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

An ambitious endeavor under the newly constructed wooden dome, Melody Top's 1978 production of PETER PAN faced quite a few challenges for those on stage, backstage and in the audience. On opening night, the announcement of a tornado warning tended to thin out the capacity audience at intermission. Those who stayed may remember a series of mishaps: the rubber arrow that clipped a patron, the light that landed in another's lap and the stray beads that rolled around the stage. Despite these uncontrollable events, star Nancy Dussault received high praise from local reviewers for her singing voice of "electric bite and expressive charm." The late Alan Sues, however, did not present a Captain Hook worthy of his talent. Both Milwaukee critics thought he was not fully prepared for the dual roles of Mr. Darling and the villanous pirate on opening night. The photos on this page were supplied by members of the Knuth family; brothers Tim and Kurt appeared in several Top productions throughout the 1970s.

He provides wings for Peter Pan

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Tuesday, June 20, 1978

This Foy is the real McCoy.

Peter Foy, the man who is flying Peter Pan and the Darling children for the Melody Top Theatre's production of James Barrie's favorite play, is an Englishman who carries an Irish theatre name that goes back three centuries.

Although his father's name was Eddie, Foy did not have six little brothers and a youthful career in vaudeville.

The more widely celebrated American Foy family started life as the Fitzgeralds.

Foy said that he learned the family history from his unrelated peer, Eddie Foy, Jr.

The Fitzgeralds were a well-to-do Boston banking family who looked askance at lending their name to a vaudeville act; so the family's vaudevillians appropriated the ancient Irish name.

"Eddie Foy and my father died within three days of each other," Foy recalled. "The American and English condolences got all mixed up."

Despite his being robbed of growing up in the theatre – Foy was only three when his father died – he got an early start.

"Back in 1939, when I was 14, I was evacuated out of London, but they sent me only 20 miles out of town," the compact, light-haired man with dancing emerald eyes said. "Every weekend I'd cycle home."

One weekend producer Italia Conti was holding auditions for boy actors for her perennial production of WHERE THE RAINBOW ENDS.

"I not only got the part but a scholarship to her school as well," he said. "I'm a Conti kid, just like Noël Coward and Anthony Newley."

His part was a steppingstone to his present career. He flew.

"I was fascinated by the mechanics of it," he said. "Of course, in the English theatre an actor, especially a young actor, was expected to do everything."

Flying had been in his family tradition. His father had made his debut at three years old doing a tap dance on top of a tall pole balanced on his brother's chin.

Foy became an expert in stage effects, including flying, while he was a freelance writer of "spec revues," especially the spectacular Christmas pantomimes.

"I was selling ideas, big spectacular ideas – like thousands of angels rising out of flames engulfing the stage," he laughed. "Of course, all the producer wants to know is how it can be done."

When Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff played PETER PAN in 1950-1951, Foy commuted between England and America to manage the flying.

After commuting during 1954-1955 for the Mary Martin version – which is being followed at the Melody Top – Foy decided to take up a U.S. residence.

"I won a part in Robert Sherwood's last play, A SMALL WAR ON MURRAY HILL, and during the New Haven tryout I discovered I missed working the effects. That ended my acting career," he said.

His home base is Las Vegas. But he is on call throughout the country.

The Melody Top production of PETER PAN that opens Tuesday will be the fourth Foy flying production performing simultaneously.

Flying Peter is only one of Foy's gambits. He flew the 72-foot wide airplane that supports a dozen dancing girls at the new MGM casino in Reno.

"My very favorite person of all is your Liberace," Foy said. "I fly him across the stage at the end of his Las Vegas show and we just came back from London where we flew him at the Paladium."

The PETER PAN assignment seems to be a complex one. Peter will have to fly into the Darling nursery and then teach the Darlings how to fly.

"They do all kinds of fun and games in the air before flying off to Neverland," Foy said. "Then, of course, there is the ship scene."

Foy doesn't consider his work as being backstage. "When I'm operating the rigging, I feel as though I am performing as much as any of the actors."

Autographed Pages from the Souvenir Program

Peter Pan Program One

Nancy's words to a young Tim Knuth: "Tim, the TALL one! I needed you so I'd look short. I'm so glad you were in the show. You're talented, crazy and nice. The best, Nancy Dussault."

Peter Pan Program Two

Alan's funny (and somewhat telling) remarks to the same young man: "To Tim – It's been hell, but we made — Love and peace, Alan Sues."

Newspaper Reviews

Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, June 21, 1978:

Midsummer magic has come to the Melody Top Theatre with the fascinating production of PETER PAN that opened Tuesday night.

This is a dream of a show to the young in heart and others willing to suspend critical judgment to go along with an effect.

Of course, the high point of the evening – no pun intended – is the flying. Peter and the Darling children think pleasant thoughts and take right off, swinging – sometimes precariously – above the circular stage.

A close second in the "oohs" department is a collection of absolutely cunning animals ranging from Steve Stephenson as the loveable canine nanny, through a spritely kangaroo, a fastidious lion and a vain ostrich right up to Steve Stephenson as the ticking crocodile.

The show also boasts a fine batch of young boy actors under the supervision of the delightful Alice Cannon as Wendy and the wonderful Nancy Dussault, who makes her impersonation of the irresistible Peter Pan just that, irresistible.

Dominique Paul Noth, the Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, June 21, 1978:

The main curiosity about the PETER PAN that opened Tuesday night at the Melody Top is probably, "Does it fly?" Or rather, "Does Nancy Dussault as the ageless lad from Neverland really sail about the new wooden dome?"

Yes, about 10 feet in the air above the stage, back and forth under the light grid. The moves available are limited, but Miss Dussault maneuvers with skill – and, more important, with character – and the thrills increase when the three Darling children join her in giddy ups and downs.

But director-designer Stuart Bishop, perhaps realizing that the flying apparatus is more pleasant than spectacular, uncorks a host of fantastic creations – including rolling fog, costumed animals, glittering trees and a revolving ship.

Children particularly will have a fine time cheering the Indians and cringing at an even more put-upon minority group, the pirates. Much of the spectacle, I suspect, is to divert the adults with awesome parades of colors and cute contraptions.

I much prefer those moments when Miss Dussault comes into her own and we are flying with the true theatrical vision of youth that PETER PAN is supposed to be about.

One final story about PETER PAN

Both Martin Wiviott (producer) and former apprentice Brian Brawner recalled the night Nancy Dussault injured her Achilles tendon when the flying contraption for PETER PAN broke down. There were several shows remaining in the run and, from that point on, she was carried on and off the stage by a strong, athletic apprentice named Rob Bub. She and Rob developed some "shtick" to explain their exits and entrances to the audience. Mr. Bub later worked in California as a police officer. Even with a very serious injury, Nancy continued her flying sequences. The apprentices loved Nancy because she was the only star who acknowledged them with a curtain call after the final performance.

Peter Pan Nancy Dussault

Nancy Dussault as the boy who won't grow up in Melody Top's 1978 production of PETER PAN. Please note the thimble, Peter's idea of a secret kiss with Wendy, on Nancy's right-hand pointer finger.

PETER PAN Cast of Characters

Wendy:Alice Cannon
John:Dave Spath
Liza:Ann Arvia
Michael:Kurt Knuth
Nana:Steve Stephenson
Mrs. Darling:Sandra Wheeler
Mr. Darling:Alan Sues
Peter Pan:Nancy Dussault
Lion:Diane Nicole
Kangaroo:Jan Wahl
Ostrich:Nancy McCloud
Slightly:Tim Knuth
Tootles:Joe Schmittner
Curly:Bill Umland
Nibs:John Slawson
First Twin:P.J. Piper
Second Twin:Ricky Fuller
Captain Hook:Alan Sues
Smee:Clyde Laurents
Crocodile:Steve Stephenson
Tiger Lily:Judith Ann Conte
Starkey:Jerry Ziaja
Cecco:G. Jan Jones
Noodler:Robert Kellett
Mullins:Bruce Senesac
Jukes:Bradley Keating
Wendy, Grown-up:Kathy Taylor
Jane:Alice Cannon

Pirates and Indians: Eric Aaron, Ann Arvia, Dennis Batutis, Mib Bramlette, G. Jan Jones, Bradley Keating, Robert Kellett, Nancy McCloud, Beth Morgan, Diane Nicole, Bruce Senesac, K. David Short, Kathy Taylor, Jan Wahl and Jerry Ziaja.

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