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

One of Broadway's very best musicals returned to Melody Top for the second time in 1975 with a trio of talented performers billed above and just below the title: Margaret Whiting, Dave Madden and Linda Kay Henning. This well-reviewed production is mostly remembered by local musical theatre fans for three reasons: one, it was the last time Margaret Whiting played the role in a book musical at the Top; two, ensemble member Didi Hitt (now Kathleen Alton) took over the title role from Linda Kaye Henning during the last three days of the show's run; and three, Jim (James) Valcq, who would later compose some glorious music for THE SPITFIRE GRILL and also co-author that musical's book, played a Newsboy in this staging of GYPSY in his hometown of Milwaukee. The photos below come from a variety of sources, mainly Margaret's daughter Debbi, in addition to Kathleen and Robb Alton, Gary Bruski and Sally Marks.

Star of GYPSY on Firm Footing

By Gerald Kloss of the Journal Staff, Friday, August 15, 1975

Our first exclusive! Margaret Whiting has warm feet.

She was curled up on a divan in her hotel suite the other afternoon, wearing a feather pattern blouse, blue denim slacks and nothing on her feet but pink toenail polish. The tootsies were within holding distance, so, Margaret, could we?

"Go right ahead," she said, and we did. Warm and not ticklish. Remember, you foot fetishists out there, you read it here first!

She had just moved in to start rehearsals for the Melody Top's production of GYPSY, opening a two-week run Tuesday. The warm-voiced, warm-footed singer will take the demanding role of Rose, the super-ambitious stage mother, and if she was worried about the task, she certainly didn't show it.

GYPSY at Melody Top Theatre

"This will be my 29th turn in GYPSY," she said. "I think it has the best second act of any musical – it just keeps building and building, one great number after another."

There was a time, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Margaret's caressing contralto turned out hit record after hit record – "It Might as Well Be Spring," "How Deep Is the Ocean?," "A Tree in the Meadows," "Faraway Places," "Slippin' Around."

That golden era is gone – she has no recording contract at present – but she's not hitting the unemployment lines, either.

"I did a Harold Arlen medley at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York this summer," she said. "Got great reviews, especially Whitney Balliett's in the New Yorker. I'd like to get up a show of Johnny Mercer tunes and lyrics."

There shouldn't be much trouble arranging that. Mercer has been a family friend since Margaret was a tot in the Los Angeles home of her songwriter father, Richard Whiting. He wrote dozens of hit tunes in the 1920s and 1930s, including "Till We Meet Again," "Sleepy Time Gal," "Ain't We Got Fun?," "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "Beyond the Blue Horizon," "Hooray for Hollywood" and even that Shirley Temple classic, "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

"The songwriters out there were a clubby group," she said, "so there'd be a lot of visiting back and forth. People like Johnny, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael would drop over, and somehow they got the idea that I had a knack for picking hit tunes. So they'd try them out on me. Of course, I had no more of a knack than anyone else, and I've recorded some tunes that I thought were sure winners – but they weren't."

"No, they weren't secretive about their work – they'd try out tunes and lyrics on each other. They'd play golf a lot, too. One of my favorite memories was soon after my father died, in 1938. Jerome Kern called me and asked if I'd mind listening to some tunes he had just finished, to see how they sounded to me. Well, would I ever!"

Margaret now has home bases in LA and New York City and tours between the two, in musical productions such as the Melody Top's and in nightclub shows, where she always includes a medley of her dad's top hits. She has visited Milwaukee often over the years, several times in Melody Top musicals and most recently in a nightclub show at the Centre Stage last December.

"Hey, the State Fair's on, huh?" she said. "Maybe I can find time to go out there. Anything else going on? How was the Circus Parade this year? Oh, sorry to hear it."

And that's Margaret Whiting, vintage '75 – bubbly as ever, with that shock of blonde hair and those straight-on blue eyes. Not every singing star offers you a farewell footshake, right?

Backstage at Melody Top Theater with the Cast of GYPSY (1975)

Backstage at Melody Top during the run of GYPSY (1975) are Marcie Olivi, former dresser/apprentice; Martin Wiviott, producer; Zoya Leporska, Tessie Tura; Margaret Whiting, Rose; Dave Madden, Herbie; and Nena Madden. Photo from the collection of Gary Bruski.

Stand-in for GYPSY Simply Sensational

By Stuart Wilk, Milwaukee Sentinel, Monday, September 1, 1975

Sometimes the corniest of show business myths comes true and such was the case Sunday night at the Melody Top.

Didi Hitt, a bright, smiling charmer from De Pere, took over in the title role of GYPSY and the result was nothing short of sensational.

Linda Kaye Henning, who opened as Gypsy Rose Lee when the musical classic began its run here two weeks ago, was taken ill late last week with a kidney ailment.

Miss Hitt has been playing the role since Friday, stopping the show cold in its tracks with her vibrant youth and persuasive sincerity.

The role of Gypsy is an unusually demanding one. Although the musical is written about Gypsy's rise to stardom, the central character clearly is her nonstop, locomotive of a stage mother, Madame Rose, wonderfully characterized by Margaret Whiting.

It would be understandable if a young actress were overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, by the irrepressible Rose. But not Miss Hitt.

She makes the conversion from awkward no-talent vaudevillian to tantalizing stripper with the class and subdued sensuality that was Gypsy Rose Lee.

Sunday was Miss Hitt's last performance as Gypsy, which ended its run. From here on in, let mythology take its course.

Didi Hitt (Kathleen Alton) Outside Melody Top Theatre

Didi Hitt (now Kathleen Alton), posing on a car parked in Melody Top's lot, finally getting to see her name in lights on the theatre's iconic marquee just off Good Hope Road in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo from the collection of Kathleen and Robb Alton.

GYPSY Cast of Characters

Uncle Jocko:Don Potter
George:Roy Neuner
Balloon Girl:Lisa Dentici
Baby Louise:Mary Semmelhack
Baby June:Renee Wallestad
Rose:Margaret Whiting
Pop:Thomas Ruisinger
Newsboys:Kevin Golliher, Jim Valcq, Peter Reilly, Buddy Bishop
Weber:Clyde Laurents
Herbie:Dave Madden
Louise:Linda Kaye Henning
June:Jo Jean Retrum
Tulsa:Barry Thomas
Yonkers:Wayne Mattson
Angie:Eddie Dudek
L.A.:Barrett Hong
Kringelein:Clyde Miller
Mr. Goldstone:Don Potter
Miss Cratchitt:Joan Carvelle
Agnes:Tracy Friedman
Geraldine:Sharon Little
Marjorie May:Nancy McCloud
Edna:Mib Bramlette
Dolores:Judith Ann Conte
Pastey:Don Potter
Tessie Tura:Zoya Leporska
Mazeppa:Susan Rush
Electra:Joan Carvelle
Renee:Mib Bramlette
Bourgeron-Cochon:Dan Webber
Chowsie:Ms. Muffet

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

Don Potter, Susan Rush and Clyde Miller in GYPSY (1975)

Don Potter as Pastey, Susan Rush as Mazeppa and Clyde Miller in their costumes for the second act in Melody Top's production of GYPSY (1975). Photo from the collection of Sally Marks.

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