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

While LITTLE ME never enjoyed tremendous success on Broadway, it flourished in summer stock venues for at least twenty years. Melody Top produced this rollicking musical comedy with a brassy and jazzy score on three separate occasions, sometimes with overlapping cast members. Below are newspaper reviews and full cast lists for these productions, along with archival photographs and personal snapshots captured "backstage" by Gary Bruski in 1972. Additional notes, written by the webmaster, are provided at the end of each review. Comments from readers are welcome!

Karen Morrow and Gabriel Dell in rehearsal for LITTLE ME (1964) at Melody Top.

Karen Morrow and Gabriel Dell rehearsed for LITTLE ME (1964) inside the vacant tent at Melody Top.

LITTLE ME long on laughs

By Gerald Kloss of the Journal Staff, Wednesday, August 5, 1964

There are more laughs in LITTLE ME, which opened a two-week run at the Melody Top Theater Tuesday night, than you can expect in a half dozen routine musical comedies. The recommendation here is to see it, if you don't think it extremist to guffaw in these somber times. Moderation in defense of the belly laugh is no virtue in this case.

The show originally was tailored for the personality and talents of Sid Caesar, who carried it through the Broadway run of two seasons ago. In a way, this was unfortunate, for his popularity tended to camouflage the musical's intrinsic merits. As it turns out, in the present production, the book is much funnier than most Broadway successes, the tunes are bouncy, if not memorable, and the audience is thoroughly delighted.

Gabriel Dell, a newcomer to these parts, takes over the main chores, rendering unto Caesar those things which are Caesar's, plus some sharp touches in the Danny Kaye manner. He plays seven roles, ranging from a callow snob to an Ebenezer Scrooge miser to a Maurice Chevalier entertainer to a myopic World War I solider to an autocratic movie director to a dying prince of a ridiculous kingdom.

All of these characters touch, physically or otherwise, on LITTLE ME, an aging queen of the silver screen (Travis Hudson), whose earlier life and loves are played in flashback by Karen Morrow. The plot is a wayward spoof of movie cliches and ghostwritten memoirs, and many of the lines and situations are hilarious.

Dell is just about perfect for his roles – it's hard to see how Caesar could have done better. He knows when to play a line straight and when to hoke it up with a bit of eye-rolling business. His voice is adequate for the tunes, none of which may be taken seriously, and his appearance in a new, outrageous costume and role sets the audience chortling in anticipation.

Miss Morrow, who taught school here some years ago and worked in local musicals, displays a big, belting voice and abundant stage savvy. Her sense of comedy timing is deft, and she's nimble on her feet. Above all, she establishes instant rapport with the audience, which barks like hungry seals for her efforts.

This is a show in which the book is better than the music, and Neil Simon's lines carry the load. The chuckles roll on almost continuously through the two acts, and even the weaker gags cause immodest laughter.

The production work is up to the usual Melody Top standard, with smooth accompaniment in the orchestra pit and some smart, vigorous dancing by the chorus. Dell exceeded the bit for overcoming the 9:30 p.m. diesel horn, tossing off an easy exit line: "Gotta leave now. That's my train." One of these days, that engineer will have to sign-up with Equity.

Karen Morrow and Gabriel Dell in a publicity photo for LITTLE ME (1964) at Melody Top.

A barefooted Karen Morrow and Gabriel Dell posed for a publicity photo for LITTLE ME (1964).

There's a lot to laugh at in LITTLE ME

By Joe Boyd, Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 5, 1964

LITTLE ME, Patrick Dennis' brilliant travesty on the memoirs of every untalented movie queen who shall ever live, is the funniest show presented in two seasons at the Melody Top Theater. The show opened Tuesday night.

Karen Morrow, who began her show business career in Milwaukee, is cast as Bell Poitrine, the star who should have patented the casting couch. Miss Morrow is an unalloyed delight in this show. She is witty, blonde and that rarest of women in the entertainment world, a glamorous star whose sense of humor includes herself.

She is handsomely assisted by Gabriel Dell and Charles Kimbrough, each of whom plays seven separate and distinct roles.

The plot of the fable presents us with a girl whose mother is actively employed in the world's oldest profession. The daughter does pretty well in the business herself as time goes on.

Miss Morrow, in this delightful charade, beings life as Dimples Schlumpfert. She comes from the wrong side of the tracks in Venezuela, Illinois, and longs to go to a cultural and social center such as Peoria. She gets there, and beyond, marries wealth with remarkable frequency, becomes a celebrated film star, has a child at an inconvenient time of life, but most of all she makes the best of a bad lot.

Miss Morrow is marvelous in the role. She may well be the best belter, mugger and comedienne in the business. She gives the show, which is bawdy and gaudy, a kind of elegance. If anyone can give vulgarity prestige, it is Karen Morrow.

Gabriel Dell plays Miss Morrow's ever-changing lovers and husbands, and Charles Kimbrough impersonates almost the entire German army of World War I.

The show, which is done in flashback style, features Travis Hudson as Belle in her older years recalling the palmy days. Miss Hudson is a blonde of dirigible dimensions and an equally vast sense of humor.

Haskell Gordon, Dick Solowicz, Marie Brady and Kenneth Johnson are standouts in supporting roles. Jay Harnick has staged and directed the production with verve and taste.

Webmaster's note: New and original choreography for this production of LITTLE ME was created by Tommy Tune. Charles Kimbrough, who would later create roles in the original Broadway productions of COMPANY and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, played several small roles in the Top's LITTLE ME. Charles Kimbrough was a resident actor at the Fred Miller Theater, which became Milwaukee Repertory Theater one year earlier in 1963. Mr. Kimbrough is instantly recognizable to today's audiences for his countless appearances on a wide variety of television programs. Also taking two small parts in this production of LITTLE ME was legendary Chicago actor James Harms. Mr. Harms continues his illustrious career on Windy City stages in well-received productions as varied as THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (Marriott Theater) and THE ICEMAN COMETH (Goodman Theater).

Karen Morrow and Gabriel Dell in the Monte Carlo casino scene from LITTLE ME (1964) at Melody Top.

Karen Morrow and Gabriel Dell recreated a moment from the second act Monte Carlo casino scene of LITTLE ME (1964) for this publiticy photo.

LITTLE ME Cast of Characters, August 4 - 16, 1964

Patrick Dennis:Bil Pfuderer
Miss Poitrine, Today (Older Belle):Travis Hudson
Young Belle:Karen Morrow
Noble Eggelston:Gabriel Dell
Brucey:Miche Priaulx
Ramona:Joy Ellyn Holly
Mrs. Eggelston:Marie Brady
Pinchley Junior:Charles Kimbrough
Mr. Pinchley:Gabriel Dell
Miss Kepplewhite:Barbara Houston
Nurse:Jan Michaels
Mr. Kleeg:James D. Nelson
Newsboy:Miche Priaulx
Bernie Buchsbaum:Haskell Gordon
Benny Buchsbaum:Dick Solowicz
Defense Lawyer:Charles Kimbrough
Val Du Val:Gabriel Dell
George Musgrove:Kenneth Johnson
Fred Poitrine:Gabriel Dell
Sergeant:Steven Ross
Preacher:James Harms
German Officer:Charles Kimbrough
General:Charles Kimbrough
Captain:Charles Kimbrough
Secretary:Babs Fisher
Assistant Director:Charles Kimbrough
Otto Schnitzler:Gabriel Dell
Victor:James Allan Linduska
Prince Cherney:Gabriel Dell
Yulnick:Charles Kimbrough
Doctor:James Harms
Baby:Karen Morrow
Noble Junior:Gabriel Dell

Dancers: Jill Eilertsen, Babs Fisher, Sharon Lundin, John Landovsky, Dennis Landsman, Steven Ross.

Singers: Joy Ellyn Holly, Barbara Houston, Patricia Howatt, Jan Michaels, Lois White, James Harms, James Allan Linduska, James D. Nelson, Miche Priaulx, Dick Hill.

Karen Morrow and Arte Johnson perform in LITTLE ME (1972) at Melody Top.

Karen Morrow as Belle and Arte Johnson as Mr. Pinchley in an early scene from LITTLE ME (1972).

Corn relished at Melody Top

By Jay Joslyn, Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, July 19, 1972

If the weather turns extremely hot in the next two weeks, things will be really popping at the Melody Top Theater. The production of LITTLE ME that opened there Tuesday night was strictly out of the husk.

The show also has a gal who can belt and a guy who is a master of understatement and slightly suppressed insanity which makes the husking well worthwhile.

Arte Johnson is even more effective on stage than he is inside the television box and LITTLE ME gives him a chance to spread himself through seven lunatic roles.

Returning to the location of her earliest victories, Karen Morrow does her thing with a song and supplies the proper kind of backboard from which Johnson can bank his shots. Miss Morrow is still a dynamo.

Johnson and Miss Morrow are terrific. But director Stuart Bishop and producer Martin Wiviott haven't taken any chances. They have staged the show in an antic style, expected to get laughs from the unwary.

Musical director Donald Yap and his pit orchestra do a good, straight job on the Cy Coleman music, but James Smock and Clyde Laurents have a husking bee with staging the musical numbers.

Bill Reilly adds considerable style and energy to the "I've Got Your Number" turn entrusted to him. This encore production of LITTLE ME is the most summer theater-ish show the Top has produced. But the audience loved it and that's the name of the game.

Karen Morrow and Arte Johnson in rehearsal for LITTLE ME (1972) at Melody Top.

"Blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere!" was one of the catchlines from TV's LAUGH-IN show when Arte Johnson was with it. Johnson and Karen Morrow, who starred in LITTLE ME (1972) at Melody Top, spoofed the line during a break from rehearsal. Milwaukee Journal photo by Allan Scott.

LITTLE ME is big in getting laughs

By Walter Monfried of the Journal Staff, Wednesday, July 19, 1972

Chalk up another resounding success for the Melody Top. This time it is LITTLE ME, which opened an unquestionably profitable two-week stay Tuesday night.

Just 10 years ago, Broadway first saw this madcap burlesque by Neil Simon, the infinitely inventive master of crackling quip and irreverent retort. Simon has turned out a number of notable scripts since then, but LITTLE ME will always remain high among his better laugh-making products.

LITTLE ME is Patrick Dennis' ingenious account of ambitious young Belle and her efforts to flee the wrong side of the tracks and gain riches, culture and social eminence.

Arte Johnson, a most engaging and agile little fellow, has been lured from television's LAUGH-IN to portray the numerous men who join the adventuress in her unceasing quest. The visiting star is a comic actor of high order and versatility. He romps through his protean role with a fine frenzy and endless changes of voice, costume, appearance and mood. As spoiled brat, miserly capitalist, myopic doughboy, lunatic Frenchman, grand seigneur or whatever, the Johnson touch is ever apparent and ever effective.

Matching him on even terms, blow for blow, step for step, is Karen Morrow as the irrepressible ingenue in the title part. Eleven years ago, Miss Morrow quit her jobs as a Milwaukee schoolteacher and part-time actress at the Fred Miller Theater to try her luck in the big time. She was then a player of far more than ordinary promise, and she has fulfilled that promise brilliantly. She is now the finished artist of the musical stage, with appearance, voice and personal magnetism that an audience couldn't resist if it tried.

Of the many supporting people in the enterprise, Bill Reilly is especially noteworthy.

Webmaster's note: In the magazine handed out to audience members, it was noted that Donald O'Connor was originally signed to star in LITTLE ME during the 1972 Melody Top season. Unfortunately, late in the spring, Mr. O'Connor suffered a mild heart attack and canceled his early summer appearances. At the same time, Karen Morrow, who had been confirmed as Leonard Nimoy's co-star in OLIVER! at Melody Top, asked if she could switch to LITTLE ME because of other job offers and because she enjoyed doing that show. Arte Johnson then became available to replace Donald O'Connor – and the full cast was set in stone! It should also be noted that Jeri Archer, a show business veteran who played Mrs. Eggelston in this produciton of LITTLE ME, posed as Belle Poitrine, Momma, Baby Dear and Presh in 150 photographs for the novel on which the musical is based.

LITTLE ME Cast of Characters, July 18 - 30, 1972

Butler:Ralph Braun
Patrick Dennis:Ralston Hill
Miss Poitrine, Today:Travis Hudson
Momma:Conne Smith
Young Belle:Karen Morrow
Brucey:Steve Belin
Ramona:Kathryn Carter
Noble Eggelston:Arte Johnson
George Musgrove:Bill Reilly
Mrs. Eggelston:Jeri Archer
Miss Kepplewhite:Joan Carvelle
Nurse:Susan Rush
Pinchley, Junior:Rudy Tronto
Pinchley, Senior:Arte Johnson
Bernie Buchsbaum:Haskell Gordon
Bennie Buchsbaum:Zale Kessler
Defense Lawyer:Rudy Tronto
Val du Val:Arte Johnson
Colette:Susan Rush
Sergeant:Dennis Dohman
Justice of the Peace:David Britton
Fred Poitrine:Arte Johnson
German Soldier:Rudy Tronto
General:Rudy Tronto
Ship's Captain:Rudy Tronto
Steward:James Hamel
Secretary:Nancy Beth Falloon
Otto Schnitzler:Arte Johnson
Assistant Director:Rudy Tronto
Victor:Rod Keuper
Prince Cherney:Arte Johnson
Yulnick:Rudy Tronto
Doctor:Dennis Dohman
Baby:Karen Morrow
Noble Junior:Arte Johnson

Ensemble: Steve Belin, Ralph Braun, David Britton, Kathryn Carter, Joan Carvelle, Dennis Dohman, Nancy Beth Falloon, Tracy Friedman, Connie Gillaspie, James Hamel, Matthew Ingemie, Rod Keuper, Clyde Laurents, Jo Jean Retrum, Susan Rush, Jo Speros.

Arte Johnson as Mr. Pinchley in LITTLE ME (1983) at Melody Top.

Arte Johnson became 80-year-old Mr. Pinchley, one of seven characters he played in the Melody Top production of LITTLE ME (1983).

Top show has only one strength: Arte

By Damien Jaques, Journal Drama Critic, Wednesday, August 3, 1983

Deja vu.

There was Arte Johnson on stage at the Melody Top Tuesday night, in his long, black coat and gray wig, moaning in geriatric lust as he ogled a younger woman. There was Arte Johnson bumbling around in military uniform, aviator goggles askew on his face.

There was Arte in a safari helmet, and Arte with his Russian immigrant accent, except this time he was wearing a crown and supposed to be some kind of prince. And there were Arte's pauses, so pregnant he could fill a maternity ward. There were rubber snakes, little mistakes that suspiciously looked planned and more mugging than you will fine in a stack of post office lobby wanted posters. Anything for a laugh.

It could have been LAUGH-IN without Rowan and Martin and Goldie and Lily. But it was LITTLE ME, certainly one of the weakest musicals Broadway has sent into the provinces during the last few decades.

Is it as weak as the Melody Top played it Tuesday night? Well, director Stuart Bishop did the show no favors.

The production starts poorly, with veteran performer Penny Singleton's hesitant and mechanical acting underscored by her lack of any vocal projection. Given the known acoustical problems of the Melody Top's dome, why does its management continue to hire actors who either cannot or will not project their voices?

The show never recovers from Singleton's disappointing opening scene. Bishop's decision to play the admittedly dumb plot to its most absurd lengths and his letting the production quickly evolve into a LAUGH-IN retread result in a show that is continually off balance.

The shtick is spread so thick that you often have to look hard to find the original Neil Simon-Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman musical.

This production can be reduced to one basic question. After all of these years, do you still think Arte Johnson's routines are funny? This is your chance to see Arte in the flesh, and he received a standing ovation for his antics Tuesday night.

But if the little fellow doesn't leave you rolling in the aisles, or if you want to concentrate on seeing LITTLE ME, you are in for three long and boring hours.

That is not to say there aren't a few flowers in this garden. Louisa Flaningam, who has added much talent, energy and charm to previous Top productions of CHICAGO and CABARET, delivers another highly professional and polished performance. She sings, dances, acts and looks great.

Choreographer George Bunt has provided some cute numbers, particularly the "Dimples" routine, which Flaningam turns into a delightful romp. And the entire supporting cast is quite competent, as it has been all summer.

LITTLE ME runs through August 14.

Arte Johnson and Louisa Flaningam in LITTLE ME (1983) at Melody Top.

Arte Johnson as Mr. Pinchley – clearly based on his successful LAUGH-IN character of Tyrone F. Horneigh – and Louisa Flaningam as Belle in Melody Top's last production of LITTLE ME (1983).

Actor turns miss into hit

By Jay Joslyn, Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 3, 1983

The Melody Top Theater will be running a marathon competition for the next two weeks to see what will give out first – the audience's funny bone or the company's supply of shtick.

Billed as a historic Neil Simon-Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman thigh slapper, LITTLE ME really should be called "Arte Johnson Against the World in Seven Disguises and a Score of Variations."

The comedian put on a show of great energy as he played with sight gags to punch up some of Simon's most outrageous puns and situations.

Although his timing was not all that it should have been on opening night, he had the audience responding as though he had hypnotized it. No telling what will happen if he ever meshes his clowning with the rest of the company.

LITTLE ME is a musical adaptation of Patrick Dennis' hilariously absurd spoof of the Hollywood success story in which a poor girl raises herself to stardom, over the backs of willing males.

The book is not meant to be taken seriously. But director Stuart Bishop has gone out of his way to make sure the message gets across by staging most of the characters and scenes as exaggerated cartoons.

Coleman's jazzy music saves the day with a mighty assist from choreographer George Bunt's imagination and wide-eyed enthusiasm of Louisa Flaningam's playing of the title role, Belle Poitrine.

The format of the show concerns the older Belle dictating her memoirs. The device would slow the show if the elder Belle were played with more directness and assurance than Penny Singleton did Tuesday. The old film "Blondie's" inability to project her lines and songs merely makes her interruptions annoying.

This is not one of the Top's better efforts. But if the company's dancing, Flaningam's appeal and especially Johnson's clowning hold up, the miss is going to be remembered as a hit.

Webmaster's note: In my humble opinion, Louisa Flaningam's performance was an unexpected treat in this last production of LITTLE ME. She had previously appeared at the Top as Velma Kelly in CHICAGO (1980) and as the M.C. in CABARET (1981), roles for which she received excellent reviews from local critics and standing ovations from audiences. Using her throbbing voice to fill that wooden dome with her songs, she was also a perfect match for Mr. Johnson's well-known comic creations.

The 1983 cast of LITTLE ME at Melody Top.

David Perkovich as Yulnik, Arte Johnson as Prince Cherney and Louisa Flaningam as Belle in LITTLE ME (1983). This very rare image is from the collection of producer Guy S. Little, Jr. (1979-1985).

LITTLE ME Cast of Characters, August 2 - 14, 1983

Butler:Ray McLeod
Patrick Dennis:Leigh Catlett
Miss Poitrine, Today:Penny Singleton
Momma:Susan Rush
Young Belle:Louisa Flaningam
Brucey:Gregg Willis
Ramona:Ann Arvia
Noble Eggelston:Arte Johnson
George Musgrove:Clarence M. Sheridan
Mrs. Eggelston:David Perkovich
Miss Kepplewhite:Patricia Lupo
Nurse:Susan Rush
Pinchley, Junior:David Perkovich
Pinchley, Senior:Arte Johnson
Bernie Buchsbaum:James Michael
Bennie Buchsbaum:Bill Bickford
Defense Lawyer:David Perkovich
Val du Val:Arte Johnson
Colette:Dawn Merrick
Sergeant:Greg Schanuel
Justice of the Peace:Ray McLeod
Fred Poitrine:Arte Johnson
German Soldier:David Perkovich
General:David Perkovich
Ship's Captain:David Perkovich
Steward:Ray McLeod
Secretary:Michelle O'Steen
Otto Schnitzler:Arte Johnson
Assistant Director:David Perkovich
Victor:Ray McLeod
Prince Cherney:Arte Johnson
Yulnick:David Perkovich
Doctor:Ray McLeod
Baby:Louisa Flaningam
Noble Junior:Arte Johnson

Belle's Friends and Enemies: Ann Arvia, Bill Bickford, Leigh Catlett, Loretta Janca, Linda Leonard, Patricia Lupo, Ray McLeod, Dawn Merrick, James Michael, Michelle O'Steen, David Perkovich, Susan Rush, Clarence M. Sheridan, Reisa Sperling, Mark Vitale, Gregg Willis, Greg Schanuel.

Extras: Mike Bandurski, Bruce Buege, Darren Fulsher, Cindy Johnson, Katherine Kish, Ken Martin, Brett Osborn, Sue Pelkofer.

Christine Plath at Melody Top in 1978.

This page is dedicated to the memory of Christine Plath, who was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of this website. Christine was a full-season subscriber during all 24 summers at the Top, and she only missed a handful of productions because she traveled overseas on vacation from her lifelong job as a high school English teacher. Her knowledge of the theater, from the glory days of summer stock to current Broadway shows, was an invaluable source in maintaining this site. Above is a picture of Christine and her mother in their front-row seats during HIGH BUTTON SHOES (1978).

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