Legendary UW Marching Band director Mike Leckrone returns to the stage in October

The 'Moments of Happiness' cabaret-style show at the Overture Center will showcase a blend of song and stories from Leckrone's career.
Leckrone Show Poster for Moments of Happiness
Show poster courtesy of the Four Seasons Theatre.
Leckrone is developing the five-performance show with Madison's Four Seasons Theatre, an accomplished production team and three-piece jazz trio.

He is still working on the script, but one thing is nearly certain.

“I’m sure I’m going to talk about the elephant,” Mike Leckrone said this week.

How could he not?

Leckrone, who spent a dazzling half century (1969-2019) as director of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band — years filled with fun, hard work, great acclaim and, inevitably, loss — has fashioned a cabaret-style show, “Mike Leckrone: Moments of Happiness,” that will mix music and storytelling across five performances at Overture’s Playhouse theater Oct. 12-16.

The show’s title is a nod to one of Leckrone’s core tenets: That because life can often be difficult, unfair and worse, it is important — essential — to recognize and bank in memory the joyful times. The elephant story fits in because Leckrone knows the value of being able to occasionally laugh at yourself.

It was October 1988, the Badgers against Illinois at Camp Randall. Leckrone had planned an ambitious, circus-themed halftime show. UW football fortunes were at low ebb and the band was often the Saturday afternoon highlight.

Leckrone had managed to procure an elephant from Circus World Museum, which he rode out of the tunnel and onto the Camp Randall field. As designed, the elephant — her name was Molly — lumbered to the 50-yard-line.

Suddenly, the crowd roared.

Leckrone thought, “They love us!”

Not exactly. Molly had issued an elephant-sized poop right in front of the Badgers’ bench.

Photo of Mike Leckrone standing in a theater

Photo by Patrick Stutz.

The genesis of Leckrone’s cabaret show dates back a couple of years to a series of conversations he shared with Sarah Marty, artistic director of Madison’s Four Seasons Theatre, which is producing the show. They had a history and mutual respect. Marty played in the band and then served many years as director and production manager for Leckrone’s spring Varsity Band concerts, three-night, often sold-out extravaganzas at the Kohl Center.

“She was my right hand on the concert,” Leckrone says.

Marty suggested Leckrone check out the shows the singer and actress Elaine Stritch famously did late in her career at the Café Carlyle in New York, a blend of song and show business stories. “We started talking,” Leckrone says, “and thought it would be fun if I could do what Elaine did — if not nearly as well.”

They’ve assembled both a talented production team — Brian Cowing, Abby Nichols, and Sam Taylor — and an accomplished three-piece jazz trio including Chris Rottmayer (piano), Ben Ferris (bass) and Michael Koszewski (drums).

Leckrone has history with most if not all of them.

“When Sarah told me who she’d lined up,” Leckrone says, “I became completely at ease.”

Nichols is serving as his voice coach and they’ve already started rehearsing. The first full rehearsal is scheduled for Oct. 2.

“It’s exciting,” Leckrone says.

The “band stories” that he will choose from to tell on stage are legion. Leckrone’s been thinking about them lately while working on his autobiography — a point of disclosure, I’m assisting with the book — and surely the first trip to Pasadena for the 1994 Rose Bowl will figure in his Overture show memories. He might also mention a trip a year earlier the band took to Seattle and a ribald salute to the city offered by the tuba section during a performance.

“Why,” Leckrone once remarked, in a wry aside, “is it always the tuba players?”

The rough humor he often employs while recalling past band members belies the deep bond many formed with Leckrone.

Dr. Frank Byrne, retired president of St. Mary’s Hospital and a friend and fan of Leckrone’s, put it this way: “He’s entertained millions, but he’s changed the trajectory of thousands of lives by giving them the opportunity to get engaged with music.”

Leckrone did that, too, with the popular courses in music history that he taught at UW–Madison. An annual lecture Leckrone did on the 1920s jazz great Bix Beiderbecke became so legendary people who weren’t in the class would ascertain the date and show up. A highlight came when Leckrone dispatched the tearaway shirt he was wearing to reveal a second shirt underneath that read: “Bix Lives.”

No surprise, one of Leckrone’s earliest memories, he might have been 6 or 7, involves entertainment. It was in a high school gym in a small town in Indiana, where his dad was a music teacher and band director.

Young Mike was allowed on the floor to do a baton twirling act while the band, seated in the bleachers, played. He thinks his mom might have put him in sparkling outfit, but he’s not sure. There’s only one thing he truly recalls:

“The applause.”

It sustained across eight decades. There will be more come October at Overture.

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