The mission of Northern Sky Theater is to create, develop and present professional musical and dramatic productions that will further the knowledge and appreciation of the culture and heritage of the United States.
The Theatre is dedicated to maintaining standards of artistic excellence; celebrating and illuminating the human condition; reaching a large audience of all ages, including families; and fostering a humanistic work environment with adequate and appropriate emotional, financial and creative support for all those associated with us.
“Come all ye bold people that live by the lakes . . . I sing the story of your forebearers.”
~ From Song of the Inland Seas, first performed in 1970 at Peninsula State Park
The Story of Northern Sky Theater
THE ACORN never falls far from the tree, and so it is with Northern Sky Theater, still playing on an outdoor stage at Peninsula State Park and on indoor stages across the state, its actors still equipped with guitars and voices that tell stories of legend and lore. Since 1990, this troupe has been providing original musical tales about some of America’s most intriguing people.
Shows have involved the adventures of John Muir, father of our national parks, in The Mountains Call My Name and the music of James Taylor in Sweet Baby James. Humor comes to life as Northern Sky’s resident playwrights and composers concoct characters like brothers Leo and Roger in Belgians in Heaven and ice fishermen Lloyd and Marvin in Guys On Ice.
The story of Northern Sky Theater (Northern Sky) begins with Dave Peterson, a Madison, Wis., professor who taught a one-month course about the folklore of the Great Lakes at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay in January 1970. He and his students wrote Song of the Inland Seas, an epic to celebrate the American heroes of the Upper Midwest.
Soon after, while camping at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Peterson came across a pine-rimmed theatre with a tree vaulting through a corner of its stage. The theatre was used for occasional slide shows or naturalist programs. Feeling the magic in this beautiful wooded setting, he put together a cast of 18 singers and instrumentalists and performed Song of the Inland Seas on the Peninsula Park stage for two weeks in the summer of 1970. It was described as, “One part Peter, Paul and Mary; one part Broadway show tune; one part folksy Wisconsiana; and the rest pure cornball spunkiness.” The show was a hit and was presented on the Peninsula stage for the next two years by the newly formed company known as “The Heritage Ensemble.” The Heritage Ensemble performed on the stage in Peninsula State Park for the next 20 years.
During those 20 years, The Ensemble produced and performed original shows covering many aspects of Midwestern lore, such as the history of Milwaukee, the settlement of the Fox River Valley, Carl Sandburg, Mark Twain, railroad workers and miners. Each show became deeper and more complex as the troupe evolved toward a higher standard of quality. “The main thing was the material. The songs and stories seemed to grow from the very soil of the Wisconsin woodlands,” said Fred “Doc” Heide, who joined the Ensemble in 1972 and now serves as Northern Sky’s artistic advisor. Heide, a student of history and a psychology professor, wrote his first Ensemble show, The People’s Song to Sing, in 1975, when he was a senior at UWGB.
Others who joined the troupe, including Fred Alley, Jeff Herbst, James Kaplan, Paul Sills and Gerald Pelrine, became household names as summer audiences returned year after year to see what new shows the troupe had created.
Performing conditions continued to improve during the 1980s. After years of changing costumes in the mud behind the stage and having inadequate lighting and sound equipment, the company built a technical booth and hired a sound technician in 1987. In 1989, a dressing room was constructed with donations received from loyal patrons.
The most dramatic change came in 1990, when Doc Heide, Gerald Pelrine and Fred Alley, all long-time members of The Heritage Ensemble, helped the organization move to a new level of professionalism. The group’s name was changed to American Folklore Theatre (AFT) to reflect their intent to broaden its scope while still preserving its roots in the traditions of populist culture. The word “Theatre” was added to clarify that its productions were both dramatic as well as musical.
Theatergoers were thrilled by songs of Native Americans in Moon of the Long Nights in 1991 and were enchanted by the Northwoods love story Northern Lights in 1993. The hit show Lumberjacks in Love premiered in 1996 and has been so popular that it has reprised four times. In 1992, AFT decided to continue its music making into the fall season and started its Town Hall Series. The group began playing in several Northern Door village halls with ensemble shows like the Fred Alley/James Kaplan collaboration Goodnight Irene featuring the songs of The Weavers. In 2001, Loose Lips Sink Ships became AFT’s single season bestseller, with record audience attendance nearing 900 at a several performances.
2001 would prove to be quite a year for AFT. On May 1 AFT suffered the loss of its co-founder, Fred Alley. Fred had been involved with AFT since 1980 and came to be known as the “face” of AFT and for many was the “face” of the arts community of Door County. His beautiful tenor voice was emblazoned in the minds of all who heard him, he collaborated on more shows than AFT can count and he was a key player in developing AFT into what it is today. Fred was 38 when he died of a heart attack while on his daily run in Door County.
Also in 2001, AFT received two major awards from the Peninsula Arts Association. The first, “The Visionary Award,” celebrates the commitment of local organizations to the development of new programs. American Folklore Theatre received the award for its New Works program and for its help in launching Door Shakespeare. The second award, “The Champion Award” was presented to Fred Alley posthumously. This award was renamed “The Fred Alley Award.”
Ever since AFT emerged from the Heritage Ensemble, the growth and development of the troupe has been phenomenal. The annual budget has gone from $20,000 to $1,200,000. Northern Sky conducts professional auditions in New York, and company members now perform regularly on and off-Broadway and at major regional theatres throughout the country. The summer main-stage season has expanded to three or four shows in repertory, and the fall season has been expanded. The performances are enhanced by a state-of-the-art sound system. Northern Sky has a year-round administrative office. Over 50,000 people attend performances each year, making Northern Sky one of the major theatres in the Midwest.
Lumberjacks in Love has been received by sold-out audiences in Milwaukee and has been on stages as far away as Kansas. The ice fishing musical Guys On Ice proved to be such a sensation that AFT took it to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 1998 and 1999, then staged it at the Green Bay Community Theatre, Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay and at Frank’s Dinner Theatre at the S.C. Grand in Green Bay. At all venues and times of year this musical has played to sold-out houses, creating news stories and a cult following everywhere it is seen. Guys On Ice has also played in Madison, Wis., Ashland, Ore., Detroit and Chelsea, Mich.
Many adoring Northern Sky fans memorize shows and buy cassette tapes and compact discs to learn the lyrics. Parents from around the country write to Northern Sky, saying their children sing and act out scenes from Northern Sky all year round. The charm of Northern Sky continues to be the original words and music that bring people and stories to life, creating empathy between theatergoers and performers. This remains true to the company’s mission: “To develop and present professional dramatic productions of a cultural and/or educational nature that will further the knowledge and appreciation of the heritage of the United States….”
The effort has not been lost on the thousands of families who see Northern Sky as a highlight of their vacation each year. Peninsula State Park officials note that years ago, campers discovered Northern Sky performances to be good family entertainment, but now see the park as a prime destination because it is home to Northern Sky.
The founders of Northern Sky say the secret to their success is many of the troupe’s members have worked together and shared the same vision for so many years. “From the very beginning,” says Heide, “it was a true theatre of the folk, carrying forth themes that had found their way here in the canoes of French voyageurs or the holds of iron ore ships. To offer these gems under a swirl of stars with the smell of campfires warming your soul — priced so that anyone who hankered to could come — this was vision indeed!”
Planning for the future is essential to Northern Sky’s ability to grow and thrive. In 1997 a community board of directors was formed, which provided additional strength and stability to the organization. In 1998 AFT hired a full-time managing director to allow the writers and producers more time to spend on creative projects. During the 2000 season, the first ever Children’s Theatre Workshops were launched. AFT launched its first capital campaign in 1999 to raise money to build a new dressing room at Peninsula State Park in 2001. Another campaign aimed to raise funds to complete a new stage in time for the 2003 season.
Although most members of the company write or perform elsewhere during the off season, their time at Northern Sky is usually the highlight of their years. Unlike other venues, Northern Sky is a place where theatre is still close enough you can touch it. As long as the audience keeps coming back, they will continue to gather under the stars each summer to tell stories and sing songs.