Once, evening entertainment in Door County consisted of watching the sun set over Green Bay.
Then, at the turn of the century, the seven sons of the Eagle Bluff lighthouse keepers formed a band to entertain at various gatherings, arriving with a horse-drawn piano.
The arts scene really got going in 1935, when the first theater was founded on the lawn of a Fish Creek motel. The same year, a Danish landscape architect from Chicago started the first arts school. In 1953, the first music festival was founded.
Today, no vacationer has to sacrifice big-city standards in this semi-rural area. National headliners play Fish Creek. Actors from Chicago and New York perform on the shores of Green Bay. Composers premiere concertos commissioned by the Peninsula Music Festival.
Even free concerts attract well-known performers.
In Door County, culture is a normal part of vacation. On one August trip, I saw plays both at Northern Sky Theater and the Peninsula Players.
The Players were founded when a theater-loving couple from Chicago put on Noel Coward's "Hay Fever'' and four other plays in the back yard of the Bonnie Brook Motel.
In 1937, they acquired a 22-acre boys' camp on the shores of Green Bay, and over the years, they were able to attract high-quality ensembles that included actors Sam Wanamaker, Harvey Korman and Ralph Waite.
Today, Peninsula Players is the nation's oldest professional resident summer theater.
Its grounds, strung with colored lights, looks like a set for "A Midsummer Night's Dream.'’ Beyond its fringes, shadowy figures flit through a fragrant cedar forest; ticket-holders come early to walk to the pebble beach, sip glasses of wine and watch the sun set.
But back under the roof of the open-sided pavilion, the tone changes. The Peninsula Players specialty is light comedy, and the play I saw was a nonstop pratfall with cross-dressing doctors, mistaken identities and the usual web of lies. The audience loved it.
After the play, the cast returned for a "talk back'' session with the audience, who asked about the exhausting pace, the actor's life and how the company picks its plays. After Saturday-night performances, the audience gathers with the cast and crew around a bonfire in the waterfront Beer Garden.
Another night, I drove to Peninsula State Park, a lovely expanse of forest and beach between the villages of Fish Creek and Ephraim. In an amphitheater ringed with tall red pines, the Northern Sky Theater troupe performed one of its original musical comedies, "Fishing for the Moon.''
Set in Wisconsin after the Civil War, it features a belle who pines for a presumed-dead beau, a colonel who addresses his cows as troops, and the Georgia man who arrives to "shoot'' the colonel.
The scenario sounds as goofy as those of the troupe's other beloved standards — "Lumberjacks in Love,'' "Guys on Ice,'' "Muskie Love'' — but the play actually was sweet, funny and full of good music.
Performances of the troupe, which spun out of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay's Heritage Ensemble, are a popular bonus for the park's campers.
Why are the arts so successful in Door County? It could be because artists are like anyone else — they like to spend part of their summer in a lovely place.
The musicians who perform at the Peninsula Music Festival, says longtime director Sharon Grutzmacher, don't need to be coaxed to show up.
"They love to come here,'' she says. "They can make music in a beautiful setting, for an extremely receptive audience. So why wouldn’t they?''
Trip Tips: Arts in Door County, Wisconsin
July and the first three weeks of August are extremely busy, so buy tickets and make lodging reservations as soon as possible. Youths can get free or heavily discounted tickets for many performances.
For more on planning trips, see Door County 101.
Peninsula Players: The company performs in a covered pavilion on the bayfront between Egg Harbor and Fish Creek.
Tours are given at 2 p.m. many Sundays. Some performances are followed by talk-backs. Check for other special events.
Northern Sky Theater: In summer, this troupe performs in an amphitheater in Peninsula State Park and also in its indoor Gould Theater, east of Fish Creek and just south of the corner of county roads A and F.
In the amphitheater, it will stage "The Fisherman's Daughters'' June 14-July 10; "Tongue 'n' Cheek'' July 12-Aug. 7; and "Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?'' Aug. 9-Sept. 18.
In the Gould, it will perform "Not Even Remotely'' July 12-Aug. 7 and "Naked Radio'' Aug. 23-Nov. 6.
Door Shakespeare: This troupe performs in the gardens of Björklunden, the northern campus of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. It's on Lake Michigan near Baileys Harbor.
It will stage "Hamlet'' from June 30 to Aug. 17.
Birch Creek Music Performance Center: This center, three miles east of Egg Harbor on County Road E, offers concerts from mid-June to mid-August. The first two weeks focus on classical music, the third week on percussion/steel band and the fourth and fifth on jazz and big band.
Midsummer's Music Festival: From early June through Labor Day, this gathering of musicians performs a series of classic programs at arts centers, galleries, churches, restaurants and even homes around Door County.
Peninsula Music Festival: This gathering of musicians from around the world, with music director Victor Yampolsky and associate conductor Stephen Alltop, presents an August season at the Door County Auditorium in Fish Creek.
Fishstock Concert Series: On Sundays from late June through Labor Day weekend, musicians perform in a century-old barn east of Fish Creek.
National acts: The Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek schedules performers year-round.
Sundays at 7 p.m. in Egg Harbor: The Sunset Concert Series at the Peg Egan Performing Arts Center on Church Street is late June through mid-August. In case of rain, concerts are held at Orchards Golf Course.
Mondays at 7 p.m. in Ephraim: Evenings in Ephraim concerts are held at the Harborside Park gazebo from late June to late August.
Tuesdays at 4 p.m. in Fish Creek: Concerts in the Park are held on the lawn of Noble Square from mid-June to mid-August.
Wednesdays at 6 p.m. in Sister Bay: Concerts in the Park are held in the Waterfront Park stage from late June through Labor Day. Movies are shown at dusk most Saturdays. In case of rain, concerts are held at the Village Hall, also in Waterfront Park.
Thursdays at 5 p.m. in Egg Harbor: Concerts in the Park are held at Harbor View Park from mid-June to Labor Day weekend.
Fridays at 5 p.m. in Baileys Harbor: Concerts in the Park are held at Town Hall Park from late June through August.
The Door County Plein Ar Festival in July includes demonstrations, lectures and exhibitions.
Door County has dozens of art galleries and arts centers. One of the best known is Edgewood Orchard Galleries between Egg Harbor and Fish Creek, founded in a stone fruit barn in 1969.
It shows the work of more than 150 artists and is open from May through October. It hosts monthly artist receptions in its courtyard, with talks, demonstrations, wine and hors d'oeuvres.
In Fish Creek, the Guenzel Gallery and gardens of the Peninsula School of Art are open Monday through Saturday. The school also offers lectures and free Family Art Days on the third Saturday morning of each month.
In downtown Sturgeon Bay, the Miller Art Museum exhibits the work of Wisconsin artists from the 20th century to the present and is open Monday through Saturday.
In Ellison Bay, The Clearing folk school has a gorgeous setting on Green Bay and
offers many programs in the arts, nature and humanities. In summer and
fall, six-day classes include meals and lodgings in lovely stone
For more, see Classroom in the Clearing.
On a 10-acre campus in Fish Creek, the Peninsula School of Art
offers an extensive schedule of workshops year-round, in ceramics, jewelry-making, paper-making, photography and especially painting.
On the shore of Lake Michigan near Baileys Harbor, Bjorklunden is owned by Lawrence University and offers weeklong seminars in
the arts and many other subjects. Students can stay and eat on-site in the lodge.
On Washington Island, the Sievers School of Fiber Arts offers classes in weaving, knitting, quilting and spinning and also in basketry and woodcarving. A turn-of-the-century timber barn serves as a dormitory for women.