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

It was a rare occurrence for an above-the-tile star to miss a performance in summer stock, but it happened at Melody Top during the summer of 1976 when tent favorite Susan Rush played Ella in BELLS ARE RINGING because Rita Moreno was called to California to film a television show. Below are three accounts of what a legendary event it was: Jay Joslyn's report from the Milwaukee Sentinel, an advertisement placed in both of the city's daily newspapers by Melody Top management, and a personal recollection from Susan herself about performing in Milwaukee from 1970 to 1983.

Actress Rushed Into Starring Role

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Monday, August 2, 1976

Something special happened at the Melody Top Theatre Sunday night. A featured player had the chance to play the lead.

Susan Rush's performance as Ella in BELLS ARE RINGING in place of Rita Moreno fell short of the star-is-born legend.

After all, a summer theater, even a quality theater like the Top, is hardly the place stars are really born.

But Miss Rush proved herself to be the right kind of belle for BELLS ARE RINGING.

A belter, who has created the image of a ball of fire in her 40 roles at the Top over the last seven seasons, Miss Rush gave the love-filled answer service girl an enchanting, Chaplinesque quality. Her slightly cartoonish interpretation perfectly fit Jule Styne's often Looney Tune kind of music.

She came on a bit stronger than the winsome Miss Moreno and, consequently, gave the lovely, warm role its proper, bigger-than-life size.

However, Miss Rush's thoroughly pleasant performance was only a part of the evening's special quality.

In a nervous, dressing room interview before the show, Miss Rush nailed down that quality.

"There's a lot of love going around here tonight," she said.

Susan Rush

The apprentices had given her roses. The theater's board of directors sent back a huge basket of fruit.

Tab Hunter, her leading man for the evening, also felt the love. "There's a terrific feeling, like another opening night," he said.

The audience burst into an ovation at the announcement of Miss Rush's name and the arrangement of the other role promotions for Tracy Friedman and Judy Conte.

The warm interplay worked wonders for the show, giving James Smock's fine choreography a special lift and Don Yap's musical direction added brilliance.

Sunday was wonderful for Miss Rush. But it also was the end of an ordeal.

She rehearsed Ella just once, a week ago. During the show's two-week run while playing Sue, Miss Rush was also rehearsing (the role of) Petra for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which opens Tuesday.

After Sunday's show, producer Martin Wiviott gave Miss Rush a party. Monday, she returns to the feature level for the next show's dress rehearsal.

An Important Notice

The following "Important Notice" was placed as an advertisement in both Milwaukee newspapers (Journal and Sentinel) prior to Sunday, August 1, 1976.

For those holding Melody Top tickets for the Sunday, August 1 performance of BELLS ARE RINGING with Rita Moreno and Tab Hunter:

Miss Moreno will not appear on Sunday, August 1; she has been released from her contract for that evening in order to fly to California to tape a television pilot. She has consented to do an additional performance of BELLS ARE RINGING on Sunday, July 25 at 4:00 p.m. However, there will be a performance of the entire show on Sunday, August 1 at 7:30 p.m. starring Tab Hunter and Miss Moreno's understudy, Melody Top's own Susan Rush.

Ticket holders for August 1 may take advantage of the following options:

1. You may exchange your tickets for identical seating at the July 25, 4:00 p.m. matinee with Miss Moreno and Mr. Hunter.

2. You may keep your tickets for August 1 and see Mr. Hunter and Miss Rush.

3. You may keep your tickets for August 1 and also purchase identical seating for the July 25 matinee in order to see Miss Moreno and Miss Rush (we anticipate that many of our regular patrons may want to see both).

4. If you are unable to attend the added performance but would like to see Miss Moreno, you may exchange for any other performance of BELLS ARE RINGING, subject to the capacity of the house.

Ticket holders must notify the Melody Top box office of their alternate decision by Sunday, July 11. The box office phone number is 353-7700, lines are open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily. If we do not hear from ticket holders by Sunday, July 11, we will assume you are retaining your August 1 tickets.

Thank you for your cooperation and understanding, the Melody Top Theatre, 7201 West Good Hope Road.

Melody Top Reunion

Robb Alton, Jan Wahl, Didi Hitt, Mib (Bramlette) Braun, and Susan Rush posed for a photograph at the Melody Top Theatre site during a 2017 reunion of performers and employees of the venue.

A personal message, dated May 12, 2021, from Susan…

I want to tell you one of my favorite moments at Melody Top – and there were many. This happened to me at the very top of the first MAN OF LA MANCHA in 1972, with Earl Wrightson starring. You'll remember that the shows all started, or most of them did, with a blackout and the actors moving to places in the dark. My place at the beginning was on a small keg close to the stage edge, just off an aisle. I came down in the dark and sat down waiting for the overture to finish and the lights to come up, and I felt a tap on my shoulder from an audience member in the front row just behind me. She whispered, "Could you please move over? We can't see with you in the way." I whispered back, "Don't worry, I'm moving very soon." This was one the things I loved about working "in the round" – you're so very close to the audience, you can almost hear them breathe. You know when they're with you because you can feel it. On a proscenium stage, the orchestra is between you and the audience, and so they're effectively removed from the actors. You can still hear them and sense them, but they're not so incredibly "present." One time at the Top, I headed up the aisle after a scene – and probably a song – and I heard in the dark, "Nice work, Susan." I believe I whispered a "Thanks!" as I ran along. When I played Katie in a show about the Amish, PLAIN AND FANCY, I had the first song, sitting in a carriage that turned as I sang. I started facing Donald in the pit and the light spilled onto the first row of the audience behind him. One of the best compliments I ever received was from a woman sitting in the first row behind the pit. The stage lights spilled onto those first couple rows so I could easily see the audience. This woman, whoever she was, was leaning forward as the introduction to the song started, but she relaxed back into her seat as I sang the first notes of my solo. She didn't know me or my work, I don't believe, since she would have already relaxed as the show started. But I clearly got a good review from her as she listened. That pleased me as much as any newspaper review I ever received. This I remember well; the reviews, not so much.

John Fricke: From Apprentice to Publicist

John Fricke, who started his long affiliation with Melody Top as a student apprentice and later returned as the theatre's publicist, taped the following interview with Jim Peck for "I Remember" on Milwaukee Public Television. In addition to promoting his third (and beautiful) book on the career of Judy Garland, Mr. Fricke reminisced about the many celebrities he worked with at Melody Top. Please take a few minutes to view the entire 30-minute program. Included in the conversation is the famous – and funny – story about a skunk that made an appearance on stage during HELLO, DOLLY! (1980).

On Monday, August 23, 1976, Mr. Fricke performed his one-man show at Melody Top. The following day, Jay Joslyn published an insightful report on the performance in the Milwaukee Sentinel: "Monday night, John Fricke went to Paradise and found it was all a stage-struck kid could dream of. There he was, starring in a perfectly lighted one-man show in front of a capacity audience, backed by a splended band under superlative direction and all introduced by such a theatrical great as Margaret Whiting. This real-life Walter Mitty realization occurred at the Melody Top Theatre, where producer Martin Wiviott gave his public relations representative for the last five years his first big night in the spotlight. There's no doubt Fricke is a showman. He projects his enthusiasm, friendly personality and boyish charm disarmingly. Fricke's act is one long, effective medley of old-time songs from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. He does a surefire job of selling his songs and that's what the crowd responded to in the standing ovations that completed the dream." The two photos below of that special night were supplied by Mr. Fricke.

Melody Top Sign

A "sold out" notation on the illuminated and familiar sign on Good Hope Road in Milwaukee.

Melody Top Fricke

After a few remarks by the legendary Margaret Whiting (right), John Fricke took the stage and entertained his loyal audience.

The story below was written by Steve McKillen, an apprentice who worked at Melody Top during the summer of 1981, for his hometown newspaper, the Greendale Village Life. It is a bittersweet account of the theatre, around the time its buildings were demolished. Steve now resides in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he moonlights in both community and semi-professional theatre. He would love to hear from other apprentices. Please check the list of names at the end of his story and contact the webmaster with information.

A wonderful summer of songs and sawdust

By Steve McKillen

The rumors reached me some time ago that an old friend had passed on. This friend had welcomed me with open arms shortly after I'd liberated myself from the mind-numbing treadmill of factory work, showing me that it was quite possible to labor on something both rewarding and interesting. Many an actor and wandering soul had found respite with this old friend over the years.

Steve McKillen and his Nova

As I approached from the west on Good Hope Road, familiar landmarks remained from that summer of long ago…the stand where freshly-harvested crops were sold, the railroad tracks, the same bumps and lights I'd passed by many times before in my old blue Nova (see photograph at left).

It seemed only natural that over the next hill, that familiar shape would reappear, its cement and wooden hulk having stood the test of time like a landlocked ship waiting its turn to sail the open sea again. As I neared the once-busy parking lot near Kmart, my hopes were dashed. My old friend, the Melody Top Theatre, was gone.

Years before, I had returned there on a cold winter's night, months after its lights had dimmed for the season. Curiosity had beckoned, if only to view it from the different perspective of knee-deep snow and single-digit temperatures. As a cold west wind blew in over the fence and down the empty aisles, I had bounded onto center stage like the ringmaster at a three-ring circus, just to hear my voice echo against the rafters.

It had seemed so barren, like all the trees in a forest that had shed their leaves for winter, awaiting the rebirth of spring. But back then, I knew it was just a matter of time until this lonely stage would see life again, as another troupe of actors and stagehands began to work their magic for the season.

Sights and sounds gone for good

Now as I roamed the grounds, which had become a lifeless pile of gravel and weeds, a feeling of sad desolation filled the air. Now the music was gone, the actors forever silenced. It was as if a small piece of that innocent youth we all strive to hold onto forever had been coldly snatched away. The dirt had become a burial mound, with the ups and downs of a wonderful era entombed within...

They were the sights, sounds, and smells of what was, for this author, one of the best summers he'd ever had, working in and around the professional theatre. It was the smell of sawdust and paint as the crew prepared sets for the next show, of popcorn for hungry patrons, and of the refreshing afternoon rains.

It was the sounds of giggling ushers, of actors and actresses rehearsing that one special scene, and of the applause for a show well done. It was the sight of the stage from where those magical voices emanated, in a way taking one back to the days when theatre was any place where a person or troupe could gather a crowd.

But most of all, it was the various personalities and their antics that brought such life to the place. People with nicknames like Squiggy, Jim "The Star," Felz, and many others. Adina and her eclectic variety of headwear, or Heather who — having irked someone with an unfortunate choice of words — came out one night to find her car up on blocks. It was the grounds crew trying to oust another rogue skunk from the theatre, or good old Bob trying to find his car after others had moved it to the lot next door again. It was post-show celebrations — especially that July Fourth pool party up in the northern suburbs — to cast call briefings, and that air of anticipation as the band struck up the opening chords.

Rock from Melody Top Theatre

It was all gone.

As I headed back to my car, I discovered a piece of rock partly covered with faded blue paint – probably an old part of the pavement between the scene shop and the theatre (see photograph at left). I took it along for the ride home...the only visible remnant of that wonderful summer of sawdust, music, and friends.

Apprentices, parkers and ushers:

Cathy Battocletti, Debbie Felzer, Ann Fuhrman, Diane Gray, April Grant, Dawn Greisbach, Gay Greisbach, Greta Hansen, Jim Hernday, Don Kaegler, Yvonne Kaegler, Kris Knapp, Thomas Koch, Heather Marsh, Steve McKillen, Tom Neuhaus, Adina Goldberger, Robert Olkowski, Neal Peters, Terry Ploetz, Kathy Prodehl, Kathy Scherper, Sarah Schmidt, Gayle Strege, Janice Tellier (1981 scholarship winner), Linda Paul, Beth Piper, Mike Proft, Sharon Reiser, Julie Schommer, Jo Schwerm, Sara Somers and Anita Varga.

Paul Anschuetz, Andy Bleiler, Jon Branger-Kojis, Jill Burkhardt, Jim Charnitz, Richard Cook, Jim Dondlinger, Tom Eggert, Glenn Elert, Will Goldsmith, Dave Griebl, Kim Henderson, John Herde, Neal Hinze, Mary Holton, Steve Kachelmeyer, John Kalis, Tom Kojis, Frank Laycock, Ben Levin, Bob Maranan, Margie Maranan, Holly Mengsol, Mike Mrotek, Dale Retzack, Don Pesich, Wendy Podell, Mary Rasmussen, Hugh Ross, Sandi Schwalb, Jeannine Stark, Mary Tomski and Toni Vey.

John Storch, Paul Strzysewski, Bill Vornsand, Bruce Wade, Dan Wade, Lynn Bertoni, George Blockwitz, Carrie Bremer, Linda Christon, Vicki Cohen, Linda Durrenberg, Chris Fischer, Denise Harmon, Jody Horn, Ann Janikowsky, Pam Johnson, Peggy Johnson, Stefani Kracht, Michelle Martin, Saree Meldman, Beth McGinty, Steve Muth, Terri Nehmer, Robin Paradis, Mary Parodo, Kristie Peterson, Sue Powell, Beth Ratledge, Sue Schneider, Carrie Schwerm, Connie Strey and Terri Weisfeldt.

Memories of Melody Top – from California!

The following essay was sent to the webmaster from Bob Schneider, who now resides in San Francisco, California.

Thanks for your terrific website. It brought back many fond memories for me. I first fell in love with musical theatre at Melody Top and it amazes me that over 40 years later I can still remember some of the shows and performances. I threw out all my programs years ago and regret it to this day. Following are some things I remember.

Getting to the tent was always a big deal for me. I was too young to have a driver's license and had to beg my parents and relatives to give me a ride out there — none of them were too interested in theatre and didn't want to attend with me. On the days I couldn't beg a ride, I would take a bus to the end of the line and then walk on the highway the rest of the way to get to 76th and Good Hope Road. Back then buses didn't go that far north.

I always tried to arrive early since I was fascinated with the backstage area. I must have spent hours watching everyone get ready from behind a chain link barrier. It was always one of my favorite parts of the experience.

Most of my memories are from the 1960s, since I left Milwaukee in the 1970s. I still remember Karen Morrow belting "The Other Side of the Tracks" from LITTLE ME — one of her best performances. Ditto for Mimi Hines hamming her way through "Is it a Crime?" from BELLS ARE RINGING. I thought then, and still do, that she was better than Judy Holliday in the role.

I wasn't a season subscriber, so getting a seat close to the stage was always a priority for me. I'll never forget the night someone turned in a ticket and I got a front row seat for Monique Von Vooren in CAN-CAN. I still remember her winking at me, an enraptured kid in his teens.

Faith Dane as Mazeppa

I haven't seen anything about it on the site, but I could swear the original Mazeppa from GYPSY, Faith Dane, played the tent, reprising her stripper role. No one could bump it with a trumpet like her. (NOTE: Faith Dane, pictured at left, recreated her Broadway and film role in the 1966 production of GYPSY.) I also remember Forrest Tucker forgetting most of his lines in his 11 o'clock number, "Come Back to Me," from ON A CLEAR DAY. Rita Gardner was so incandescent as Daisy that it remained one of my favorite productions.

I think Chita Rivera in IRMA LA DOUCE is remembered by anyone who saw her. The way I remember it is that she was on some moving contraption after she injured her foot. She did all the singing and acting, but when a dance number came up she would spread her arms in a grand diva gesture and be wheeled partway up the aisle to let the dancers go at it.

Since those early days, I have spent many vacations in New York City seeing all the shows, but I always have a place in my heart for those tent theatre days. I was sorry to read about Melody Top closing, and spent a lot of time searching for a similar experience. About seven years ago I discovered there was a tent theatre in Sacramento, not too far from San Francisco where I live. I took the train up there to see a show and was astonished — it was as if Melody Top had been brought back to life. Shows are done in an actual tent theatre with Broadway stars playing the leads. The next year the theatre (Sacramento Music Circus) made the structure permanent, with added comforts, but the spirit of the tent theatre lives on.

Thanks for the memories!

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