Culture Club: A Half Century of Singing under the Stars


Doc Heide.

This summer I’m privileged to celebrate 50 years of performing professionally in Door County in what we now call Northern Sky Theater. Just writing that sentence brings a sense of disbelief.

I first set foot on the old wooden stage in Peninsula State Park during the summer of 1973. Back then, the notion that I’d still be here half a century later – writing and performing with a major Wisconsin theater that I co-founded – would have seemed about as likely as the goats on Al Johnson’s roof forming a hip-hop group.

I wasn’t dreaming about creating musical comedies. I wasn’t even majoring in theater or music because a performance career seemed entirely implausible. 

Instead, I was a perplexed junior at UW-Green Bay. I’d hitchhiked up to Door County the summer before and caught a park performance by the Heritage Ensemble, UWGB’s new folk-singing and storytelling troupe. The setting was mesmerizing. The towering pines that ringed the theater cast a spell of calm and mystery.

That night the Heritage Ensemble did an original show called Song of the Inland Seas, during which a small troupe presented Broadway-style arrangements of authentic folk songs about the Upper Midwest, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars and electric bass. The music sent chills up my spine. I had no idea that folk songs about Wisconsin even existed, let alone how beautiful and memorable they were. 

I already loved folk music. When I was a high school senior, the first song I’d taught myself to play had been “Five Hundred Miles” by Peter, Paul and Mary. My mom had a rickety Sears Silvertone guitar gathering dust in the corner of the living room, and playing it was like trying to coax a melody from a washing machine, but I persisted.

And so, when I returned to UWGB that fall and saw a poster seeking cast members for the Heritage Ensemble, I persuaded myself to audition. Soon I was decked out in a lumberjack shirt and jeans, part of a trio performing a show of logging folk songs called Come All Ye Bold Fellers at local business lunches.

Like many in my generation, I’d been entranced by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and CSNY. So, getting paid to sing harmony was the cat’s pajamas. On top of that, I’d been toying with majoring in history. The Heritage Ensemble seemed an exceptional way to teach others (as well as myself) about history while showcasing the songs and stories that made it all seem vibrantly alive.

That first summer was a delight. Our cast lived in the sprawling Welcker Mansion on the Fish Creek bluff, complete with fireplaces and huge windows and decks overlooking the harbor. I didn’t own a car, so I rode in the back of a pickup truck to the park every night to perform.

That summer, I learned to jog and meditate and eat healthful meals – habits that I’ve kept up ever since. I eagerly read a new scholarly book about altered states of consciousness, which would soon lead to doctoral studies in clinical psychology. And when I landed at Penn State two years later, I began returning to my home state each summer to sing under the stars because I loved it so much.

In 1983, I was offered a job at the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley. Fortunately, the administrators were willing to release me a month early each spring to return to Heritage Ensemble rehearsals. And when Ensemble founder Dave Peterson asked me to write a show in 1984, I leapt at the chance. Soon I was creating a show every year.

When Dave retired in 1990, he gifted the Heritage Ensemble to me and fellow cast member Gerald Pelrine. We named our new company American Folklore Theatre and invited Fred Alley to join us. Fred held off, but by 1991, he had come on board with his friend Jeff Herbst.

We renamed ourselves Northern Sky Theater in 2015. Since the 1970s, we’ve added millions of dollars of improvements and become one of the principal Equity theaters in America that solely creates and produces original musicals. Along the way, I married my perfect match and got to live in Door County.

They say to follow your dreams. That’s not quite what I did. A career in the performing arts seemed impossible, so I pursued a different passion – psychology – and stayed in this arts thing because it was so much dang fun. Fifty years later, I can barely believe how well that’s turned out.

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.

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