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

There was plenty of drama, both on and off stage, during the run of CALL ME MADAM when Melody Top's management took issue with a somewhat negative review printed in the Milwaukee Journal after opening night. That infamous review, and a subsequent response from the newspaper, are referenced below, along with letters to the editor written by patrons of the Top. Thirty years after CALL ME MADAM closed, Guy Little recalled that Nanette Fabray was not affected by her local review and that the two of them enjoyed some time at the Wisconsin State Fair on her day off from peforming.

Clyde Miller and Nanette Fabray backstage at Melody Top Theatre during the run of CALL ME MADAM

Milwaukee character actor Clyde Miller and Nanette Fabray are pictured "backstage" at Melody Top during the 1979 run of CALL ME MADAM. Photo from the collection of Clyde Miller and Sally Marks.

Nanette Fabray Made the Show

By Roxane Orgill, the Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 1, 1979

Watching the opening of CALL ME MADAM at Melody Top Tuesday night, I wondered what would have happened to the show had Nanette Fabray canceled, or been stricken with acute indigestion at 8:00 p.m.

Without her, there wouldn't have been much to watch. Though her voice was hoarse at worst and thin at best, Miss Fabray, as hostess/ambassador Sally Adams, had style. Her acting, snappy and charming, gave the show a few sparks. And her dancing made almost everyone else seem lead footed.

Mitchell Gregg, as Lichtenburg Prime Minister Cosmo Constantine, has a rich speaking voice, but his singing voice has a wide vibrato that makes one wonder what he's hiding beneath it. His Cosmo was romantic and elegant but looked a bit uncomfortable.

The chorus seemed to be suffering from almost-the-end-of-the-season doldrums and looked in need of a day off. Faces wore steely smiles, and no one seemed to be having even a passable time.

(Webmaster's note: Ensemble members at Melody Top were extremely busy preparing for the world premiere of a new musical revue, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, between CALL ME MADAM and the 1979 season's closing production, SHOW BOAT.)

The 1950 musical by Irving Berlin was intended to satirize an actual event: the naming of Perle Mesta as minister to Luxembourg by President Harry Truman. Writers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse gave the ambassador another name, Sally Adams, but she is essentially the same sparkling hostess who knew little about diplomacy.

Stuart Bishop obviously decided that including lines about Truman would have dated the production, so he inserted another name. In this production, Sally receives a call from Jimmy instead of Harry and bears gifts of – you guessed it – peanuts to the Duchy of Lichtenburg.

The joke brought some laughter from the audience, but I found it awfully corny.

"The Ocarina" – with real ocarinas played by two chorus members – was the best of the dance numbers. James Smock's choreography, focusing on lithe Valerie Lee but involving the whole chorus, was pretty but not showy and had the women weaving in and out of arbors of flower garlands held by the men.

The production continues through August 12.

Valerie Lee in CALL ME MADAM (1979) at Melody Top.

Valerie Lee, costumed in puffy sleeves as Princess Maria, performed with the chorus in "The Ocarina," a production number from CALL ME MADAM (1979). Photo from the collection of Annie Bruskiewitz.

Tent Theater Boss Urged Patrons to Pan Review

By Russell Austin, Journal Reader Contact Editor, Sunday, August 12, 1979

"Nanette Fabray Made the Show," read the headline of Roxane Orgill's review, in the August 1 Journal, of the opening night performance of the old musical, CALL ME MADAM, at the Milwaukee Melody Top tent theater.

That fairly well summed up the main point of the review: The charming actress, Ms. Orgill said, "gave the show a few sparks," although her voice that night was hoarse and thin. The chorus seemed tired, Ms. Orgill wrote, and the leading man was "romantic and elegant" but "looked a bit uncomfortable."

After such a mildly critical review, leavened with some praise, the letters of complaint we received – 15 that I saw – surprised me.

An Explanation

But a 16th letter made them easier to understand.

It was from a Milwaukee attorney, James W. Mohr, Jr., and read in part:

"I thought you might be interested in seeing the enclosed bit of public relations from the Melody Top theater. I am not sure what type or quantity of letters you will be receiving in response to this, but I would like both you and Mr. Little (Melody Top's manager) to know that I was in attendance on the evening in question and Ms. Orgill's review was entirely accurate and exactly what the show deserved… In my opinion, we need more, not fewer, reviews of the type written by Ms. Orgill; hopefully to raise the rather mediocre standards to which the Melody Top has recently fallen."

Mohr enclosed a duplicated letter on Melody Top stationery, addressed to "Dear Opening Night Season Seat Patrons" and signed "Guys S. Little, Jr., Producer-General Manager."

"We felt that you, the audience, had a good time opening night," the letter said in part, "so we were very distressed to read the review in the Journal which panned the show, star, cast and general production… Ms. Orgill's review is the kind that keeps stars from returning to a theater."

"We advertise in the Journal and we believe that we should have 'fair' support from the Journal and other area newspapers. If a show and star are poor, then we deserve to receive a pan, but we feel that… CALL ME MADAM is a good evening of entertainment."

"If you agree, please do write a 'Letter to the Editor' as did Mr. Bill Neumann. Your comments to the paper and to Melody Top will be greatly appreciated…"

Review Included

Enclosed with Little's letter was a copy of the review and of a letter from a Bill Neumann of 8169 N. Joseph Ave., Milwaukee, attacking the review and accusing Ms. Orgill of having "skipped out before the show's finale" and having failed to see the "standing ovations." It suggested that she "might enjoy true journalism" if she saw and reported the full performance. "The press? What do they know? I was there," Neumann finished in a final flourish.

This sample letter evidently proved helpful to some of the others who wrote us, for most made essentially the same points.

Such a stage-managed attempt to discredit a reviewer is rare, and nearly certain to be exposed. In any case, it would not sway editors to surrender the right and duty to print frank criticism by qualified critics. (Ms. Orgill, by the way, has two degrees in music: a bachelor's from the University of Illinois and a master's from the University of London, England. She also studied a year at the Sorbonne in Paris.)

Although most of those who wrote last week to criticize Ms. Orgill probably were responding to the theater management's urging, I think the main questions they raise should be answered.

Did our reviewer leave the Melody Top before the show ended?

No, Ms. Orgill assured me. She left her seat late in the show, but stood at the back near an exit, in order to avoid the crush and get out promptly to return to the Journal to write her review.

If she was there, why didn't she mention Miss Fabray's deft ad-libbing when a zipper on her gown broke, late in the show?

This did not impress Ms. Orgill as an important aspect of the performance, and her review had to be held to a modest length.

Why did she say the chorus seemed weary and needed a day off?

She had seen the chorus in three consecutive productions and felt that their performance in CALL ME MADAM was poorest, perhaps due to fatigue.

Why didn't she mention the enthusiastic audience response, including the standing ovation?

She told me that such responses are common at Melody Top, where a large part of the audience consists of loyal, long-time patrons who are not highly critical.

No doubt this is true. But – and my only "but" in defending Ms. Orgill's review – I have along felt that the response of the audience is a fact of interest to many ordinary readers, who may not share the reviewer's specialized education or exacting standards of performance. I think readers are entitled to know whether the audience seemed to enjoy the show, to aid in making their decision whether to attend future performances.

Certainly, I do not argue that the critic should soften his or her comments about flaws in the show or concert. But when the audience reaction is decidedly enthusiastic or adverse, I think it is good journalism to report it. Not to do so is to weaken our credibility in the eyes of those who were also there.

Photos from CALL ME MADAM, July 31 – August 12, 1979

Call Me Madam 1 Call Me Madam 2 Call Me Madam 3 Call Me Madam 4 Call Me Madam 5 Call Me Madam 6 Call Me Madam 7 Call Me Madam 8 Call Me Madam 9 Call Me Madam 10

Critique Inspires Reader Critics

Reproduced here are five letters to the editor published in the Milwaukee Journal on Thursday, August 16, 1979, after the two-week run of CALL ME MADAM was over:

Poor Roxane Orgill!

The Journal gave her the assignment to review CALL ME MADAM when she obviously had something more important to do.

Clearly, she went to work expecting to find fault. If she had gone to the show in a less critical mood, she would have been entertained.

Was Nanette Fabray's voice hoarse and thin? We hardly noticed. We were busy applauding and asking for encores.

Was Mitchell Gregg uncomfortable? We found him charming.

Was the chorus suffering from doldrums, wearing steely smiles? We must have been concentrating on how great they sounded.

Were the peanut jokes corny? Maybe. But thank God for corny jokes!

The Melody Top is one of the few places where we can go for an evening of entertainment without having to worry about whether there will be a lot of smut or wondering what kind of hidden meaning the author was trying to convey.

We were there on opening night and marveled at the way Nanette Fabray handled each situation. She's a real star.

Our thanks to Melody Top for brining her to Milwaukee. Thanks to Stuart Bishop for updating the play. But no thanks are due for Ms. Orgill's negativism.

Howard and Carol Trudell, West Allis

I have been very disturbed with the reviews that have been given to most of the plays put on at Melody Top Theater this year. But after reading the review of CALL ME MADAM and attending the performance, I made up my mind that it was about time to write and inquire as to what Roxane Orgill is looking for.

I could not see one thing about this play that wasn't, to my way of thinking, near excellent. I would have loved to write Nanette Fabray and told her that, but I haven't done so.

I also think that the chorus has been excellent in every performance; it certainly is worthy of a lot of credit, which I don't believe it has ever received.

Up to this writing, I'll agree that there has been very little in Ms. Orgill's reviews that would give one the urge to attend a performance.

Mrs. A.B. Kuchler, Milwaukee

I have been an opening night, season ticket holder at the Melody Top for over ten years. I wouldn't give them up for anything.

The few bloopers that are occasionally made on opening night at the Melody Top are what I consider to be the real fun of having opening night tickets.

A good performer capitalizes on these little things, as did Nanette Fabray when she had an unfortunate accident with the zipper in her gown. It brought down the tent, a sign of a true entertainer.

I have long since given up the critics' reviews of these productions. Quite honestly, it doesn't appear that many Milwaukeeans read the reviews, as I rarely see a vacant seat at any performance.

I did not see the review of CALL ME MADAM, either. I took my niece to see the play and she called me to tell me how shocked she was when she read the review. She read it to me over the phone.

Apparently, Roxane Orgill is of another generation and does not remember the very talented and vivacious Nanette Fabray. Well, millions of people remember. How many will remember Roxane Orgill?

I have seen many, many plays and many standing ovations, but I have never seen one like that given Ms. Fabray. Before she could return to the stage from the runway, the audience was up as one.

This, my friends, is entertainment!

Elaine Grassl, Okauchee

We were present on opening night at the Melody Top's production of CALL ME MADAM starring Nanette Fabray.

We found it a top production and wonderful entertainment, which ran smoothly.

Ms. Fabray was outstanding, as were all her coworkers.

The audience was charmed by the whole show. The audience appreciation was shown by constant and hearty applause, plus a standing ovation in the end.

We certainly have voiced our opinion loudly and clearly to our many friends and neighbors about how great this show is.

Curtis and Ethel Osborn, Milwaukee

I recently read the review by Roxane Orgill on the Melody Top production of CALL ME MADAM. It made me angry to think that the Journal put such power in the hands of someone who is obviously uninformed, as well as blind and deaf.

My opinion of critics is not uncommon. I have always found them unnecessary, arrogant and without any imagination whatsoever.

Ms. Orgill's critique was way off base. If she really was there, she would have seen the tremendous audience response. It was all very delightful and no one person has the right to wound others the ways she has done.

I suggest the paper rid itself of critics altogether. I further suggest that it print some form of retraction or apology in the very near future.

F. Wolf Niemczyk, Muskego

Nanette Fabray and Robert Vincent Smith in CALL ME MADAM (1979) at Melody Top.

Nanette Fabray (as Sally Adams) with Terry Lacy in a scene from CALL ME MADAM (1979). Victoria K. Ver Hoven is pictured in the background. Photo from the collection of Annie Bruskiewitz.

Recollections from the Chorus

Mib Bramlette and Eddie Dudek in CALL ME MADAM (1979) at Melody Top.

Mib Bramlette: Nanette Fabray was a sweetheart. I can't remember much about the show except that I wore one of my all-time favorite costumes: a long, purple dress with boa feathers on the overlay. I'm pictured in a photo (see above) where I have a champagne glass in my hand, raised in a toast, along with Eddie Dudek. That image was captured during Nanette's opening song, "The Hostess with the Mostes' on the Ball."

Ann Arvia: Nanette was a peach, a total pro and quite hilarious. One of the performances was an amazing thing to behold. A group of hearing-impaired audience members attended CALL ME MADAM and Nanette signed the entire performance every time she was on stage. Not only her lines, but also the dialogue of everyone else on stage with her! It looked like a beautiful, gestured performance, but I don't think anyone would have known otherwise. Now, I'm not sure what inside jokes or comments she made to the group but, a time or two during the show, only that chunk of the audience roared with laughter.

Jim Fredericks: This may have happened on opening night, but I'm not completely sure. Nanette came down one of those long aisles in a beautiful, beaded gown. The zipper had broken, and you could see all the way down to her you-know-what. Well, she was a great comedienne – among other things – so she "worked it" until she could get back up the aisle. About 20 years later, in 1999, I attended a tribute of MGM musicals at Carnegie Hall. They were fabulous evenings. At a post-performance reception, Nanette was there in the same gown she wore at Melody Top. It was repaired, of course. I went up to her and told her I was in the CALL ME MADAM company with her. She said, and I quote: "Remember the dress?"

Terry Lacy: My memory is the same as Jim's. Except I would like to add that when she got onstage with a very revealing broken zipper, the scene called for her to receive a medal which was attached to a lovely ribbon. As the actor began to place the ribbon on Nanette's neck she quipped, "That'll never cover." Otherwise, I would just like to join in the chorus of adoration for Nannette from my coworkers. I remember that while working with her, saying to myself, "NOW I understand what they mean in Hollywood by calling someone a star." She was the epitome of talent, charm and professionalism.

Jan Wahl: Nanette was a genuine person, through and through, both on and off stage. She shared her personal struggle in dealing with a hearing impairment, which I have also shared with others who were going through the same experience over the years. In fact, she taught us a few "naughty sayings" in sign language which she would flash to us on stage! She was a joy to work with in the show. Here's another funny story. Eddie Dudek and I were assigned by director Stuart Bishop to be "set dressing" at a fountain during the star's solo number. It was awful, so I had the idea that we could do a "fountain ballet" in slow motion – with flippers we hid inside the fountain and used throughout the song. It ended with a flippered mermaid kiss. This all happened during a "Crazy Tuesday" rehearsal. Stuart Bishop, Jim Smock, Clyde Laurents and the cast were crying with subdued laughter. The star never even noticed. It was awesome!

Melody Top Magazine from CALL ME MADAM (1979) at Melody Top.

A copy of the Melody Top "magazine" autographed by three stars of CALL ME MADAM – Nanette Fabray, Mitchell Gregg and Bob Morrisey – from the personal collection of the webmaster.

CALL ME MADAM Cast of Characters

Mrs. Sally Adams:Nanette Fabray
The Secretary of State:Tom Zinos
Supreme Court Justice:Robert Vincent Smith
Congresswoman Wilkins:Travis Hudson
Henry Gibson:Clyde Miller
Kenneth Gibson:Bob Morrisey
Miss Phillips:Victoria K. Ver Hoven
Butler:Jim Fredericks
Senator Brockbank:Paul Albrecht
Senator Gallagher:Jerry Tullos
Cosmo Constantine:Mitchell Gregg
Pemberton Maxwell:Floyd King
Clerk:Eddie Dudek
Hugo Tantinnin:Clyde Laurents
Sebastian Sebastian:Bill Koza
Princess Maria:Valerie Lee
Court Chamberlain:Tom Zinos
Grand Duchess Sophie:Ruth Schudson
Grand Duke Otto:Clyde Miller

Citizens of the U.S.A. and Lichtenburg: Ann Arvia, Mib Bramlette, Jill Deerey, Eddie Dudek, Jim Fredericks, Annette Griebl, Terry Lacy, Nancy McCloud, Wayne Meledandri, Diane Nicole, Robert Pachette, James K. Seibel, K. David Short, Robert Vincent Smith, Victoria K. Ver Hoven and Jan Wahl.

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