ASHWAUBENON — Frank Hermans is an unlikely historian.
The 51-year-old Elvis impersonator with an office and warehouse in the former space of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame has carved a niche in this part of the state putting his own spin on all things Wisconsin.
Not in books but with scripts, written prolifically over the past 16 years and enjoyed by thousands who laugh at his plays and musicals that sometimes poke fun at — but also resonate with — those who live in northeastern Wisconsin where the biggest city is the smallest with an NFL team.
His musicals come with titles like “CSI: Kewaunee” and “My Big Fat Pulaski Wedding.” When earthquakes began rumbling through Clintonville in 2012 it provided perfect fodder and led to the play “Shaken, Not Stirred.” One show, “A Juke Box of Cheese,” was set in a cheese factory while “The Guernsey Boys” was a Dairy State take on “The Jersey Boys.”
Other topics have included Kroll’s restaurants, former Green Bay landmarks like St. Mary’s Roller Rink and the Stardust nightclub, the H.C. Prange Co. store in Sturgeon Bay and the 1974 Hortonville teachers strike. Some, according to Hermans, were not amused by the mockery of the highly contentious labor dispute that divided the community northwest of Appleton.
One of Hermans’ biggest shows was “Brent the Musical,” about a star softball player who switches to a rival team and was written to mock Brett Favre’s departure from the Packers.
“You write about what you know,” said Hermans. “We have some reality, but it’s not real. Historical fiction is exactly what I’m doing.”
On Saturday, Hermans and his troupe of actors will hit the road and turn the stage of the historic Waupun City Auditorium into a railroad depot. That’s the setting for the play “Rahr’s Beer and Prison City, USA.”
Like his other Wisconsin-based shows, this one, too, is a mix of fact and fiction.
Waupun is home to the Waupun Correctional Institution, the state’s first prison. The castle-like facility surrounded by residential neighborhoods was built in 1854 at about the same time the Rock River Valley Railroad arrived. Additional cell halls were built in 1906 and 1913 and all remain in use today in addition to the administration building constructed in 1855. The city also has the John C. Burke Correctional Center, a minimum security prison, and Dodge Correctional Institution, a central reception center for all prisoners entering the system.
“The railroad and the prison is one of the reasons the city continued to grow,” said Jim Laird, a local historian who spent 30 years teaching math in the prison system. “People around the state, when they think of Waupun, they don’t think about the community, they think about the prison.”
Rahr’s Beer is also real. According to the Oshkosh Beer Blog, the company traces its roots to 1847 in Manitowoc where German immigrant Wilhelm Peter Mathias Rahr opened the Eagle Brewery. In 1865, a nephew of Rahr, Henry Rahr, opened the Rahr Green Bay Brewing Co. on the East River. That same year, Henry Rahr’s brothers purchased five acres of land in Oshkosh for what would first be known as the City Brewery and later as the Rahr Brewing Company.
The Rahr name vanished from production in the 1960s but remarkably a distant relative of the Rahr family founded in 2004 the Rahr and Sons Brewing Company in Fort Worth, Texas.
The show being performed Saturday in Waupun was written in 2014 on request from Titletown Brewery. The business wanted to have a show at its restaurant and brewery to highlight the history of the old railroad depot it calls home. The show, set in the 1950s, is about trying to get Rahr beer served on Chicago and North Western trains before Milwaukee beer companies could serve their beer on the trains.
“It’s a silly spoofy comedy, and there’s a little history in it,” Hermans said. “I just had to switch all the references to Green Bay to Waupun so I’ve been on Google and Wikipedia just making sure I have all of the right stuff, you know, like saying the right name of the road and the name of the mayor.”
Hermans loves to laugh, has a high-octane personality, the build of a linebacker and enters about four Elvis competitions a year. He has five children, a sixth on the way due in late December, is in his third marriage and has had two vasectomies. He has a weekly television segment on WFRV-TV where he interviews artists and entertainers and is a fill-in news host at the station. Earlier this year, he founded “Frankly Green Bay,” a monthly culture, arts and entertainment newspaper. But his company, “Let’s Be Frank Productions,” is what pays the bills. And it’s no joke.
Hermans has written 97 shows, about 30 of which are directly tied to Wisconsin. Most are performed at the historic Meyer Theatre in downtown Green Bay, where he has 1,300 season ticket holders. In all, Hermans sells 30,000 tickets a year with sales of more than $800,000. He has 16 actors and musicians who work on commission.
“He’s a very unique talent,” said Mike Utech, 70, of Appleton, the events manager for the 668-seat Waupun City Auditorium. “He looks like an average Joe but when he puts his mind to it, he creates amazing theater.”
Hermans lived a nomadic life as a child. His father was a union electrician who worked on nuclear power plants around the country. He lived in four states during grade school and junior high while his high school years were spent in Denmark, southeast of Green Bay; in Pleasant Plains, Arkansas, and his junior and senior years at Green Bay Preble.
His time in Denmark was the inspiration for one of his plays. “The Activity Bus” chronicled his time riding the bus that took high school athletes and other school group members home each day.
The annual Christmas show, “A Frank’s Christmas,” is one of the biggest undertakings of the year and consumes the production company for most of November and December with rehearsals and shows.
He has a show planned for next year about Mirro Company in Manitowoc and would someday like to write about the Peshtigo fire of 1871.
“I try to pick communities in northeastern Wisconsin where something historical has happened,” Hermans said. “I love Wisconsin. This is my home.”
Hermans graduated from UW-Green Bay where he studied the arts but got into managing bars and restaurants after college. That changed in 1994 when he auditioned and landed a part in St. Norbert College’s summer music theater production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” That’s where he met Joe Kiedinger, who would become his business partner.
Six years later, they started Frank’s Dinner Theater that operated from 2000 to 2007 before their company became the main tenants of the 1,000-seat Meyer Theatre that opened in 1930 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I’ve always been a hyper guy,” Hermans said. “I love history. I love life, and I live it to its fullest.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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