If walls could talk…Lost in the ashes of the Celebrity Room
By Steve Schneider
As promised in the last installment about the former Vic Theatre, this week we continue our conversation with former manager Jeff Miller and trace the thread of his story back to the Celebrity Room at the Carlton West.
There’s much to be said about the now defunct Carlton West.
When it burned to the ground on Jan. 6, 1986, there was much speculation about the cause of the fire.
Over a recent dinner, Miller shared his knowledge of the fire.
In his mind, it all started in early December of 1985 when Bill Dornaus, a builder of the theater who remained in the employ of owner Carl Berndt, decided to resign his position and move on to greener pastures.
Dornaus and Miller shared an office on the second floor of the Carlton.
Outside of their office on the roof were a number of gas powered heaters.
The center heater had frequent problems when the weather reached very low temperatures.
Often it would not fire up, and Dornaus would go out of his office window onto the roof and hit the heater with a pipe wrench, which usually did the trick.
Repair of the heater didn’t seem to be a management priority.
With Dornaus departing in early December, the extreme cold of January had not yet hit.
The first very cold night of 1986 was on Jan. 5.
Often when there is a change in personnel, the lesser known job duties such as banging the problem heater with a pipe can get lost in the transition.
That is likely the case.
It was that very heater that apparently did not light on the evening of Jan. 5 or early morning of Jan. 6.
Gas likely built up around the heater without ignition.
Then, as Murphy’s Law would have it, the heater suddenly lit causing a massive explosion of the built up gas and setting the building on fire.
Miller recalls that the tables had all been set for the 9 p.m. Friday performance of the Oak Ridge Boys when the fire started.
After the fire was out and Miller went back in the building, all the tables remained perfectly set in ashes on the floor as the tables, table cloths and chairs burned, but the plates and silverware fell to the floor in perfect settings creating circles of dinnerware in the ashes.
The wall of fame
Among the irreplaceable devastation of so many artifacts was a wall that all of the performers over the years had signed.
That wall was created by design by Carl Berndt and the management team.
They knew that Carlton West was an anomaly among performance theaters being located in one of the smallest markets that many of these performers would experience.
So, when the road crews or the performers would make remarks about the “podunk” nature of Green Bay, staff would show them the wall and the iconic performances of Johnny Cash, Liberace, Tony Bennett, Ricky Nelson, Wayne Newton, Doug Henning, the Oak Ridge Boys and many others.
Among Green Bay’s favorites was Johnny Cash, who performed nearly every year in Green Bay during the Carlton era.
Cash also was a “frequent writer” on the wall of fame.
One year, Cash reviewed the Carlton schedule and noted that the fledgling band Foghat was performing the following week.
He summoned his manager Lou Robbins to get him a marker and wrote in large letters: “Foghat — I listened to your music on the bus. Very good. Good luck. Johnny Cash.”
Foghat wrote Cash a thank-you on the wall for him to see the following year.
Miller recounts another year when Cash came out of his dressing room with his white shirt and black coat, underwear and black socks with suspenders.
He looked at Miller with a smirk on his face and said his famous line, “Hello, my name’s Johnny Cash” and then turned to the wall and wrote “Waylon Jennings Home Phone #…”
Years later, Cash mentioned in his autobiography how he wrote Jennings’ phone number all over the country until one day Jennings got fed up with all the prank calls and changed his number.
Inevitably, he called Cash and gave him his new number, which Cash promptly began to circulate again, perpetuating the prank for years.
It was one of Cash’s favorite pranks for one of his best friends — documented in Green Bay on the walls of the Carlton until that fateful fire.
The wow factor
It was Berndt’s vision to “wow” performers by consistently going above and beyond what they would expect in a large theater.
Performers reciprocated with repeat performances and loved the venue and the people.
Among Miller’s stories are the kindness and humanity of someone like Liberace.
In the day, Liberace would book three separate weeks for $250,000 a week for 12 shows.
Toward the end of each week, Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller, would requisition $5,000 from Liberace’s pay, along with envelopes with the names of every person who helped with the show — from parking lot attendants, servers and busboys, right on up to the managers.
On the last night, Liberace then gave a small bonus to every employee.
When Liberace’s brother died unexpectedly, Heller called Miller and asked if they could cancel and reschedule based on Liberace’s state of mind and mourning.
He expected Miller to push back.
Miller didn’t — he expressed his sympathy and rescheduled.
When he came back to perform on an alternate date, Heller had shared that conversation with Liberace who acknowledged Miller’s kindness with tickets, airfare and an afterparty for Liberace’s first performance at Radio City Music Hall.
Miller attended, and at the afterparty, Liberace summoned Miller to sit next to him at the head table acknowledging again his kindness.
Miller also shared the human and difficult side of some of the performers.
There was the Johnny Cash performance during Cash’s drug addiction where he wasn’t going to be in a condition to perform.
Manager Lou Robbins called Miller to ask that he find an act to open for Cash so he could straighten up.
Miller didn’t look very hard or far.
He and his friend, the late local singer Carrie Lasee (daughter of former State Sen. Alan Lasee) took the spot and opened for Cash.
Tragically, Lasee died in a car accident in 2017.
Then there was Tony Bennett and the Bosendorfer piano.
But we’ll save that one for another day as we continue to explore if walls could talk.