25 Years of Guys on Ice

Northern Sky Theater celebrates “life, love and Leinies” 

With their accents, mannerisms and references, the characters in Guys on Ice remind us of our uncles, cousins and grandfathers – regular people you might find anywhere in Door County. Those characters are a big part of the play’s charm and probably why it’s been a perennial favorite since its first production in 1998 – back when Northern Sky Theater was called American Folklore Theatre. (The theater company changed its name in 2015.) 

Guys on Ice follows a day in the life of ice fishermen Lloyd (played by Steve Koehler) and Marvin (Doug Mancheski), with the occasional interruption by Ernie the Moocher (Dan Klarer). 

We talked to the cast about the past 25 years of Guys on Ice. This conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Emma Chamley (EC): What’s it like doing the show for the 25th anniversary?

Doug Mancheski (DM): I think the biggest thing for me, it being 25 years, is that we have people who saw it 25 years ago, when they were kids, and now they have kids they’re bringing to see it. That’s what I love the most, when young people come to see the show for the first time. If they’re still laughing, that’s when I know the show has got a long shelf life. That’s what I’m really most proud of. Some people have seen it a million times. I met one guy who said he’d seen it 12 times. 

Dan Klarer (DK): There are people who come every year. 

DM: Yeah, I think it’s because it’s more than a story. It’s almost like seeing friends again. Almost like watching your favorite sitcom. Even though you’ve seen it a million times, you just like the characters. That’s why people watch things over and over again, why they’re really popular. You want to revisit these characters again. 

EC: You guys have also toured around Wisconsin with the show. What’s that like? 

Steve Koehler (SK): We started self-producing in 2013. We did the Barrymore in Madison. We’ve been doing touring gigs since then. Once we did it on the ice in Fond du Lac at an ice-fishing competition. 

DK: A lot of the performing-arts centers in smaller venues around the state of Wisconsin don’t get a whole lot of outside stuff in, so when we come to town, Guys on Ice brings out the town. We’ve taken the show and really made a lot of people happy throughout the state. It’s funny every time. I’ve watched the show hundreds and hundreds of times, being a part of it and being backstage for 15-plus years, and it still makes me laugh.

EC: What’s new about this year’s version of the show? 

SK: One thing is we talk about what heaven is like and what Jesus looks like. Through the years it’s gone from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, and now it’s Bart Starr. 

DM: Actually, it was Vince Lombardi for a little bit, too. 

DK: The show’s been updated kind of over the years, but it’s pretty well timeless. We want it to be slightly nostalgic.

SK: I mean, we start the show talking on landlines.

EC: What makes the community love this show so much? 

DK: They see themselves in it. There’s a sort of nostalgia to the show, a quality of seeing yourself in the show, but also knowing these guys who are in the show. Like I recognize the characters as somebody just like my uncle or my buddy. 

DM: Fred Alley was the writer of the show. I knew him really well, and he would always say he was a “populist writer,” which meant he was writing for the people. He wanted them to see themselves in the show, instead of the theater being some highfalutin thing. That’s what made Fred so great. “You’re doing musicals about us? People who live in Door County? Oh, my gosh, this is cool.” 

And I think that’s what brings people in. But it’s not just about the community. I mean, the community loves it, but one of the show’s biggest fans down in Baileys Harbor is a British woman. People in the South love it. I think the appeal of it is just the friendship between these guys.

SK: Yeah, it’s a really authentic representation of what that kind of friendship is like, and it’s just got a big heart. What did Fred used to say – he wanted people to leave feeling like something’s different? 

DM: Like transformed. He wanted people to say, “I don’t know why I feel different” – and that’s what a really good play is, actually. That’s sort of what this play is like: After an hour and 40 minutes, people want to treat me like their best friend – and Steve, too. It’s interesting how the power of theater can transform an audience and make people feel so much different than they did an hour and a half ago. 

DK: The camaraderie and the audience interaction, that’s a huge piece of it. I was telling my girlfriend the other day, “Gosh, I’m kind of in a bad mood,” and I was like, not eager to do the show. But I always feel better after doing Guys on Ice. I do feel better going home with a smile on my face.