By Steve Schneider
When one’s wife heads to Door County for a “girls’ day” with a friend, what is one left to do but explore historic buildings and their stories in downtown Green Bay?
For some time, I’ve been aware of a gentleman by the name of Jeff Miller who lives downtown and is quite engaged in the arts community.
One day he overheard me talking about the former Vic Theatre, a historic building at 217 E. Walnut St. that dates back to the turn of the last century.
He quietly took me aside and said, “We need to talk sometime. Did you know I managed the Vic back in the 1980s and ‘90s?”
With my wife out of town for the day, I reached out to Jeff for a dinner conversation and to hear more stories from these talking walls.
While I knew that Miller was an artist, musician and businessperson, I had no knowledge about the depth of his experience bringing national acts and entertainers to Green Bay — everyone from Liberace to Johnny Cash to Metallica and many in between.
Following our dinner at Fox Harbor, Miller and I went to the old Vic, which I now own, and we began to rummage around.
Miller shared how his story — and part of the Vic’s history — are inextricably linked to a former venue known as the Carlton West Celebrity Room, also known as the Carlton West Theatre.
The Carlton West was tucked in at the corner of West Mason Street and what is now the interchange with I-41, somewhere between the current Festival Foods West and Oneida One-Stop.
Opening night on May 13, 1977 was wildly successful, featuring singer and actor James Darren performing for a sold-out crowd at the 1,000-seat theater.
The Celebrity Room was short-lived, however — it burned to the ground on Jan. 6, 1986 in one of the largest fires in Green Bay history.
But I stray… This column isn’t even about the Carlton West – those stories are for another day.
Good night and God bless
As we made our way to the back of the theater, Miller suddenly stopped, transfixed in a flashback.
Then he began to recount the first of many stories that not even the walls themselves could tell.
Miller recalled standing in that very spot nearly 30 years ago with Red Skelton.
For those too young to remember, Richard “Red” Skelton was a beloved comedian and variety show host who entertained generations of Americans with his Red Skelton show from 1937 through 1971 as it successfully made the transition from national radio broadcast to national television hit.
His act, and his signature sign-off, “Good night, and may God bless,” were still household words when he came to perform in Green Bay in the early 1990s.
Miller had picked up Skelton at Austin Straubel Airport and brought him downtown to get acquainted with the theater where he would be performing.
As Skelton looked around the theater, he made a comment about how pleased he was to see how far the theater had come.
Miller asked Skelton whether he had been there before.
Skelton said yes, he had performed there in the 1930s, before he became famous and when the venue was known as the Orpheum.
History and research tell us it was likely in the era when Harry Timm owned the building.
Timm was struggling to pay his lease during the Great Depression and ultimately filed for bankruptcy protection.
Nearly 60 years later, the 80-plus-year-old Skelton stood in the theater and recalled to Miller that he never got paid for that show.
Miller assured him that times had changed and he would certainly be paid this time around.
The Carlton connection
Skelton’s second performance in Green Bay that night came a few years after the demise of the Carlton West.
Carl Berndt, owner of the Carlton, had brought in a few partners — among them, Miller’s father — to assist in recreating the Carlton’s popular Celebrity Room scene at the Vic, which was then known as the City Centre Theatre.
Since Miller had been working at the Carlton when it burned, he was charged with moving talent bookings from the Carlton to the new venue.
These were hard times for the new venue, though, and as luck would have it for Miller, Skelton’s manager called him a few weeks after the performance to inform him that the check had bounced.
Was it possible that Skelton, an American icon, could be “stiffed” at both bookends of his career by the same theater in Green Bay?
Miller and Berndt scrambled to fund a new check and — true to the assurance that times had changed — all ended well.
The debut of Wayne’s World
Booking national talent as a local theater can be a tricky business involving some creative negotiations between small theater promoters and celebrity booking agents.
As we stood in the quiet theater, Miller recalled a stand-up show in the late 1980s starring Saturday Night Live performer Dana Carvey, whose Church Lady skit was a national sensation at the time.
After the show, Miller and Carvey dined together at Le Bonne Femme, a popular high-end restaurant at the time on Washington Street south of the Meyer Theatre.
Based on the success of that first performance, Carvey was open to returning to Green Bay for another show.
Carvey’s agent set a date with Miller and Miller began to promote it.
Some time later, the agent abruptly called Miller to cancel, saying he had already booked Carvey elsewhere — a practice known as “stacking dates” to optimize a performer’s schedule.
Miller, somewhat upset, called Carvey directly since he had established rapport with Carvey over dinner.
Miller immediately received a call back from the agent, and they agreed on a date to reschedule rather than cancel.
A few days later, Miller received another call from the agent asking for a favor.
The agent said Carvey wanted to bring with him a young comedian to test out a skit in front of a live audience, and it would cost an extra $500.
Miller told the agent Carvey could bring whomever he wanted, but the theater wasn’t going to pay an extra $500.
The pushback worked, and Carvey brought the young comedian with him to Green Bay anyway.
That sidekick’s name was Mike Meyers, and the skit was called Wayne’s World.
Carvey and Myers performed their now iconic Wayne’s World routine for the first time before a live audience at the old Vic Theatre in Green Bay.
Miller and Myers developed a friendship that has continued.
Miller looks around and chuckles about the conversations that have been had over the years within the walls of this and countless other local venues, and he wonders what a royalty on the Wayne’s World concept would be worth today in exchange for the $500 start-up fee back then.
Wayne’s World went on to become a mainstay on Saturday Night Live as well as a 1992 movie that grossed $183 million; Myers went on to star in the Austin Powers franchise and the animated Shrek movies.
And it all started inside these walls — if only they could talk.
More to come next time on the Carlton and other stories of the buildings and characters of historic Green Bay.