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

Before returning to Milwaukee for three performances with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1987, Tommy Tune granted the following interview with local critic Jay Joslyn. Tune spoke warmly of his early history at Melody Top, and he also reinforced his devotion to stage work. Only a few short years later, he created two brilliant musicals for Broadway: THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES and GRAND HOTEL. Today, Mr. Tune continues to perform with the Manhattan Rhythm Kings around the country, and devoted fans in the Midwest long for the day he will come back to entertain them.

Tommy Tune Traces Roots to the Local Stage Scene

By Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Friday, April 24, 1987

Tommy Tune in THE BOY FRIEND

Taken from a picture in a souvenir program are Dennis Landsman, choreographer Tommy Tune (who also played the character of Bobby) and Gerry Burkhardt performing "Safety in Numbers" from THE BOY FRIEND (1967). Also featured in this number were Kurt Peterson and Michael Misita.


Tommy Tune will be back in Milwaukee this weekend performing an unusual program with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in Uihlein Hall.

Tune is the era's premiere tap dancer. He has won a veritable shelf of awards as a performer and choreographer.

However, his program with the orchestra will be more than an evening of tap. He will be appearing with the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a trio of versatile performers, in a salute to legendary tap dancer Fred Astaire, the tunesmith.

"Astaire wrote many tunes from the 1920s right through the 1970s, working with many of the top lyricists. He even wrote some of the lyrics himself," Tune explained in a telephone interview from his New York apartment. "We did a lot of researching and came up with 35 that have become our favorites."

Tune and the Rhythm Kings have had great success with their unusual program with the Detroit, Denver, Houston orchestras and the Philadelphia and Boston Pops.

In August, Tune goes out with a company of MY ONE AND ONLY, one of his Tony Award performances. He will be bringing his company to the Riverside Theatre for a week's run starting September 22. (NOTE: Due to the erratic nature of touring productions, the Milwaukee stop for MY ONE AND ONLY was later canceled.)

Tune, a native of Texas, launched his professional career in the 1964 production of BAKER STREET in New York.

The same year he became associated with Melody Top Theatre when the organization was operating out of both Chicago and Milwaukee. The two-city arrangement went broke the next year and the late William Luff bought the operation for a 24-year Milwaukee run that ended last summer.

Tune became an integral part of the Melody Top operation when he became the tent's dance director in 1967 in partnership with designer-director Stuart Bishop. They collaborated in 14 shows through the 1968 summer when the pair took over the year-round "tent" theatre in Houston, Tune's hometown, for eight weeks.

The move skyrocketed Tune. He has never hit ground.

Backstage at HIGH BUTTON SHOES

Backstage at HIGH BUTTON SHOES (1967) are, from left to right in the back row, Clyde Miller, James Bovaird, Donald Knight, Gerry Burkhardt, Tommy Tune and Kurt Peterson. The little boy on the left is David Spector, and next to him is Joseph Makovec. Photo courtesy of Sally Marks.


He was unavailable for Melody Top in 1968 because he was playing Ambrose in Barbra Streisand's HELLO, DOLLY! film.

He came back to Milwaukee in 1970 with the tour of CANTERBURY TALES that played the Performing Arts Center (later renamed the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts). Melody Top snagged him for the Master of Ceremonies role in CABARET that summer.

A film of THE BOY FRIEND opposite Twiggy in 1971 set up a team that was reunited on stage in 1983 in MY ONE AND ONLY.

Melody Top played a big part in preparing Tune for his exceptional stage career.

"I learned my craft at Melody Top," Tune said. "It gave me invaluable stage experience and allowed me to work with some of the biggest names – famous people like Betty Hutton, Howard Keel, Martha Raye, Mimi Hines, Gretchen Wyler and, of course, little Jane Powell, with whom I played THE BOY FRIEND there."

He said he has kept in touch with Bishop and many of the stars with whom he worked here. "I have especially kept up with Elmer Regner." Regner was the producer while Tune was at Melody Top. (NOTE: Regner died March 8, 1989 and Bishop passed away April 12, 2001.)

"Melody Top was a nice piece of my history," he said. "It's like coming home."

If Melody Top really did teach Tune, it did a good job. Since winning a Tony as the best supporting actor for SEESAW in 1974, he has had a remarkable string of successes.

He won two Tony Awards for direction and choreography for THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS in 1978; a Tony with Thommie Walsh for choreography in A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD, A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE in 1980; an Obie (the off-Broadway Tony) for direction of CLOUD 9 in 1981; a Tony for direction of NINE in 1982; and a Tony with Walsh for choreography and a Tony for best actor in MY ONE AND ONLY in 1983.

His most recent assignment was STEPPING OUT, a tap dance drama about a church's charity show in which the actors had to learn how to dance for each of the eight performances every week. It closed recently after a respectable run.

Although he was successful in his two ventures into films, he has avoided the medium.

"My heart is on stage. All my training was for the stage," he said. "In the theatre you gear up all day, work on stage for two hours, hear the clapping and the laughs and go home. In the films you get up at six in the morning and then wait around all day in order to work for a couple of minutes."

Rehearsal for SWEET CHARITY

An extremely rare – and blurry – glimpse of Tommy Tune, wearing a V-neck sweater, in rehearsal for SWEET CHARITY (1967). Note the scaffolding used in the set. Photo courtesy of Sally Marks.



Remembering Elaine Cancilla

For five summers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Elaine Cancilla earned raves from Milwaukee critics for her performances (both supporting and leading) at Melody Top. In addition to her many roles in stock and industrial shows, Elaine made numerous appearances on Broadway in FIORELLO!; HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING; HERE'S LOVE; FLORA, THE RED MENACE; BAKER STREET; SWEET CHARITY; CRY FOR US ALL; and CHICAGO. She also toured in the national company of SWEET CHARITY with Chita Rivera, later playing the lead in summer stock productions. Before her career started in musical theatre, she was awarded a scholarship at Jacob's Pillow for three seasons, followed by another scholarship at the American School of Ballet in New York City. She was married to CHICAGO leading man Jerry Orbach from 1979 until his death in 2004. Elaine passed away on April 1, 2009. The following is a complete list of her career at Melody Top Theatre, including some rare photographs:

OF THEE I SING (1968), Diana Devereaux

"A performance worthy of being singled out is that of Elaine Cancilla as a southern sexpot whose Mason-Dixon twang would curl the mint in a julep." Tom Smith, The Waukesha Freeman.

"Elaine Cancilla swings a mean hip and belts like a tornado as the wronged Diana Devereaux." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 28, 1968.

"Wintergreen jilts Diana Devereaux (marvelously played by Elaine Cancilla), who is both French and Southern. He thereby alienates both Dixie and de Gaulle. The President also develops problems with Congress, the Supreme Court and paying the White House grocery bill." Michael H. Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 28, 1968.

CARNIVAL (1969), The Incomparable Rosalie

"Competing most successfully with Aumont and his puppets for approval of the audience is Elaine Cancilla. Miss Cancilla, who delighted audiences as Diana Devereaux in last season's OF THEE I SING, matches that performance this year as the likable magician's assistant, Rosalie." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, June 25, 1969.

"Both (Jean Pierre Aumont and Marisa Pavan) had to hang on to their scenes, however, whenever larcenous Elaine Cancilla was on hand. As an aide to magician George Reeder – who must have understudied Houdini – she sang and danced with élan and displayed stopwatch comedy timing." Michael H. Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, June 25, 1969.

MAME (1970), Agnes Gooch

"Little Ben Spiegel as the young Patrick, Elaine Cancilla as the remodeled nanny, Gooch, and Delphi Lawrence as the Bankhead baritone actress, Vera, carry off the show by doing just what the authors wanted." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, June 24, 1970.

"As Agnes Gooch, the archetypal Plain Jane who oversees Patrick, Miss Cancilla excelled in an actor-proof role. She set up her sure laughs thoughtfully and demonstrated that underneath the support hose and orthopedic oxfords lurked – perhaps – history's cutest Gooch." Michael H. Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, June 24, 1970.

CABARET (1970), Sally Bowles

"However, as it was in MAME, Elaine Cancilla, with her piquant face and commanding stage presence, walks off with the show as mercurial Sally Bowles." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, July 8, 1970.

GEORGE M! (1971), Ethel Levy

"Elaine Cancilla doesn't let a rather miniature part prevent her from shedding her kind of glow on the show as does Candace Tovar in the roles of George's two wives." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, July 7, 1971.

DAMN YANKEES (1971), Lola

"Miss Cancilla, a perennial show stealer, is up to her old curvaceous tricks as the demon home breaker (Van) Johnson calls in to keep his 'client' in line. The stage is hers whenever she's on, and her 'Whatever Lola Wants' number sizzles." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, July 21, 1971.

"His accomplice in the merry machinations was, to this onlooker, the delightful event of the evening. This was Elaine Cancilla, the seductive Lola, who has the looks, the voice, the gracefulness, the gleaming presence, the everything that makes for a musical comedy star." Walter Monfried, The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, July 21, 1971.

WEST SIDE STORY (1973), Anita

"As it has been for several seasons now, the return of Miss Cancilla is a real pleasure. Her spunk, sense of timing and way with a dance are what the doctor ordered. The 'America' satire is a show stopper because of her teamwork with Tracy Friedman and Judy Blasi." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, June 6, 1973.

"In an unusual casting, local favorite Elaine Cancilla successfully donned a Puerto Rican accent and a brunet hairdo to play 'best friend' Anita." Michael H. Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, June 6, 1973.

DAMN YANKEES Rehearsal

A rehearsal for DAMN YANKEES (1971) inside the sunny tent, photo courtesy of Sally Marks. Identified by Mike Griebl are, from left to right: Van Johnson, Dennis Grimaldi, Ed Evanko (atop shoulders), Rod Keuper, Adam Grammis, Mark Mathews, Judy Blasi, Joan Carvelle (in sunglasses), Suzan Sidney, Marlissa Griffin, Ralph Braun, Candace Tovar, Dennis Dohman, James Hamel, Jo Jean Retrum, Miche Priaulx and Clyde Miller. The owner of the arm to Candace's right is unknown!


A lovely note and two playbills from Susan Watson

Susan Watson, whose most recent credit is Emily Whitman in the Washington, D.C., Broadway and Los Angeles revival of FOLLIES, graciously answered my request to autograph playbills from her 1973 Melody Top credits: Marian Paroo in THE MUSIC MAN with Van Johnson and Fran Kubelik in PROMISES, PROMISES opposite Orson Bean. She also sent a handwritten note: "Hi Dan. Thanks to you for gathering us all together for Memories of Melody Top! Those were golden days to be sure, with so many talented artists, and the best shows ever! What fun I had being a part of it! With much gratitude and love, Susan Watson." Her Milwaukee performances were praised in the local press. Please browse them here:

"Almost as helpful were Susan Watson, giving Bean's office crush a warm dimension, and Jack Washburn, the third corner of their triangle." Michael H. Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, August 1, 1973.

"The delightful Susan Watson becomes a most delectable heroine." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, August 1, 1973.

"Susan Watson, as the lovelorn librarian, is a sweetheart in every respect – sweet to look at, sweet to listen to and most appealing as to stage presence." Walter Monfried, The Milwaukee Journal, August 29, 1973.

"The sadder-but-wiser girl Hill finds in River City, Iowa is given a pleasant portrayal by Susan Watson." Jay Joslyn, The Milwaukee Sentinel, August 29, 1973.

The Music Man Playbill Promises, Promises Playbill

Joel Kopischke, who made his Melody Top debut playing Winthrop Paroo opposite Susan Watson and Van Johnson, contributed the following gallery of images from THE MUSIC MAN (1973). He returned to the Top to play Stevie Longstreet in HIGH BUTTON SHOES (1978) with Monty Hall and Anne Jeffreys. Since 1987, he appeared in two dozen shows at Skylight Opera Theatre including THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, DAMES AT SEA, MAN OF LA MANCHA and WEST SIDE STORY. He recently played the role of Marcellus Washburn, and delivered a showstopping "Shipoopi," in the Skylight's production of THE MUSIC MAN, having previously taken the same role in a concert version of the musical with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Visit his website at www.JoelVoice.com.


The memory of an enjoyable meal with Virginia Seidel

Dan, the webmaster of this site, shared a meal with Virginia Seidel the evening of Saturday, October 1, 2011. Virginia performed the roles of Minnie Fay in HELLO, DOLLY! and Josie Cohan in GEORGE M! during the summer of 1971. She was cast as Minnie because she previously worked with Stuart Bishop, Melody Top's director and designer, at Meadowbrook Dinner Theatre in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. Virginia was asked to play Josie Cohan later that summer because she wisely offered to stay with relatives in the area (at no additional cost to the Melody Top organization) between the two productions. A great and witty storyteller, Virginia shared many wonderful recollections of her time in summer stock, dinner theatre, regional houses, international tours and on the Broadway stage. Visitors to this website will be pleased to know Ms. Seidel's personality is as effervescent as her delightful vocals on the cast recording of VERY GOOD EDDIE. Spending a few hours reminiscing with her is something I will treasure for the rest of my days. (A very special "thank you" to Janet Fanale in New York City for arranging the meeting between me and Virginia!)

GEORGE M! at Melody Top Theatre

Clyde Miller and Virginia Seidel, backstage at Melody Top Theatre. Photo courtesy of Sally Marks.

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