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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Kenny Rogers’ ties to Northeastern Wisconsin folks run deep

Critic At Large

Including a precocious girl and creative people

Area native Kelly Junkermann, left, poses with Kenny Rogers in association with the musical “The Toy Shoppe,” which the two wrote. (Publicity photo)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

From shows to movies to photos, the legend of entertainer Kenny Rogers has many connections in Northeastern Wisconsin – and that doesn’t count all the people who saw his stage performances.

The country music icon died Friday night at age 81.

This is the tip of an iceberg of stories around Kenny Rogers that are tied to the area:

+ Kelly Junkermann, who grew up in Green Bay and Manitowoc, was a tennis pro with Rogers as a student, then pro-amateur tournament partner, then collaborator on a slew of projects.

In 1987, Junkermann came to Green Bay plugging a large photo portrait book that he assisted Rogers on, “Your Friends and Mine.” Subjects in the well-received book include President Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Bob Hope, Phil Collins, Cary Grant and Liza Minnelli. Photography was sometimes a 16-hour-a-day obsession with Rogers, Junkermann said.

At the time, Rogers had just finished his third “Gambler” TV miniseries. Rogers not only could sing, he could act and ride a horse. Soon, Junkermann was riding along with him in the fourth and fifth “Gambler” miniseries as co-executive producer and idea man.

Woven in were music tours by Rogers, and Junkermann was aboard for them in many capacities, notably as producer and director.

Rogers and Junkermann created “The Toy Shoppe,” a touring musical blending elements of “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Toy Story.” The show was an annual visitor to Northeastern Wisconsin for a decade.

In 1988, Junkermann recalled making the TV special, “Kenny Rogers Classic Weekend,” a breezy hour of entertainment and celebrity sports set on Rogers’ 1,200-acre spread in Georgia. Junkermann said Rogers said, “Boy, I should have ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ come down here.” Instead, this happened, Junkermann said: “We called (Larry) Bird, (Michael) Jordan and (John) McEnroe, and they all said, ‘It sounds great.’ It was amazing to get those three guys right off the top.”

+ Maggie McGinn Dame was an effervescent 8-year-old girl in De Pere when she was picked to appear in a Kenny Rogers Christmas show not only in Green Bay but on tour. The icing on the cake was appearing in a CBS-TV special filmed in Branson, Mo. Maggie McGinn was seen all the way through the special, including the final freeze frame of her raising an arm in conquest. “I hope I get offered another show,” she said at the time, 1992. “I’m going to keep on going.” Most recently, she has been lead singer with the local band Red Clover. She also sang in Let Me Be Frank Productions shows.

Also along to perform for part of the 1992 tour were these Green Bay area youngsters: Curtis Bannister, Andrea Bougie, Reed Heintzkill, Kevin Honnett, Bobby Maher and Brooke Stangeland. Training them for four songs was Sarah Baugnet, a Notre Dame Academy senior.  

+ Graphic artist Jerry Wanek of Manitowoc was part of the “Wisconsin Gang” of workers associated with some of Rogers’ “Gambler” movies and then stage shows. Kelly Junkermann and Jerry Wanek were high school buddies and long-time colleagues. Wanek was production designer for the movies, stage shows based on Junkermann ideas and such TV specials as CBS’s “A Day in the Life of Country Music.” The latter included a scene with Rogers photographing Hillary Rodham Clinton as President Clinton stops by for a chat.

Speaking of putting together a Rogers show, Wanek said in 1993, “It’s really got to be a nice piece… Some performers don’t know the difference between good art and bad art. Kenny certainly does.”

+ The legend of Kenny Rogers’ connection seems to go back to 1969. The story at one of the local TV stations (not WFRV) is a free-lance producer came to the station with the idea of making a series of instructional shows on how to play the guitar. The guitarist came in, and the shows were filmed, but the series died on the vine. Eventually, the film was tossed out. The guitarist was Kenny Rogers.

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