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

John Fricke, who started his long affiliation with Melody Top as a student apprentice and later returned as the theatre's publicist, taped the following interview with Jim Peck for "I Remember" on Milwaukee Public Television. In addition to promoting his third (and beautiful) book on the career of Judy Garland, Mr. Fricke reminisced about the many celebrities he worked with at Melody Top. Please take a few minutes to view the entire 30-minute program. Included in the conversation is the famous – and funny – story about a skunk that made an appearance on stage during HELLO, DOLLY! (1980).

On Monday, August 23, 1976, Mr. Fricke performed his one-man show at Melody Top. The following day, Jay Joslyn published an insightful report on the performance in the Milwaukee Sentinel: "Monday night, John Fricke went to Paradise and found it was all a stage-struck kid could dream of. There he was, starring in a perfectly lighted one-man show in front of a capacity audience, backed by a splended band under superlative direction and all introduced by such a theatrical great as Margaret Whiting. This real-life Walter Mitty realization occurred at the Melody Top Theatre, where producer Martin Wiviott gave his public relations representative for the last five years his first big night in the spotlight. There's no doubt Fricke is a showman. He projects his enthusiasm, friendly personality and boyish charm disarmingly. Fricke's act is one long, effective medley of old-time songs from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. He does a surefire job of selling his songs and that's what the crowd responded to in the standing ovations that completed the dream." The two photos below of that special night were supplied by Mr. Fricke.

Melody Top Sign

A "sold out" notation on the illuminated and familiar sign on Good Hope Road in Milwaukee.

Melody Top Fricke

After a few remarks by the legendary Margaret Whiting (right), John Fricke took the stage and entertained his loyal audience.

The story below was written by Steve McKillen, an apprentice who worked at Melody Top during the summer of 1981, for his hometown newspaper, the Greendale Village Life. It is a bittersweet account of the theatre, around the time its buildings were demolished. Steve now resides in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he moonlights in both community and semi-professional theatre. He would love to hear from other apprentices. Please check the list of names at the end of his story and contact the webmaster with information.

A wonderful summer of songs and sawdust

By Steve McKillen

The rumors reached me some time ago that an old friend had passed on. This friend had welcomed me with open arms shortly after I'd liberated myself from the mind-numbing treadmill of factory work, showing me that it was quite possible to labor on something both rewarding and interesting. Many an actor and wandering soul had found respite with this old friend over the years.

Steve McKillen and his Nova

As I approached from the west on Good Hope Road, familiar landmarks remained from that summer of long ago…the stand where freshly-harvested crops were sold, the railroad tracks, the same bumps and lights I'd passed by many times before in my old blue Nova (see photograph at left).

It seemed only natural that over the next hill, that familiar shape would reappear, its cement and wooden hulk having stood the test of time like a landlocked ship waiting its turn to sail the open sea again. As I neared the once-busy parking lot near Kmart, my hopes were dashed. My old friend, the Melody Top Theatre, was gone.

Years before, I had returned there on a cold winter's night, months after its lights had dimmed for the season. Curiosity had beckoned, if only to view it from the different perspective of knee-deep snow and single-digit temperatures. As a cold west wind blew in over the fence and down the empty aisles, I had bounded onto center stage like the ringmaster at a three-ring circus, just to hear my voice echo against the rafters.

It had seemed so barren, like all the trees in a forest that had shed their leaves for winter, awaiting the rebirth of spring. But back then, I knew it was just a matter of time until this lonely stage would see life again, as another troupe of actors and stagehands began to work their magic for the season.

Sights and sounds gone for good

Now as I roamed the grounds, which had become a lifeless pile of gravel and weeds, a feeling of sad desolation filled the air. Now the music was gone, the actors forever silenced. It was as if a small piece of that innocent youth we all strive to hold onto forever had been coldly snatched away. The dirt had become a burial mound, with the ups and downs of a wonderful era entombed within...

They were the sights, sounds, and smells of what was, for this author, one of the best summers he'd ever had, working in and around the professional theatre. It was the smell of sawdust and paint as the crew prepared sets for the next show, of popcorn for hungry patrons, and of the refreshing afternoon rains.

It was the sounds of giggling ushers, of actors and actresses rehearsing that one special scene, and of the applause for a show well done. It was the sight of the stage from where those magical voices emanated, in a way taking one back to the days when theatre was any place where a person or troupe could gather a crowd.

But most of all, it was the various personalities and their antics that brought such life to the place. People with nicknames like Squiggy, Jim "The Star," Felz, and many others. Adina and her eclectic variety of headwear, or Heather who — having irked someone with an unfortunate choice of words — came out one night to find her car up on blocks. It was the grounds crew trying to oust another rogue skunk from the theatre, or good old Bob trying to find his car after others had moved it to the lot next door again. It was post-show celebrations — especially that July Fourth pool party up in the northern suburbs — to cast call briefings, and that air of anticipation as the band struck up the opening chords.

Rock from Melody Top Theatre

It was all gone.

As I headed back to my car, I discovered a piece of rock partly covered with faded blue paint – probably an old part of the pavement between the scene shop and the theatre (see photograph at left). I took it along for the ride home...the only visible remnant of that wonderful summer of sawdust, music, and friends.

Apprentices, parkers and ushers:

Cathy Battocletti, Debbie Felzer, Ann Fuhrman, Diane Gray, April Grant, Dawn Greisbach, Gay Greisbach, Greta Hansen, Jim Hernday, Don Kaegler, Yvonne Kaegler, Kris Knapp, Thomas Koch, Heather Marsh, Steve McKillen, Tom Neuhaus, Adina Goldberger, Robert Olkowski, Neal Peters, Terry Ploetz, Kathy Prodehl, Kathy Scherper, Sarah Schmidt, Gayle Strege, Janice Tellier (1981 scholarship winner), Linda Paul, Beth Piper, Mike Proft, Sharon Reiser, Julie Schommer, Jo Schwerm, Sara Somers and Anita Varga.

Paul Anschuetz, Andy Bleiler, Jon Branger-Kojis, Jill Burkhardt, Jim Charnitz, Richard Cook, Jim Dondlinger, Tom Eggert, Glenn Elert, Will Goldsmith, Dave Griebl, Kim Henderson, John Herde, Neal Hinze, Mary Holton, Steve Kachelmeyer, John Kalis, Tom Kojis, Frank Laycock, Ben Levin, Bob Maranan, Margie Maranan, Holly Mengsol, Mike Mrotek, Dale Retzack, Don Pesich, Wendy Podell, Mary Rasmussen, Hugh Ross, Sandi Schwalb, Jeannine Stark, Mary Tomski and Toni Vey.

John Storch, Paul Strzysewski, Bill Vornsand, Bruce Wade, Dan Wade, Lynn Bertoni, George Blockwitz, Carrie Bremer, Linda Christon, Vicki Cohen, Linda Durrenberg, Chris Fischer, Denise Harmon, Jody Horn, Ann Janikowsky, Pam Johnson, Peggy Johnson, Stefani Kracht, Michelle Martin, Saree Meldman, Beth McGinty, Steve Muth, Terri Nehmer, Robin Paradis, Mary Parodo, Kristie Peterson, Sue Powell, Beth Ratledge, Sue Schneider, Carrie Schwerm, Connie Strey and Terri Weisfeldt.

Memories of Melody Top – from California!

The following essay was sent to the webmaster from Bob Schneider, who now resides in San Francisco, California.

Thanks for your terrific website. It brought back many fond memories for me. I first fell in love with musical theatre at Melody Top and it amazes me that over 40 years later I can still remember some of the shows and performances. I threw out all my programs years ago and regret it to this day. Following are some things I remember.

Getting to the tent was always a big deal for me. I was too young to have a driver's license and had to beg my parents and relatives to give me a ride out there — none of them were too interested in theatre and didn't want to attend with me. On the days I couldn't beg a ride, I would take a bus to the end of the line and then walk on the highway the rest of the way to get to 76th and Good Hope Road. Back then buses didn't go that far north.

I always tried to arrive early since I was fascinated with the backstage area. I must have spent hours watching everyone get ready from behind a chain link barrier. It was always one of my favorite parts of the experience.

Most of my memories are from the 1960s, since I left Milwaukee in the 1970s. I still remember Karen Morrow belting "The Other Side of the Tracks" from LITTLE ME — one of her best performances. Ditto for Mimi Hines hamming her way through "Is it a Crime?" from BELLS ARE RINGING. I thought then, and still do, that she was better than Judy Holliday in the role.

I wasn't a season subscriber, so getting a seat close to the stage was always a priority for me. I'll never forget the night someone turned in a ticket and I got a front row seat for Monique Von Vooren in CAN-CAN. I still remember her winking at me, an enraptured kid in his teens.

Faith Dane as Mazeppa

I haven't seen anything about it on the site, but I could swear the original Mazeppa from GYPSY, Faith Dane, played the tent, reprising her stripper role. No one could bump it with a trumpet like her. (NOTE: Faith Dane, pictured at left, recreated her Broadway and film role in the 1966 production of GYPSY.) I also remember Forrest Tucker forgetting most of his lines in his 11 o'clock number, "Come Back to Me," from ON A CLEAR DAY. Rita Gardner was so incandescent as Daisy that it remained one of my favorite productions.

I think Chita Rivera in IRMA LA DOUCE is remembered by anyone who saw her. The way I remember it is that she was on some moving contraption after she injured her foot. She did all the singing and acting, but when a dance number came up she would spread her arms in a grand diva gesture and be wheeled partway up the aisle to let the dancers go at it.

Since those early days, I have spent many vacations in New York City seeing all the shows, but I always have a place in my heart for those tent theatre days. I was sorry to read about Melody Top closing, and spent a lot of time searching for a similar experience. About seven years ago I discovered there was a tent theatre in Sacramento, not too far from San Francisco where I live. I took the train up there to see a show and was astonished — it was as if Melody Top had been brought back to life. Shows are done in an actual tent theatre with Broadway stars playing the leads. The next year the theatre (Sacramento Music Circus) made the structure permanent, with added comforts, but the spirit of the tent theatre lives on.

Thanks for the memories!

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