Actors Fredric March and Don Burdick may not have attended the same high school in Racine, but they both grew up in that town. (At the outset, Don wants to make it clear that back then, it was pronounced RAYcine.) With Burdick, historical integrity and correct pronunciation mean a lot. Theater people are that way. When UW Oshkosh opened the Fredric March Theater in 1971 , Don Burdick not only met Fredric March, but performed for him in a production titled The Visit. He sat at Marsh’s table during the opening night banquet.
During his 36-year career here, Don taught numerous theater courses and directed all of the musical theater productions. He is particularly proud of teaching one of the first courses in American Musical Theater on college campuses, and directing the first production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Company, in Wisconsin. He came to UW Oshkosh (then Wisconsin State College) in 1962 from Eastern Montana State College.
“I loved the ‘Big Sky’ of Montana,” he remembers, “and thought nothing of traveling 200 miles of a Sunday afternoon to see someone, or something like the Rockies to the west. Of course you could travel any speed those days in Montana.”
Don is an avid reader and he especially enjoys mysteries. Besides the Agatha Christie-like classics. He is partial to regional mystery writers such as Steve Thayer (The Weather Man and The Wheat Field), and Minneapolis gourmet cook Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series.
“In one of her mysteries” says Don, “she included a recipe for the best-tasting meat loaf I’ve ever made! (I think I’ll offer an LIR course in meat loaf making … there are so many fabulous recipes out there!”) Don continues, “Thanks to LIR’s ‘Reader’s Choice’ with Ms. Nelson and Shiras, I’m also finding time to read some of the great literary classics I’ve missed along the way.
Although Broadway may not be offering a great many plays these days, there are plenty of noteworthy ones being published and produced in repertory. I’ve added these to my ever-growing list. And because I love to write, I’m also taking two LIR courses in that discipline, one of them being taught by Lynn Kuhns, an award-winning news writer from Winneconne, and one by the fabulous redhead Margo Pontius who has a number of heart warming books in print.”
Not surprisingly, Don takes in a lot of theater productions and concerts from Milwaukee’s Repertory and Skylight theaters and the Milwaukee Symphony; to Oshkosh’s Fredric March Theater and Music Hall, the Grand Opera house and the Oshkosh Symphony; to Appleton and Green Bay’s PAC and Weidner Center.
“There is such an abundance of performing art in the corridor and in Madison as well,” Don says, “that no one should complain of boredom. This summer I’m off again to the American Players Theater in Spring Green, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. And I haven’t even mentioned the visual arts!”
Don earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University in 1955. While on a partial scholarship he worked at the student union to help pay for his room and board. With his “loose change” he often traveled on the “L” from Evanston to Chicago to see plays and concerts in the Loop. On one of his visits he met English comedienne Beatrice Lillie in “An Evening with … ” which he had already seen three times. He wrote her a note asking if a devoted fan could visit her backstage. Don vividly remembers, “She said ‘yes,’ and I went backstage with a friend during intermission. I asked if I could have a picture taken with her. She put her arm around me, a picture was taken, and we even did a little “kick” chorus together.” These endearing memories never fade.
Burdick went on to UW-Madison to pursue theater studies, earning a graduate degree in 1959. While there he performed extensively with the Wisconsin Players, and also used his journalistic training to serve as the Players’ publicity director for several years. Burdick began performing at 14 in high school. A few years later, a Racine youth group organized to do summer productions, and for three years they did three productions each season. While at Madison, future UW Oshkosh colleague Gloria Link asked him to join a summer stock company at Lake Delton where she was to be stage director. “I learned my craft there,” Burdick claims, “doing five seasons of plays, eight per season. It was an exciting time in my life with the best training I’ve ever had. Some of the most memorable characters and plays I’ve done over the years included the title role inOedipus Rex, Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Starbuck in The Rainmaker, and Professor Lyman in Picnic.”
Don has been a presenter for Learning in Retirement for many semesters. His sharing of his theater experiences has provided us hours of enjoyment. He has drawn from his theater background and personal reading on playwrights, lyricists and composers to give us colorful details about the private lives of these artists and entertainers. Don has enriched our understanding of the theater and its workings from his first sessions on “Opera to Musical Comedy,” to “Richard Rodgers’ 100th Birthday,” to “Choreographers of the American Musical Theater.” In June he will give a brief biography of Cole Porter and an analysis of the musical “Anything Goes,” a helpful background for the Milwaukee Skylight Opera production. Next semester he hopes to present a four-week session on recent and exciting developments in musical theater.
During the months of February and March Don engages in an activity he loves – singing. While at Northwestern he sang in the men’s glee club, doing Verdi’s Requiem with the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Raphael Kubilek. After he left the university he had neither time nor opportunity to pursue his singing until two years ago when a friend, Jerry Kniepfel, director of the Waupaca Community Choir, encouraged him to join. He has been a devoted member since. For those who have heard any of Don’s presentations, you’ve guessed correctly. Baritone. He says, “In retirement I am so happy to be singing formally again after so long a time away from it.”
Don is quick to tell anyone nearing retirement, “You will discover — if you allow yourself — that retirement can be one of the most joyful times of life. It is an opportunity to open the doors, and pursue the riches that have always been behind them but that you never had the time or the awareness, or perhaps the inclination, to pursue. LIR provides a set of keys for me to open the doors I choose. Each semester that I am a member, I find myself opening a greater number of them. (Please, this is not a commercial plug – I genuinely believe this!) Most importantly, LIR affords me the opportunity to meet new people. I find them open and eager, and interesting … fun to engage in conversation. I have always been grateful that John Procknow twisted my arm to join. But that is another story. He can tell it.”
The Learning in Retirement membership is happy, too, that Don Burdick joined our organization. His wide knowledge of the theater and his sharing lifetime memories of performing and directing is a gift to all of us.