Rocky Start Evolves to Love on Stage
By Elizabeth Altman
Husband and wife Doug Johnson and Aine McMenamin create an Irish force
to be reckoned with throughout Milwaukee. Both play integral roles within
the Irish community – Johnson works with Summerfest as well as Irish Fest,
and McMenamin as the founder and head of Shorewood’s McMenamin Irish Dance
Johnson has been a public relations executive with Summerfest for 12
years. The job covers, as he says, "everything we need to do." More specifically,
this includes planning for each upcoming summer’s festival, which begins
in October and November. As the festival approaches, Johnson puts in a
16-hour workday. He oversees pre-production on the grounds by helping set
up the stages and preparing the personnel. Johnson says he basically tries
to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.
Johnson felt pleased with this year’s Summerfest. Considering the group
of performers a "phenomenal line-up," his only disappointment was the torrential
rain on the final night. Yet splashing about in giant puddles and huddling
together around baskets of eggplant strips and funnel cakes, the crowd
seemed to enjoy itself, even through the wet. While this year’s Summerfest
may have ended with a weather hitch no PR executive could stop, it did
not lack for spirit.
Johnson also runs his own talent consultant business throughout the
year. Dealing with different universities, he books bands and buys talent
for 18 college basketball arenas.
Johnson also performs in a band. Wife McMenamin described his group
as a "rather underground musical effort." Johnson and some high school
buddies meet weekly in Racine. While she’s pretty sure the group is called
The Screws or perhaps The Rusty Screws, McMenamin has yet to hear it perform.
She wonders if the weekly jaunts are more of a chance to play foosball
while the musical instruments collect dust.
While not indulging his foray into music, Johnson continues his festival
work as production manager for Irish Fest. He says the job is much the
same as what he does with Summerfest. Unlike the latter festival, however,
where he books three of the groundstages, he does not book Irish Fest’s
Johnson’s Irish Fest experience has also proved successful for him in
another, perhaps more unexpected way. While working there years ago as
a sound engineer, he met a stage manager who later became his wife.
As McMenamin explained, in a story that felt loved and oft shared,
it wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, she views theirs as a considerably
ironic way to meet, "considering in the beginning we didn’t like each other."
"I walked up on Thursday and introduced myself," she said, describing
their first encounter. With a trivializing tone Johnson turned around snickering,
" ‘They sent a girl?’" McMenamin said her Irish temper didn’t hold that
Still, she continued, they chatted amiably throughout the weekend. During
one rain-soaked day, she started to turn around a monitor.
"I said, ‘I’ll get this side,’ and he laughed and he was like ‘don’t
hurt yourself.’ But he was kind of impressed when I was able to move it."
McMenamin, who has been a dancer since 4-year-old, described how her leg
muscles and dancer’s knowledge to lift with her back, helped her exhibit
"I was able to move it and that’s when you could see he started to come
around a little bit. And the last day he asked me for my phone number and
I told him I forgot it, so he gave me his." The next Monday, showing up
at her work, Johnson finally garnered her number. The rest was history.
McMenamin has followed up her stage managing "career" and marriage with
her dance academy which opened two years ago.
The McMenamin Academy, which originally began with five students, has
evolved into a 92-student enterprise. The effective "advertising" on the
playground, where her pupils Irish dance at recess, peaked other kids’
interest. Subsequently, the Academy is seeking larger quarters.
"So far, things have been going extremely well," said McMenamin, who
attributes the recent upsurge in Irish dancing to the popularity of Riverdance.
"With our school, I think the only Irish are the teachers," she said.
McMenamin, along with several others, teach the Academy’s weekly classes
which begin daily after 4 p.m. This allows the children to arrive after
school. It also lets McMenamin attend to office business throughout the
day. She takes phone calls, plans scheduling and choreography and works
with the studio’s dressmaker on designing costumes.
McMenamin’s is a relatively young program, comprised of a likewise young
group of dancers. She sees mainly elementary and middle school kids who
come for lessons. As to the boy/girl ratio, McMenamin also notices a pattern.
"Right now we have four boys in the school," she said. McMenamin discussed
how her young male students usually join because of their sisters, the
"we’re driving there anyway" syndrome. She also outlined the future pluses
of belonging to the boy dancers’ scant group.
"I think when they get older, they’ll realize it’s a good thing. Going
to prom, you know you’ve got a choice of how many girls that you can take
just as friends, and they have rhythm. But at 5, they don’t understand
that," she continued. Right now they most likely consider it a chance to
To help her students, McMenamin also tries to organize her classes
"With us we try not to label anything because we’ve found sometimes
that’s a little bit difficult on kids," she said. After completing several
child psychology classes for her dance education major at the University
of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, McMenamin now works to change the traditional advanced/beginner
rankings within her own lessons.
"We sort classes by dance experience," she said. "You could have a dancer
who’s 7 in the same class with somebody who’s 14 because of their dance
experience and competition."
The McMenamin/Johnson duet is also involved in other Irish organizations
around town, ranging from the Shamrock Club to the Lady’s Ancient Order
of Hibernians, in which McMenamin’s mother is also a member. Johnson, masked
in his all-American last name, is actually three- quarters Irish. His mother’s
family are McCarthys, and emigrated from Co. Kerry in the 1910s. He says
he still feels very connected to those roots.
Johnson and McMenamin further maintain that connection through their
yearly travels to Ireland. There, they attend the World Irish Dance Championships
which include dancers from China to New Zealand, or the All-Irelands. McMenamin
had the chance to coach a student through the All-Irelands last year and
is no stranger to competing.
Boasting a top placing for her 2000 World’s eight-team girls performance
in Belfast, McMenamin’s "now tarnished medal" currently hangs on the walls
of the Academy. While she has now retired from competition, her work continues
into the realm of UWM’s Irish dance program, which she began. She had previously
performed at the World’s eight times.
McMenamin has helped her pupils through performances at numerous competitions
and festivals. The dancers have placed at a regional Oireachtas, and performed
at the North American Irish Dance championships, local feises, National
Night Out in Shorewood, Greendale Village Days and Summerfest. The list
goes also include private parties, nursing homes and weddings. The Academy
will also perform at Irish Fest, with a show on Friday and two on Sunday.
And who knows? Perhaps this year’s festival will see another pairing
between an unlikely sound engineer and stage manager to one day form another
powerhouse Milwaukee couple.