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

Always popular in summer stock, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was produced three times at Melody Top (1965, 1975 and 1982). The tent provided a perfect backdrop for the musical's scenes set in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show "just before the turn of the century." Because the musical was heavily revised since its 1946 premiere, current productions are more sensitive in the portrayal of indigenous tribes of North America. Shining a light on their vast contributions to our culture, Native Americans are presented with authentic dances and costumes.

Annie Get Your Gun Medal Costume

Karen Morrow as Annie Oakley, proudly showing off an abundance of medals presented to her by European rulers in the musical's second act. Photo by Richard Borgeson, courtesy of Sally Marks.

Cast Biographies for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1975)

JOHN RAITT (Frank Butler)

John RaittJohn Raitt's first Melody Top appearance in 1967's CAROUSEL provided a series of the greatest musical highlights in the tent's history. Recreating his Broadway debut role of Billy Bigelow in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Mr. Raitt thrilled thousands with his shattering renditions of "If I Loved You" and "Soliloquy." He returned two years later to break all box-office records in OKLAHOMA!, again in 1971 as Hajj the Beggar in KISMET and, most recently, in 1972's highly acclaimed 1776.

CAROUSEL provided not only his Melody Top debut but was also the initial success that propelled him to stardom. The crush that stormed the Majestic Theatre for its premiere on April 19, 1945 was the first New York audience Raitt ever faced. The young Californian had entered the Rodgers and Hammerstein orbit a year earlier when he took over the role of Curly in the national company of OKLAHOMA! With CAROUSEL, he made musical theatre history and was voted both the Donaldson Award and the N.Y. Drama Critics Award for best performance by an actor in a musical.

Born in Santa Ana, California, John Raitt first began to sing for his supper as an entertainer at YMCA, Kiwanis and Rotary Club meetings and various church gatherings. Active in high school athletics, he won a track scholarship to the University of Southern California and seemed headed for a career as a physical education teacher and sports coach. Following his transfer to the University of Redlands, Raitt excelled in track and field meets and was unbeaten in the javelin throw, shot put and the discus throw. He was hopeful of making Olympic history, but the athletic dream was shattered when the Nazis bombed Helsinki in 1940. That same year, Raitt was afforded his first professional singing engagement in the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production of H.M.S. PINAFORE. His later performance in the company's THE MERRY WIDOW won him an MGM screen test and film contract. While at Metro, he appeared in FLIGHT COMMAND, BILLY THE KID, and the classic ZIEGFELD GIRL. He later returned to the University of Redlands as guest alumnus to star in THE VAGABOND KING.

Concert tours and stage productions on the West Coast preceded the call from the Theatre Guild to take over for Alfred Drake in OKLAHOMA! Impressed with his work, the Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to cast the handsome baritone in the leading role of the Broadway-bound CAROUSEL. The musical was judged the most brilliant of all the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein productions, and Raitt emerged as one of the most notable male stars of the Broadway musical stage.

After two years with CAROUSEL, Raitt was again signed by MGM, this time at an astronomical salary. After four months of waiting around for the "right role," he returned to his first love – the stage. He starred in three shows over the next few years (MAGDALENA, THREE WISHES FOR JAMIE and CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS) before hitting another musical jackpot in 1954 – THE PAJAMA GAME. Raitt played the starring role of Sid Sorokin on Broadway for 1,050 performances and subsequently co-starred in the motion picture version with Doris Day.

Frank and Sitting Bull Icon

Television audiences have seen John Raitt on all the musical variety and talk shows, his own summer variety show for Chevrolet and the memorable two-hour special of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN with Mary Martin. He made numerous recordings for Decca, Capitol, Warner Brothers, RCA and Columbia.

In 1965, Raitt won heartwarming ovations night after night at New York's Music Theatre of Lincoln Center when he recreated the role of Billy Bigelow in the revival of CAROUSEL. In 1966, he returned to Broadway and critical raves in A JOYFUL NOISE as Shade Motley; during 1966-67, he toured the country as Dr. Mark Bruckner in the national company of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER; 1969 found him starring in the musical extravaganza MANY HAPPY RETURNS, created expressly for the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas; and, in 1970, he played the title role in the touring ZORBA which was hailed as "better than the Broadway production."

Throughout the years, Raitt thrilled audiences in the summer theatre and Civic Light Opera productions of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, THE PAJAMA GAME, THE MUSIC MAN, CAMELOT and I DO! I DO!

At present, he is quite busy with a new project: John Raitt Productions, formed in recent years by Raitt and partner Don Cox. Together they mounted highly successful touring revivals of CAROUSEL, KISS ME, KATE, CAMELOT and – last season – the national company of the award-winning SEESAW. In 1972, Raitt was married to the former Miss Nevada and runner-up in the 1968 Miss Universe Pageant, Kathy Landry. Miss Landry performed with Mr. Raitt in many shows and currently acts as associate producer for John Raitt Productions.

Raitt has three children, Steve, Bonnie and David, of whom he is extremely proud. Bonnie is the only child following in the show business footsteps of her father. An accomplished guitarist with a beautiful voice, she is one of Warner Brothers Records top female recording artists.

When spare time is available (a rarity considering that he recently traveled over 50,000 miles in ten months – by car!), Raitt enjoys waterskiing and golf. He has been a favorite of the various celebrity golf tournaments for many years and carries his clubs wherever he goes. He jokes, "I only go on tour to play the beautiful golf courses in this country!"

KAREN MORROW (Annie Oakley)

Karen MorrowAs one of the outstanding musical performers of our time, Karen Morrow has been acclaimed in nearly every area of show business. Whether on television, on recordings or on stages from Broadway to Los Angeles, she won an ever-growing number of fans with a combination of warmth, personality – and That Voice.

This winter she added nightclubs to her list of outstanding accomplishments. With a premiere at the popular Brothers and Sisters Club in New York, she won literal hosannas from the traditionally tough Manhattan critics and garnered standing ovations from consistently full houses. She took the act to further triumph at Studio One in Los Angeles and then made a return to Brothers and Sisters – with a quick stopover at New York City's famed Town Hall where she and long-time friend Nancy Dussault belted their way through a musical comedy concert hailed as a highlight of the Broadway season.

It all really started December 15 with Karen's birth in Chicago. Her parents just happened to be opera singers with the Chicago Opera Company so, from her earliest memories, Karen was steeped in show business. When the family moved to Des Moines and her parents settled into different careers, it didn't really matter. Our girl was hooked.

Karen went away to college at Clarke in Dubuque and, when she realized she was failing history, changed her major to drama. While at college, Karen participated in every theatrical event and, when choreographer Eugene Loring saw her in one such presentation, he asked to bring her to California on a dance scholarship. Karen went to Los Angeles but found that making ends meet was more important than making her toes point and, with many friends in Milwaukee, she came here as a teacher. When her roommates saw an ad requesting singers for the Fred Miller Theatre repertory company, they literally shoved Karen on-stage; her extraordinary range and enthusiasm knocked the management off their seats. She made her professional debut with Harvey Korman in SEND ME NO FLOWERS and followed with appearances in BRIGADOON, BUS STOP with John Kerr, and the starring role in SOUTH PACIFIC with the original Bloody Mary, Juanita Hall, and the Milwaukee Symphony. As Karen's talents grew, so did her ambitions. In 1961, she made the decision to try New York and, once there, an accompanist friend suggested she audition for the off-Broadway musical SING, MUSE! She was hired at the going off-Broadway rate of $20 per week and, though the musical had only a four-week run, it served to introduce Karen to New York critics and audiences. Judith Crist wrote, "Somebody get that wonderful girl out of that awful show." Other reviewers were equally attentive and Karen received the coveted Theatre World Award as a "Most Promising Personality" of the season.

A contract with the William Morris agency – and a salary jump! – resulted when she was signed as standby for Tammy Grimes in the national tour of THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. The final eight weeks of the tour, Karen replaced Miss Grimes in the title role and again won audience and critical raves. Back to off-Broadway for what the singer fondly refers to as "my one hit!" – the revival of THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE – and then road companies of WILDCAT, THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN and eventually THE PAJAMA GAME and LITTLE ME (both for Melody Top – the former in 1964, the latter in 1964 and then again in 1972).

Broadway finally beckoned and, on her birthday in 1964, Karen began a six-month, sell-out, co-starring engagement with Buddy Hackett in I HAD A BALL; the reverberations from her rendition of the title song can still be heard in the Times Square area! As "queen of the revivals," she moved uptown to the prestigious New York City Center Company for starring roles in OKLAHOMA! with John Davidson, BRIGADOON, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA and CARNIVAL. Interspersed during this period were commercials, two appearances at the White House at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a stint as a regular on the "Sid Caesar Comedy Hour" and guest television performances on the shows of Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Jimmy Dean and Garry Moore. Karen was also a regular on two seasons of "The Jim Nabors Show." In late 1971, it was back to Broadway and a twenty-six minute, show-stopping production number as Babylove in THE GRASS HARP. She returned to Broadway again in 1972 as the star of THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT, and co-starred with Ron Moody in the Los Angeles' Music Center production of OLIVER! in 1973. Karen followed this with a stunning performance in the Mark Taper Forum presentation of BRECHT: SACRED AND PROFANE. Her most recent television appearances include "Dinah!," "The Merv Griffin Show," "Karen," "The Match Game" and a "Movie of the Week." Off-stage, Karen Morrow has a genuine devotion and joy for her friends, is interested in "the activities and ideas of every other person in the world" and, besides her hobbies of tennis and bicycling, she loves "going to lunch."

THOMAS RUISINGER (Colonel William Cody)

Thomas RuisingerTom Ruisinger made his initial Melody Top appearances two seasons ago as Mayor of the "River Citizens" of THE MUSIC MAN, the magical Mr. Lundy of BRIGADOON and one of the apartment-seeking executives in PROMISES, PROMISES.


For two seasons, he was a member of the company at the American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford. Mr. Ruisinger's co-stars in these productions included such notables as Robert Cummings, Lee Grant, George Gobel, Bill Bixby, John Davidson, Jean Stapleton, Martha Raye, Molly Picon, Donald O'Connor, Robert Morse, Helen Gallagher, Tab Hunter and – at Melody Top – Van Johnson, Jane Powell and Orson Bean.

His home in New York City is a nineteenth-century federal townhouse, which he just completed renovating and restoring; it was recently declared a historical landmark.

CLYDE LAURENTS (Charlie Davenport)

Clyde LaurentsThough he's had many outstanding moments on-stage at Melody Top, Clyde Laurents' greatest triumph under the Milwaukee tent came with last season's NO, NO, NANETTE. Local critics raved and local fans cheered his dancing and singing portrayal of lawyer Bill Early in the "new 1925 musical hit."

Melody Top audiences will also recall his sensational performance as Will Parker in OKLAHOMA! in 1969 and his specialty dance with Elaine Cancilla to "Who's Got the Pain?" in DAMN YANKEES in 1971. One of the highlights of the 1972 season was his rendition of the brooding "Momma Look Sharp" as the Courier of 1776. Clyde additionally appeared as Buzz Collins in FINIAN'S RAINBOW with Arte Johnson, Earl Wrightson's valet Manuel in GIGI, Joey Biltmore in GUYS AND DOLLS, gangster Knuckles Norton in SUGAR, the Kralahome in THE KING AND I and The Jester whose "Very Soft Shoes" brought down the house nightly in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS.

A highly valued asset on the Melody Top staff as well, this is Clyde's seventh season as combination performer and assistant choreographer. He started his career in show business as an ice skater under the tutelage of the late Sonja Henie, but retired from the ice at age fourteen and moved on to Broadway for a series of hit musicals. His New York credits include VINTAGE '60, IRMA LA DOUCE, CELEBRATION, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, PICKWICK PAPERS, HELLO, DOLLY! and GIGI. For PICKWICK PAPERS, he was hired to do rewrites on the book and lyrics during out-of-town tryouts. Since last summer, he appeared in the off-Broadway production, THE GLORIOUS AGE.


Joan CarvelleA happily familiar face to Melody Top audiences is that of Joan Carvelle, who was featured here in a variety of outstanding performances and is a valuable member of our resident company. Last season she was seen as Flora Latham, "the big one" pursuing Arthur Lake in NO, NO, NANETTE and as Sweet Sue, the baton-wielding girls' orchestra leader in SUGAR. In past summers, she most notably appeared as Abigail Adams in 1776 opposite John Raitt, the airline stewardess April in COMPANY, Mrs. Molloy in HELLO, DOLLY!, Baroness Schroeder in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, legendary Broadway star Fay Templeton in GEORGE M!, the oldest daughter in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and as Jane Powell's sister Rose in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. During the winter months, Joan performed in a revival of John Philip Sousa's 1896 operetta EL CAPITAN at the Goodspeed Opera House and Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., sung in the choir of the Broadway United Church of Christ and appeared in a lesser known Verdi opera, NABUCCO, at New York's Harkness Theatre.

Joan's stage career began when, as a student at Marquette University, she wandered into a rehearsal of KISS ME, KATE at the Wauwatosa Village Playhouse. Today she is a veteran of over 70 operas, operettas and musicals – the earliest done in Milwaukee while she was a high school teacher named Joan Bielefeld. Locally, she appeared at the Village Playhouse, the Skylight Theatre and with the Milwaukee Players.

An actress of many facets, her roles have varied from Anna in THE KING AND I to Tessie Tura in GYPSY – and from Lucy Brown in THE THREEPENNY OPERA to Constance in THE SORCERER. Since moving to New York City, Queen Aggravain in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS and Madame Doubonnet in THE BOY FRIEND have been added to her list of favorite shows.

GEORGE AXLER (Pawnee Bill)

George AxlerA veteran character actor, George Axler played in comedy, drama and musical comedy all over the country. He appeared on Broadway as Herr Schultz in CABARET and co-starred in subsequent productions of that award-winning hit with Judy Came and Lucie Arnaz.

His television credits include the popular daytime dramas "Another World" and "Love of Life" among many others; he toured cross-country with the national companies of THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, GYPSY and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

As a sidelight to his theatrical work, Mr. Axler also works professionally as a handwriting analyst; he is currently preparing a series of slide presentations combining calligraphy with graphology.

CLYDE MILLER (Sitting Bull)

Clyde MillerAnother Melody Top regular, Clyde Miller returns for his eighth summer at the tent. His characterizations have brightened such past "big top" hits as GUYS AND DOLLS, FINIAN'S RAINBOW, KISS ME, KATE, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1776, KISMET, GEORGE M!, DAMN YANKEES, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, MAME, HOW NOW, DOW JONES, LI'L ABNER, FUNNY GIRL and SHOW BOAT. His other Melody Top appearances include roles in CARNIVAL, PAINT YOUR WAGON, SONG OF NORWAY, SWEET CHARITY, HIGH BUTTON SHOES, SILK STOCKINGS, IRMA LA DOUCE, WHERE'S CHARLEY?, PAL JOEY and OF THEE I SING.

Clyde also appeared at many other Milwaukee theatres, including the Pabst, Fred Miller, Skylight, Riverside and Swan, and he worked as writer, director or actor (and sometimes all three) in over 150 community theatre, U.S. Army and semi-professional productions. He was featured in EQUITY SHOWCASE from Chicago's Ivanhoe Theatre and made frequent appearances on Milwaukee television. Since his last roles at Melody Top, Clyde worked extensively in local TV and radio commercials, can currently be seen in newspapers as "Gilbert" in Marshall and Ilsley Bank's "strong partner" advertising campaign, and served as moderator of the television special "Prospect on Pregnancy" seen on Channel 36 in February.

Buffalo Bill Icon

Ensemble members included Robert Alton, Mib Bramlette, Judith Ann Conte, Eddie Dudek, Tracy Friedman, John Ganzer, Did Hitt, Barrett Hong, Sharon Little, Wayne Mattson, Nancy McCloud, Roy Neuner, Susan Rush, Barry Thomas and Dan Webber.

Children in the cast were Kevin Golliher (Little Boy), Lisa Grossman (Little Girl), Jim Valcq (Little Jake), Julie Valentine (Jessie), Mary Schmittner (Nellie) and Mary Semmelhack (Minnie).

Rough Riders: Liz Braun, Todd DeLap, Debra Dube, David Gebel, Linda Halfman, Brian Hanson, Karen Major, Angie McAdams, Laura Perlman, Dan Petite, Kathy Sheedy and Jenipher Sichi.

ANNIE Musical Right on Target

By Dean Jensen, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, June 25, 1975

Bull's eye!

That's the mark the Melody Top Theatre hits squarely with its production of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, which opened Tuesday night.

And one might wonder how the tent theatre could miss with all those Irving Berlin tunes whose verse has been undiminished by time and with John Raitt and Karen Morrow as its stars.

Radiant Annie

As Annie Oakley, Miss Morrow is the cynosure of every scene in which she appears. Nobody gives off more than a candle's glimmer next to her radiance – not even, it seems, the handsome, booming voiced Raitt.

Annie Oakley IconHe is smashing whenever he is singing. But he moves on stage with a disconcerting ramrod stiffness and depends wholly on his lines – not even so much as a batting of the eyelashes – to emote feelings of rage, love or exultation.

Miss Morrow, on the other hand, draws from a seemingly bottomless fount of theatrical device to telegraph her feelings to the audience.

She is beautiful to watch as she casts her love-struck gazes upon Raitt, her fellow trouper in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. She is uproariously funny in her portrayal of the gawking, ungainly prairie flower who became adored by all of America and much of Europe as a markswoman.

And, of course, the former Milwaukee schoolteacher still possesses that marvelous voice that resounds like the Liberty Bell.

Mere mention of some of the tunes from the nearly 30-year old musical comedy should whet appetites for the type of enchanted evening this show offers – "The Girl That I Marry," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "They Say It's Wonderful" and "I've Got the Sun in the Morning."

The production is not without flaws, but perhaps the only major disappointments are the altogether pedestrian dance numbers staged by James Smock. The show will continue through July 6.

ANNIE is Right on Target

By Michael H. Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, June 25, 1975

Milwaukee's Melody Top Theatre keeps looking backward eagerly this season in an all-revival lineup. With is opener, there was some bad news and GOOD NEWS. But as Karen Morrow, John Raitt and their ANNIE GET YOUR GUN troupe belted "There's No Business Like Show Business" in Tuesday night's premiere, anyone with working eyes, ears and heart surely agreed.

The musical fable of sharpshooter Annie Oakley scored a bull's-eye, and 2,100 fans responded with an ovation.

Even with updating and eliminating a subplot, Herbert and Dorothy Fields' 1946 libretto creaks a little. Its approximate theme: boy meets, loses, gets, loses and regains girl when she learns "You Cain't Get a Man with a Gun." For ANNIE, composer Irving Berlin created his finest score – half a dozen imperishable hits plus others that would distinguish any show.

Local Favorites

Casting the revival of a 1965 Top hit, producer Marty Wiviott commendably imported local favorites Morrow and Raitt. After trying TV and cabarets, Miss Morrow, a former schoolmarm here, is back where she belongs, in musical comedy. It's the only medium large enough for her drum and bugle corps voice.

During the next fortnight, as she purely belts "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and "I Got the Sun in the Morning," anyone between 60th St. and Menomonee Falls is likely to lose sleep.

But she stopped down the bellows for ballads and moderated her Silly Sally mannerisms for several rather touching love scenes with Raitt. Surely no Annies (including Merman, Hutton or Martin) were much better. In her first try, Karen Morrow has put her brand on Annie.

Ringing Voice

Raitt has portrayed Miss Oakley's loving rival, Frank Butler, before – on tour and on TV with Miss Martin. At 58, he is singing as well as ever; the ringing voice was right on target in "The Girl That I Marry," "The Say It's Wonderful," etc. And the stuffy role makes no acting demands beyond Raitt's rather stilted range.

The two perfectly cast stars teamed winningly for that classic paean to male-female rivalry, "Anything You Can Do." With all that hit music, director Stuart Bishop and conductor Don Yap needed only keep traffic out of their way. But James Smock's choreography was stiff and aimless.

Supporting players Clyde Laurents, Joan Carvelle, George Axler, Clyde Miller and Thomas Ruisinger contributed a few laughs. But this was one of those rare Top shows where the stars more than earned their pay.

After it closes here, Raitt and Miss Morrow resume ANNIE's romantic rivalry in Sacramento, Calif., which knows a good thing.

Annie Get Your Gun Indian Dance

Another delightful image of an elevated Karen Morrow as Annie Oakley, happy to learn in song and dance that "I'm an Indian, Too!" Photo by Richard Borgeson, courtesy of Sally Marks.

©2009-2023 D.G.P., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Please visit the contact information page to address the webmaster.