by Doc Heide
The last time I saw Fred Alley was a couple of months before he passed away at age 38. Fred, the brilliant co-founder of Northern Sky Theater and one of my closest friends, had flown out to California where I was teaching so we could work on our upcoming 2001 summer season.
We spent the weekend at Saint Orres, a rustic resort that resembled a Russian temple on the Pacific coast a few hours north of San Francisco. Fred had just won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for his new show with James Valcq, The Spitfire Grill. Fred was scheduled to fly to New York in May to receive a $100,000 prize from Stephen Sondheim to produce it Off-Broadway. He was happy but exhausted, carrying the burdens of a man twice his age.
A main topic of discussion was a show we’d planned to create for that summer based on American tall tales, which we both loved. I’d gathered more than enough of these hilarious stories, but it became clear there was too much on Fred’s plate to devote the time we needed to shape them into a show for that summer.
Because I had a sabbatical coming, I wandered the Pacific Coast Highway the next few nights contemplating how I might retool those tales into a smaller show to produce in the Gibraltar Town Hall that fall. I called it Bob Dumkee’s Farm.
On May 1, Fred died of a heart condition while jogging near the farm he and his brother and I owned outside of Baileys Harbor. The shock and grief shook all of us to the core.
In the coming months, I invited Lee Becker (who was writing Packer Fans from Outer Space with me) to join me in creating the show. Although Bob Dumkee’s Farm would be largely comical, we dealt with our grief by including a plotline about a family friend who had recently passed.
Amy Chaffee, another friend of Fred’s, soon joined the cast. Amy is a vocal coach to the stars (Kathy Bates, Ellyn Burstyn, Colin Firth, Bruce Willis, etc.), who has appeared in multiple films and TV shows (Desperate Housewives, Judging Amy, AMC’s Interview with the Vampire, etc.).
Together we launched Bob Dumkee’s Farm in the fall of 2001 – four days before the Sept. 11 attacks. In the show, colorful Door County characters tell hilarious stories and sing uplifting songs, all while seeking the help of a local saint to win a pie contest, pursue romance and lift a curse on the Dumkee family farm. But beyond the many laughs, the plotline about the departed friend gave us, and our audience, a chance to come together to grieve the losses suffered.
Although the show earned rave reviews and standing ovations, its audience was limited by the shock and widespread reluctance to travel in the wake of the terrorist attacks. So Lee and I have dreamed for two decades of revising it for a remount.
The show has always included a non-speaking character who supplies instrumental support. We thought the perfect person would be Eric Lewis, our Memphis friend who is an award-winning string instrumentalist (Griffon Quartet, Midsummer Music, Robin & Linda Williams, opening act for Travis Tritt and Chuck Berry, etc.). His instrumentals are so blazing that we’ve ordered extra fire extinguishers for the theater.
After years of planning, this fall the stars have finally aligned for the four of us to do the show. Amy has gotten a sabbatical from Tulane University. Eric is taking a couple of months off touring. Lee is coming from North Carolina. I’ve retired from my California teaching job and am living in the county. And we couldn’t be more thrilled.
This March, Lee and I drove almost 600 miles on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, rewriting the show. We’ve added six new songs, substantially revised several scenes, and even created a fifth character (giving Amy a delightful dual role).
The new show, When Pigs Fly!, opens Sept. 15 in our indoor Gould Theater and runs through Oct. 21. We hope the show’s mix of sweetness, side-splitting humor and rich harmonies are a suitable tribute to our dear friend who departed this world too soon.
Tickets are available at 920.854.6117 or at northernskytheater.com.
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.