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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Legacy of ‘Guys on Ice’ lives on

The show’s back story is a trail of happiness and tears.
Jimmy Kaplan
Jimmy Kaplan

PHOTO: In the 2014 of American Folklore Theatre’s production of “Guys on Ice” are company artistic director Jeffrey Herbst, left, and Doug Mancheski, in the role he created 16 years ago. Len Villano photo

CORRECTION: The first version of this feature incorrectly said James Valcq was in the original cast as Ernie the Moocher. Chris Irwin played the role of Ernie the Moocher in the premiere production.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – I can finally stand to see “Guys on Ice” again without clouds of sadness creeping in.

Sixteen years ago – Sept. 3, 1998 – “Guys on Ice” premiered in Ephraim Village Hall in Door County. It was an uncomfortable sweaty-hot night. I remember thinking, “These are odd conditions to see a show about ice fishing.”

In the original cast were Doug Mancheski, Fred Alley and Chris Irwin.

In the show, Fred Alley spoke a line that I scribbled in the printed program. I still have the program. The line: “A fellow can go any time.” Three years later, he did go. What a shock. Thirty-eight years old. A heart attack. What a talent. It was, as a colleague said, like the North Star had been plucked from the sky. We – the world – had been robbed. That’s where my sadness comes in.

But there’s happiness, too. In those three remaining years, Fred Alley went on to perform and create more, including writing “The Spitfire Grill” with James Valcq, who played Ernie the Moocher in the 1999 edition of “Guys on Ice.” “The Spitfire Grill” has been seen by audiences across the country and abroad, and James Valcq today is co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay and still composing. More smiles: In the 2014 version of “Guys on Ice,” the show’s 11th incarnation at American Folklore Theatre, Doug Mancheski still sparks big laughs in every performance. He’s done the role hundreds of times over 16 years. Amazing.

Also in the cast is Jeffrey Herbst, who is artistic director of American Folklore Theatre – same as in 1998, when he directed and choreographed the original production. At the premiere performance, Jeffrey Herbst encouraged input from the audience, and, sure enough, after the show a woman suggested to him that the song “Everything is New” be taken out because it didn’t fit into the comical flow of the show. In the song, the Fred Alley character leaves the ice shanty and sings sweetly (Fred Alley had a perfect tenor for that) of the wonders of nature. The song has soul. I overheard the woman’s comments to Jeffrey Herbst, who listened graciously. I recall, after the woman left, being adamant about keeping the beautiful song in. Jeffrey Herbst listened graciously. It’s in, and 16 years later, “Guys on Ice” continues full of vitality not only at American Folklore Theatre but beyond.

One of the show’s prime caretakers – also present and performing (on piano) at the premiere – is Jimmy Kaplan, who wrote the music to Fred Alley’s book and lyrics. If you Google “Guys on Ice,” you come in touch with Jimmy Kaplan. In credits, he’s James Kaplan, but he prefers Jimmy these days.

In a telephone interview, he said, “I answer to either one, but I have been using Jimmy more the last few years. It feels a little softer to me, and I think of myself as Jimmy. It’s funny because Fred always introduced me to people as James, and I think it’s because he liked the formality more. I kind of sounded like, ‘Oh, this person must be impressive because his name is James.’ But I figure if Jimmy Carter could be president, I can be a Jimmy, too. I don’t have to be a James.”

Of late, Jimmy Kaplan works in the finance and accounting department at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. He continues to perform a bit, as in January at Door Community Auditorium, and has his mind on composing more.

He said, “The last summer that I was up at American Folklore Theatre was when ‘She Jane Vote’ premiered (2006), and I kind of made a decision at that time that because of my young daughter and the voicemail messages I would get of her crying that I didn’t want to be traveling away for big lengths of time. And actually now she’s on the edge of teenager years when she might be fine with me going away as teenagers are wont to do, so I can sort of think about it again. I can see in the next few years maybe being able to do that but right now I prefer kind of to work a 40-hour-a-week job and certainly I want to be involved in creating some new shows over the next few years but spending the whole summer up there just doesn’t really fit in with my life at this time.”

Jimmy Kaplan has his foot in both worlds – finance and creativity – so he comes to his jobs at Milwaukee Rep and the “Guys on Ice” site somewhat naturally.

He said, “The first people to do ‘Guys on Ice’ outside of AFT were in Oregon at the Oregon Cabaret. Since that time, I’ve always kind of handled the requests, even when Fred was still around. Obviously, we talked about everything then. But it’s kind of been a steady stream with some ebbs and flows. I handle the initial contacts with the theaters, and, based on the information they provide, give them a quote of a royalty and try to work with the companies to work out any issues to a particular spot, whether it’s too close to another area or whatever. The good news is it’s been an up cycle the last year. It’s been very popular again. It’s not always easy to predict why that is, but a lot of people have been doing it from all over. So that’s great and fun.”

Who owns “Guys on Ice”?

“Fred’s estate set up a corporate entity called Fred’s Legacy, and his brother, John, is the manager of that. And so the royalties for the show are split between me and Fred’s Legacy, and there’s also Fred Heide (co-founder of American Folklore Theatre from whom the concept for “Guys on Ice” sprang) and Jeff Herbst both have a small percentage from their contributions to the original creation. I tend to handle the requests from the outside world, and I run things past John, and so far it’s kind of worked… Sometimes it gets really busy, and I’ve got a longer list of people to reply to. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun to see people from all over the country find their way to being interested in one of our shows.”

***

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‘Guys on Ice” productions

- American Folklore Theatre, Fish Creek, Wis., current – running through Aug. 23 in Peninsula State Park Amphitheatre.

- Riverside Players, Neenah, Wis. – July 23-Aug. 2

- Sand County Players, Friendship, Wis. – Nov. 7-16

- Penobscot Theatre Company, Bangor Maine – Jan. 29-Feb. 15, 2015

- Kettle Moraine Players, Campbellsport, Wis. – Feb. 6-8, 2015

- Kettle Moraine Players, Hartford, Wis. – Feb. 13-14, 2015

- The Fireside Theatre, Fort Atkinson, Wis. – June 11-July 19, 2015

***

Does Jimmy Kaplan get a sense that troupes find it helpful to be in contact with one of the creators?

“Sometimes. A lot of times, if they’re resourceful and they’re familiar with the show, they don’t really have any needs or issues beyond getting the script and score. But there are definitely times when they feel they might want to look at something in a different way or maybe they have access to a different group of musicians and they want to ask, ‘Could we do this show with a guitar player?’ And the last few years there are a couple of things that I changed or allowed to be changed just because times have changed and they kind of land a little funny. The two things I think of are references in the script to Mel Gibson. Doug Mancheski’s character talks about fancying himself as a very handsome fellow, and he compares himself to Mel Gibson. For a while, Mel Gibson kind became associated with drunken arrests and unsavory quotes and things that were beyond when he was a good-looking leading man in the ’80s, and so I thought, ‘Well, we could probably update that to someone who doesn’t seem so controversial but is equally handsome.’ So now we use George Clooney. The idea of Doug thinking that he looks like a slightly heavier George Clooney is kind of comical, so it works well. The other thing is the adoration of the Packers in the play comes down to them talking about heaven and their final conclusion is, ‘And Jesus looks just like Brett Favre.’ Again, during the years when Brett Favre was retired, not retired, etc., his heroic status became more controversial. But fortunately Aaron Rodgers has provided an easy transition. The idea of Jesus in a snowmobile suit resembling Aaron Rodgers seems like a funny and apt image.”

Jimmy Kaplan has seen only a few productions of “Guys on Ice” other than those (many) of American Folklore Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre or Madison Repertory Theatre.

“I did see ‘Guys on Ice’ at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan – that’s Jeff Daniels’ theater (of “Purple Rose of Cairo” and other movie fame) – and that was a lot of fun to see, particularly because the Lloyd that they cast was an older fellow. Of course, as I get older, the word ‘older’ takes on different definitions. He was 60-ish and kind of balding and with a white beard. At first I was like, ‘Huh, that’s weird,’ because I thought of Fred and Doug as what the roles should be like. But it worked really quite well because storyline about his wife going over to the in-laws, the whole idea of your marriage falling apart, sometimes it has a little more stakes when you’re older because it just seems a little more intense. And the actors were wonderful and had a lot of fun, and it was a little surreal; I don’t really go out of my way to see the show for that reason because it’s a little bit weird. But it was a lot of fun and a lot of fun to meet everybody up there.”

Jimmy Kaplan agreed that it is amazing that Doug Mancheski has been at the same role for 16 years.

“He does take a lot of sense of ownership in the show… I saw Steve (Koehler, who has played the role of Lloyd in numerous performances) and Doug do it (in late December) in Madison... I was there on the day of the Bears game. Doug would normally never schedule a show during a game, but the time of that game was changed for TV purposes. As soon as the first act ended, I looked at my phone, and it was the two-minute warning in the game and I was happy because I knew that that meant that Doug could at least watch the last few minutes back stage. In fact, it was such a great Wisconsin scene: In the lobby of the Barrymore Theatre there were a couple hundred people gathered around a TV at intermission watching everything and waiting and cheering. Ultimately, the Packers won that game, and then we started the second act. It made for a very fun second act.”

Jimmy Kaplan follows reviews of the show as it plays elsewhere.

“I look for them just because I like to promote the productions on Facebook. I have a ‘Guys on Ice’ page there. I think it’s always interesting to read reviews from other parts of the country and to help let people know that it’s playing in different places. Wisconsin fans love to tell friends about it. A lot of the smaller towns just love the stuff. The characters are so familiar to small-town Wisconsinites, no matter what part of the state they’re from.”

I told Jimmy Kaplan that for many years it was hard for me to see the show because of Fred Alley, about whom I had written and spoken with many times.

“I know that Fred’s brother, John, felt that way the first couple of years. But when Fred died May 1 (2001), it was right before going into rehearsals for a season, and so those of us who were working at AFT that summer were kind of forced to (pause) there was no avoiding the grief and the absence. We did ‘Lumberjacks in Love’ (which the two wrote) that summer, and my good friend, John Hegge, who was a relatively newcomer to AFT, played Fred’s role. He’s a wonderful guy in a lot of ways, but one of the things that I think eased the transition was that he’s a great actor – ‘I came to work’ – and he didn’t really know Fred. He was the perfect guy to take his shoes in a certain way because he was there to get the work done. For a while, I think people were kind of avoiding talking about Fred, but how can you do ‘Lumberjacks in Love’ and not talk about Fred? He was the lead and played a goofy role and, of course, we’re trying to stage it with a new actor. So you have to talk about, ‘Well, what did Fred do here?’ So getting intensely into that and then in the subsequent years I played piano for a couple hundred performances of ‘Guys on Ice,’ so it kind of (pause) I certainly always think about Fred, but I think it becomes easier just because of being so immersed in Fred as opposed to kind of avoiding it. His brother, John, who lives in Madison and has a job and family down there, if he was coming to see ‘Guys on Ice,’ it might be his first time really thinking about the show in a year or two, and so he’s going to be filled with feelings that really haven’t had a place to be. But to me, I think that immersing yourself and honoring his work doing it many, many times is a wonderful thing.”

In working with Fred Alley on “Guys on Ice,” was there a flow, a give and take or what?

“Fred Heide did a lot of the initial interviews, and then I turned that stuff over to Fred Alley, and Fred kind of worked on the script. Unlike some shows, like ‘The Bachelors’ –which we kind of wrote together, and very quickly – he kind of developed the script of ‘Guys on Ice,’ and I started writing music, and there wasn’t that much give and take. I think he had honed the script a lot more on his own. We thought we were doing this goofy little experiment. We had never done a book show in the fall indoors. There has always been concert shows in the fall. We didn’t really know exactly what the thing was going to look like. So, as opposed to some of our other shows where we did work really hand in hand, it was kind of more like, okay, he did the words, and I did the music. There wasn’t a lot of editing back and forth.”

Jimmy Kaplan spoke of the composing process.

“I really love setting words to music. It’s my favorite thing in the world. If it’s a good lyric, some of the work is already done because there’s a rhythmic pattern that kind of suggests itself, and there’s a bit of a puzzle aspect to it. I do like math, and I like having to figure out how to make it fit. And you have to get inside your partner’s head a little to figure out what they were thinking.”

Jimmy Kaplan works with partners. For “See Jane Run” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” that was Laurie Flanigan. Today, she lives and works in Minneapolis and has a family.

“It’s different than when Fred and I wrote ‘Lumberjacks in Love.’ We were both up in Door County, single. It was late winter, and we could literally drop everything and just write. But life gets a little more complicated than that. But I’m definitely feeling the urge and wanting to make it happen, so I hope to get a concrete project together this year so we’ll see if I can make that happen.”

Who came up with the title for “Guys on Ice”?

“Fred Alley did. I remember reacting to it like, ‘Really? You think that’s a good title?’ I didn’t necessarily think it was a grabber. It’s kind of a running joke among the friends and companies in that there are many people who believe that it’s ‘Men on Ice,’ which sounds a lot like Mennonites. People will call and ask for tickets for ‘Men on Ice.” Sometimes people will go to my ‘Guys on Ice’ site and request the rights to ‘Men on Ice,’ even though it’s guys on ice dot com. But definitely it was a good title. Who knew?...

“I remember Fred Alley talking, before ‘Guys on Ice,’ that some of the locals would call American Folklore Theatre the ‘Belgians in Heaven’ theater. At that time, that was the most popular show AFT had ever done. There are a lot of people who come to AFT who don’t come to any other theater. They’re not all necessarily theatergoers so much as people who like to go up to the park. And so people would identify it by the thing that they liked that they saw there, so it makes sense. So ‘Guys on Ice’ is the best identifier…

“Of all the things that Fred and I have done, I would say maybe ‘Lumberjacks in Love’ is a close second, but ‘Guys on Ice’ certainly seems to be the thing that has captured people’s love. When I was sitting in Madison, there was a group of older ladies in front of us, and somebody introduced me and said who I was. They were all congratulatory, and they went down the row and told me how many times each of them had seen the show – ‘This is my fifth time,’ ‘This is my fourth time.’ I many, many times have a little grateful prayer to God and Fred and say I’m so glad we wrote a show that people like to see over and over again because it’s both gratifying and it helps with the income.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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