Madison’s Own Fairy Godmother

Michael Bruno shares his theatrical journey with Tara Ayres.

Michael Bruno’s life in theater and television has an almost fairy tale quality to it, which makes sense for someone who describes himself as a fairy godmother.

Raised in Madison, Michael started acting with Stagecoach Players in seventh grade. By the end of his junior year of high school at Edgewood, he had joined the Stagecoach staff as assistant director. Then he became the assistant artistic director and choreographer for Madison Theater Guild, when MTG was still part of the Madison School and Community Recreation Department and had a large paid staff. It was a different era for theater, with public support for the arts and a booming economy. He moved on to the Wisconsin Children’s Theater and traveled all over the state doing theater in the schools. In the summer, he started working at a gay bar and shortly thereafter was cast in, “The Boys in the Band,” and came out. He laughs and describes it as art imitating life imitating art. He was 20.

Michael moved to San Diego in 1976. He worked at the Old Globe Theater doing children’s theater. Returning to Madison in 1978, he established a comedy duo, and emceed shows at the Hotel de Wash and Going My Way, and then became the Going My Way manager until it folded in 1983. Michael, who hated winter, returned to California to live in Los Angeles.

Immediately Michael got on a game show, and won $16,000. That led to a real job, and he worked on a series of game shows until 1989, when he became the gossip columnist for gay paper in LA. In his column, he reviewed a show called “Party” and said that it was great, but doomed to failure because the venue was wrong. The show lost money, and a few months later one of the writers contacted Michael and asked if he would be willing to produce “Party” in San Francisco. Michael’s response: “I just said yes, because I figured that I couldn’t do any worse than the guy who brought it to LA. My ex and his new boyfriend lived in SF, were part of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and I tapped into that connection. They found me the venue and helped me find a place to live. In return, I let the Sisters pass the hat at every show to raise money.”

Then Michael met Tom Orr. “This adorable kid from Seattle was a genius at re-writing show tune lyrics into brilliant, scathing, funny gay parodies. ‘Party’ had posted its closing notice, and the theater owner asked me if I had anything I wanted to produce there. I was loving San Francisco, producing theater, and living in a beautiful old hotel. I suggested that we do a review with Tom’s songs, kind of like ‘Forbidden Broadway’ for fags. We developed ‘Dirty Little Show Tunes,’ a six-man musical.” The show was a hit, and played several venues. Michaels said, “The cast was completely thrilled, since they were getting paid. I couldn’t afford Equity rates, but I paid the performers. Everywhere else, the actors were the last ones to get paid. We opened a Seattle version of the show. Then the Bailiwick called from Chicago and asked if they could do an after-hours version of the show. It was the first time the show was produced without our involvement, and it failed miserably. At the same time, it was running successfully in Seattle and San Francisco. So I went flying into Chicago like the Wicked Witch of the West.”

Michael re-staged the Chicago show, and opened it two weeks later with the same actors. The revised version was a hit. There was a wonderful review in the Chicago Tribune, which caused the estate of Rodgers and Hammerstein to issue a “cease and desist” letter. Luckily it was closing week in Chicago and San Francisco. It closed the Seattle show, too.

In 2001 Michael’s mom was having health problems, and he came back to Madison. He had HIV seroconverted in 1993, and sings the praises of the AIDS Network here, who provide services that just weren’t available in San Francisco. Michael went to work at the Overture Center, and started doing community theater again. He also launched WhoopDeeDoo Productions. Their latest production “Sweet Cannoli Nuptials,” was recently licensed by two other regional troupes.

Michael continues to be committed to the care and feeding of actors. He says, “They are the first paid.”

For his next project, Michael and writing partner Tony Ritano have developed “’The Game Show’ Show,” about the live taping of a game show in Madison. People in the audience will be contestants, play the games, and get actual prizes. You’ll see the backstage scurrying around, and then the real game. Watch for it in a theater near you!

*Editor’s Note: Michael continues to spread his special charm around Madison to this day. From being the new President of StageQ to being a TV Host on WISC-3 (“Bruno’s Best Bets”), Bruno’s  star continues to rise!