hubert Ogglethorpe in HIGH BUTTON SHOES while Didi graduated to a leading role of Aldonza, opposite John Raitt, in MAN OF LA MANCHA. They are extremely proud of their post-Melody Top performances in national and international productions of EVITA: he as Juan Peron and she in a number of chorus roles. I found this affectionate couple to be enthusiastic about the entertainment industry, passionate about their personal lives and energetic about sharing memories from the golden age of musical tent theatre.

Didi Hitt, Robb Alton Sing Love Duets On, Off Stage

By Mark Hein, The Milwaukee Sentinel, July 8, 1977

"We're a team," he says.

"We've formed a partnership," she adds, tossing her hair out of her eyes, smiling. Her hand rests unconsciously on his arm.

"We're just not going to accept any separate work." His handsome brow furrows slightly. "It's a risk, a big gamble. But we're not just sitting back waiting for phones to ring; we're making things happen."

"That's my man," laughs Didi Hitt, in a line straight out of one of her musical comedy roles.

Robb Alton, her husband and partner, opens the smile that has won thousands of Melody Top theatregoers. The two — in their mid-20s — are back at the musical tent for roles in THE MERRY WIDOW, which opened a two week run on Tuesday.

He brings out an eye-catching promotional piece they've had made for their new cabaret act, for which he serves as producer, director and publicist.

"He's terrific," she says. Her green eyes sparkle like a new bride's — which by less than five months, she is.

"I think it would have been a long road for me alone, before I could have tried anything like this. I can do my part," her eyes flash professional, competent, no longer ingénue, "but the directing, planning… Robb really does it almost alone."

He smiles again.

Besides Didi, that smile also won Guenevere in CAMELOT, when he was Lancelot; it almost took Liza's heart away from Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY, and it charmed Richard Henry Lee's exasperated fellow patriots in 1776.

Didi Hitt is remembered by everyone who saw those four nights of GYPSY when she stepped from the chorus into the lead role for an ailing star, bringing audiences and reviewers to their feet. She also won followers with her Martha Jefferson in 1776, her seductress in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED… and the tragic widow in ZORBA.

After four years at Melody Top, the graceful, long-legged young soprano, a native of DePere, Wisconsin, had won her turn at the top feature roles. The powerfully built young tenor from Lombard, Illinois, was ready to take on romantic leads after a string of supporting successes.

So Robb went down to Lincolnshire, Illinois, to co-star with Nanette Fabray in THE SECRET LIVES OF MILDRED WILDE. Didi took off for a role in the world premiere of GAUGIN at Chicago's McCormick Place.

But three summers together under the big red and blue tent had worked their magic.

In February, they were married.

That was a courageous move for a pair of rising, young performers. Show business isn't in the habit of taking a back seat to anybody, not even a spouse.

Even braver was the decision that went with it — to put their "ready to break" individual stage careers aside and become a duo.

"We felt ready to take a little more control over what we do," she explains. "In a play, your music, your lines are all written and packaged for you."

"And this is an opportunity for us to be featured, so people get to know us outside a character," he adds. "We're just Robb Alton and Didi Hit, being ourselves."

"And we wanted to be together," she interjects.

"That's right," he nods emphatically. "That was the biggie."

"We're together 24 hours a day now," she says, grinning impishly. "It's the greatest. Of course, we give each other a lot of space."

Robb Alton and Didi Hitt, Relaxing on a Break Outside of Melody Top Theatre

Most of their time has gone into putting together and polishing their show. For a wedding present, his parents gave them a tape deck.

"We went right out and got a mixing board and mikes," he says, "so we can hear what we're doing."

"We have this many albums" — he take a three foot wide handful of air — "and about this many" — a foot and a half — "we had to buy new, to find the sounds we wanted."

"Then we'd find something," she says, "and work on it and work on it... and a week later, we'd hear it and say 'My gosh, why did we choose this? It's all wrong.' "

But the show is finally together, and arranger Larry Novak has worked it though with them.

"It has a medley of show tunes," she says, "but it's also got lots of light ballads, rock."

"Sedaka, Manilow," he interjects. "Manchester, Stevie Wonder…"

"And there's a terrifically fun country number. We tried to work from our experiences, who we are."

"For instance, I do one," he says, "called 'I Love My Wife' —"

"And I do an oldie, 'I Didn't Know About You,' that says I didn't know about love until I knew you —"

"And we do Melissa Manchester's 'Just You and I.' That sort of thing."

When they get home to Chicago, the score will be completed and they'll be ready to set up bookings.

"We'd love to open in Milwaukee," Robb says.

"Oh, wouldn't that be great?"

"This is really a vacation for us," he says. "We love Melody Top — it gave us both our first big breaks, so when they called and asked us up for three weeks we said sure."

"And MERRY WIDOW should be great fun. This is the strongest cast, vocally, that I can remember being in."

"Absolutely," she agrees. "You get to make those wonderful, rich, legitimate sounds you just don't use in ballad singing — it's really fun. Anyone who's interested in operetta really can't afford to miss it."

"Anyone who likes music at all," he says. She nods.

As they leave for six more hours of rehearsal, they tease about posing for publicity photographs. They go well together.

Kathleen and Robb Alton, Current Head Shots

Kathleen and Robb Alton, pictured in their most recent head shots.

One of the happiest success stories to come out of twenty-four seasons at Melody Top Theatre is the emergence of Ann Arvia from a member of the resident ensemble to leading-lady roles. After captivating audiences all over the Midwest in a variety of musical productions, Ann's dream of performing on Broadway came true with roles in the original LES MISERABLES, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and MARY POPPINS. Recent appearances include DAMN YANKEES and THE MOST HAPPY FELLA at Goodspeed Opera House, as well as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Arena Stage. Learn more about Ann, including teaching and workshops, at her website. Ann graciously provided all photographs of her on this page, which are perfect complements to excerpts taken from the following newspaper article about the earliest days of her great stage career:

Ann Arvia: A Top Find at the Top

By Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal, Sunday, August 7, 1983

Arvia has emerged as something of a homegrown star at Melody Top this season. Working with a theatre that feels it must import "name" stars to draw an audience, she is a "no name" who has shined brightly all year. It's not a big surprise.

Arvia is a Chicago native who studied voice at DePaul University for several years before her success as a professional singer and actress led her out of the classroom. She was getting so much work, she didn't have time for school.

Melody Top audiences first saw Arvia during the 1978 season, when she was a member of the ensemble of singers and dancers that fleshes out each production. She was back in the ensemble in 1979, and in 1980 she hinted at her leading-lady potential when she took the role in GREASE that Olivia Newton-John played in the movie. In her performance, she progressed neatly from sweet innocence to red-hot sexiness.

Arvia had been doing a lot of dinner theatre work in the Chicago area in addition to her Melody Top appearances and, after the 1980 season here, she joined the cast of the long-running Chicago hit musical, DO BLACK PATENT LEATHER SHOES REALLY REFLECT UP? Her commitment to that show prevented her from working at Melody Top in 1981, and she took a four-week vacation from PATENT LEATHER SHOES last summer to play a major role in the Top's production of WEST SIDE STORY.

ANNIE at Melody Top TheatreMelody Top's first four shows this season featured Arvia in leading roles, and she was delightful in all: Chairy Barnum in BARNUM, Grace in ANNIE (pictured at left with Tara Kennedy as Annie and Philip K. Courington as Warbucks) and Fay Templeton in GEORGE M! In PROMISES, PROMISES, Arvia played Fran Kubelik, the pretty little dining room hostess who becomes trapped in a self-destructive relationship with a philandering older man. It's a tough role, because the actress playing it must convincingly convey the range of emotions and the personal confusion inherent in the part.

Arvia, whose training has been mostly as a singer, rose admirably to the challenge, delivering a sensitive performance brimming with human feeling.

Playing leading roles in four consecutive productions at the Top is a grind that few performers are asked to endure. New shows are put up every two weeks. While one show is playing, another is being rehearsed.

How did she do it? "I have done a lot of understudy work in Chicago, and I have become a quick learner. That certainly helps," she explains.

The usual schedule is to rehearse one production during the day and perform another in the evening. The hot summer has made that all the more difficult.

Arvia won't be quite as prominent during the second half of the season, although she is planning to be in all of the shows. She needs a chance to catch her breath, and the Top doesn't want to overexpose her.

And what does she want to do after the Top's season ends in September? Take a rest. Certainly not the starving actress, she has had two months off in the last three years.

A Broadway show or a spot in a national touring company of a Broadway hit would be the fulfillment of a dream, but Arvia's heart won't be broken if the dream doesn't come true. Continued work in the theatre is her goal.

"I'm happiest when I'm working, and living in Chicago gives me that constant opportunity. If you're good and you live in Chicago, you work. That just isn't true everywhere else."

Below are just a few of Ann's glowing reviews from her major Milwaukee appearances.

GREASE (1980), Sandy Dumbrowski, September 10, 1980 reviews:

"Ann Arvia as the class' newcomer seasons her honey-sweet personality with just enough spice." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

"Ann Arvia, a member of Melody Top's resident ensemble for three years, proves she is ready for more starring roles as she does a superb job in the part of the virginal Sandy Dumbrowski. She is pretty, sweet and demure through 90 percent of the play, then turns into a delightful, gum-snapping siren for the final two songs." Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal.

WEST SIDE STORY (1982), Maria, June 16, 1982 review:

"Ann Arvia, moving up from the Melody Top ensemble after a year in a Chicago musical hit, is sweetly effective as Maria." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

BARNUM (1983), Chairy Barnum, June 8, 1983 reviews:

"Although the enthusiastic circus numbers are the life of the show, the play also contains a tenderly loving story of the relationship between Barnum and his spunky wife, played and sung to perfection by Ann Arvia." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

"Arvia plays Barnum's level-headed wife with graceful ease." Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal.

ANNIE (1983), Grace Farrell, June 22, 1983 reviews:

"Philip K. Courington (as Oliver Warbucks) and Ann Arvia (as his efficient secretary) preside over the splendidly staffed mansion with heart and aplomb." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

"Ann Arvia demonstrates her versatility once again, singing capably and portraying Warbucks' secretary with graceful charm." Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal.

GEORGE M! (1983), Fay Templeton, July 6, 1983 reviews:

"Ann Arvia . . . getting laughs out of (the role of) Fay Templeton." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

"Ann Arvia, who is emerging as the star of the Melody Top season, rises significantly above the pack, giving Broadway star Fay Templeton a spicy and humorous treatment." Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal.

PROMISES, PROMISES (1983), Fran Kubelik, July 20, 1983 reviews:

"Surprise No. 3 was Ann Arvia. A Top veteran who has played her share of small roles, Arvia has been on a hot streak this season, portraying a succession of leading ladies and getting better every show. Playing Fran Kubelik, the young dining room hostess who gets trapped in a self-destructive romance, Arvia displays a full range of emotions with touching believability." Damien Jaques, the Milwaukee Journal.

"The love interest that leavens this display of corporate hanky-panky is handled by Ann Arvia with her usual sweetness and charm." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

SHOW BOAT (1984), Julie, July 4-5, 1984 reviews:

"Returning for her first appearance this season, Ann Arvia justified the popularity she won last year with a moving, beautifully sung portrayal of Julie." Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel.

"Arvia, as the mixed-blood singer who runs afoul of the Old South's barbarous racial laws, does a perfectly marvelous job with 'Bill,' the old Helen Morgan standard." James Auer, the Milwaukee Journal.

Show Boat at Melody Top Theatre

Three talented leading ladies from Melody Top Theatre's last production of SHOW BOAT, July 3 to 15, 1984: Avery Sommers (Queenie), Marcia King (Magnolia) and Ann Arvia (Julie). Photo by Roob Creative Photographers.

Show Boat at Melody Top Theatre

SHOW BOAT featured Philip Mollet (Frank), Marta Hedges (Ellie), Eddie Bracken (Cap'n Andy), Ann Arvia (Julie) and Brad Scott (Steven Baker). Although he is widely known to modern audiences as Roy Walley from NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION movie, Eddie Bracken enjoyed a long and varied career in vaudeville, on stage, at the movies and over the radio. The opening night of SHOW BOAT marked Eddie's 10,005th performance on a stage, having never missed a single show. Photo by Roob Creative Photographers.

Merwin Foard: A Major Musical Talent

The stunning pictures below, from the 1984 summer season at Melody Top, were provided by Merwin Foard, who is currently the standby for both Jafar and the Sultan in the Broadway production of Disney's ALADDIN. In the fall of 2015, he will begin a new national tour of THE SOUND OF MUSIC as Max Detweiller. His Broadway credits started with the 1983 revivals of SHOW BOAT featuring Donald O'Connor and MAME starring Angela Lansbury, and he recently was the standby for the characters of both Gomez and Mal in THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Merwin, a member of Melody Top's Equity ensemble, was cast by producer Guy S. Little, Jr. in the role of Conrad Birdie near the end of the season. Damien Jaques, in the August 15, 1984 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, "Merwin Foard is a young star who has emerged from the Top's resident company this year to provide some of the season's most delightful moments." In the August 1, 1984 edition of the same newspaper, the insightful critic wrote in his review of MY FAIR LADY, "The high spot of the production revolved around a young singer-actor named Merwin Foard, whose beautiful and powerful voice and tender manner makes 'On the Street Where You Live' soar with excitement. Foard appears to be a major musical talent."

My Fair Lady Studio Picture 1

Merwin Foard as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Mary Best as Mrs. Higgins and Christine Ebersole as Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY (1984). Of her performance, Damien Jaques offered, "Ebersole, who has considerable Broadway experience as well as a recurring role on the soap opera 'One Life to Live,' is a deliciously snotty guttersnipe. Her rise to a lady of proper speech and etiquette is more of a triumph of inherent intelligence than an astonishing transformation." Photo by Roob Creative Photographers.

My Fair Lady Studio Picture 2

Ebersole with her leading men: Noel Harrison (left) and Merwin Foard (right). The talented son (Noel) of the man (Rex) who created the musical role of Henry Higgins on Broadway was praised in the Milwaukee press. Jay Joslyn in The Milwaukee Sentinel said, "Noel Harrison, as her antagonistic benefactor, had a wonderfully off-handed manner and the proper touch at sing-speaking his familiar songs." Damien Jaques published a more detailed account of Noel's performance in The Milwaukee Journal: "Harrison displays a winning stage manner that mixes an off-handed kind of charm with a cold-blooded chauvinism. He managed to bulldoze over our sensitivity and Eliza's without ever appearing to be a cad." Photos by Roob Creative Photographers.

My Fair Lady Studio Picture 3

Two of Mathew John Hoffman III's costumes, clearly inspired by those created for the 1964 film of the musical. Pictured at left is the first outfit worn by Christine Ebersole in the Covent Garden scene. At right is her elaborate costume for the first-act scene taking place at Ascot Racecourse. Holding Ebersole's hand in the photo is William Leach, who portrayed Colonel Pickering. Again quoting from Damien Jaques' positive review of the show, he stated in print: "Leach's Pickering is natural and fun. Serving as Higgins' conscience, this Pickering rises in righteous indignation while maintaining his sense of rich bachelor idleness. Photos by Roob Creative Photographers.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The talented men of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT on stage at Melody Top Theatre. Top row, left to right: Philip Mollet (Judah), Christopher Durham (Joseph), Scott Taylor (Benjamin) and Mark Vitale (Simeon). Bottom rows combined, left to right: Terry James (Asher), Marc Agnes (Reuben), David Loring (Zebulon), Brad Scott (Gad), Gregg Willis (Issachar), Jeff Mattsey (Naphtali), Vincent Rideout (Dan) and Merwin Foard (Levi). Photo by Roob Creative Photographers.

Christopher shared his memory of performing at Melody Top: "I received my Equity card starring in JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT in the summer of 1984. It still remains one of my favorite theatre experiences. The production team, cast and crew welcomed me with open arms. The show was a big success. Honestly, my favorite memory is of the time between shows when we would all go sit out in the big field by the theatre, share a meal and talk about all of our hopes and dreams — we were all so young! Somehow, life seemed a bit more innocent back then."

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

The Aggie Football Team, all dressed up and ready for a night of fun at THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS. Top row, left to right: Merwin Foard, Jeff Mattsey, Gregg Willis and David Loring. Bottom row, left to right: Philip Mollet, Richard Reuter-Smith, Scott Taylor and Terry James. Photo by Roob Creative Photographers.

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