The anniversary comes as a surprise to Richard Slone. Told that the Barrymore Theatre celebrated its grand opening 20 years ago this week, the first word out of his mouth is, "Really?" Now the public market project manager for Common Wealth Development, Slone, along with Tom Petersen, spearheaded the campaign to transform an X-rated movie palace called the Cinema into an anchor for revitalizing the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood.
"The main spirit was twofold," recalls Slone. "One was to provide a performing arts theater that wasn't beholden to anyone in the city. The other was, of course, to get rid of a porn theater."
Since its opening, the Barrymore has seeded the neighborhood with restaurants, shops and mixed-use development. Meanwhile, the theater has provided a venue for community-based events and an impressive list of performers ranging from Altan and Anthrax to Zap Mama and Warren Zevon.
Accomplishing this was neither easy nor inexpensive. Slone invested $50,000 of his own money and put the mortgage for his house on the line. He says Madison-Kipp CEO Reed Coleman staked "in excess of $100,000" toward the project. (Coleman confirms this, adding, "I like to see t hings get started, and I like to fix things when they're broken.") Other contributions came from residents of the neighborhood, who rallied around the effort.
When the theater struggled in its early years, the Schenk-Atwood Revitalization Association rescued it: Slone sold the property to SARA, which put the theater under a nonprofit umbrella.
If he could do it all over again, Slone says, he would have structured the Barrymore as a nonprofit right from the start. He would also have opted to give patrons the music they wanted. "Don't let your personal preference dictate who you book," he says.
He believes the theater today is "pretty darn close" to his original vision for it. "It's a fun place to see a show," he says. The Johnny Clegg and Savuka concert in 1990 stands out in his memory for the performers' "incredible energy, warmth and contact with the audience." The 1989 appearance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers was another personal highlight, he says.
Gwar, circa 1991, was also memorable: "We had to cover the first five rows of seats with plastic because they squirted the audience with viscous goo."
As president of SARA from 1985-1997, Allen Arntsen was present at the Barrymore's birth and has watched it grow up. As the theater reaches adulthood, he remains involved as chairman of its board and a frequent patron. "I was last there about two weeks ago for a board meeting," he says, "and the time before that I was there for Neko Case or Yo La Tengo." He has also been in the audience for Dark Star Orchestra, the Subdudes, Widespread Panic and "the first Garbage concert there - that was something."
A 30-year Schenk-Atwood resident, Arntsen says the Barrymore has been "a positive landmark, a neighborhood icon." The Schenk-Atwood neighborhood had been in decline for 30 years, he remembers, and SARA identified negatives in the neighborhood that it wanted to turn into positives. The X-rated Cinema - which opened in 1929 as the Eastwood - was one. Turning it around, he says, was "like turning a battleship."
Coleman, he remembers, was more than an investor in the effort: "We had our board meetings at Kipp. He provided management advice. He was a mentor."
Now the theater's general manager, Steve Sperling was among the original group of investors in the Barrymore. He attributes the theater's survival to, among other things, Slone and Petersen's vision for "something that was needed in the community at the time."
Later, he adds, when the theater was in financial difficulty and ownership passed from Slone to SARA, Madison Civic Center director Bob D'Angelo was instrumental in helping the Barrymore navigate those changes.
"We started making really serious business decisions," Sperling remembers, "and one of those decisions, which was probably the most important we made, was that we were in the real estate business, not entertainment." The Barrymore owns three adjacent storefronts, now leased to Lao Laan-Xang, Bad Dog Frida and Design Coalition.
SARA selected a board of directors to serve as stewards for the venue, he adds, and "we stopped booking shows and started working with promoters," instead of competing with them. This reduced the Barrymore's exposure to financial risk.
As general manager, Sperling says, he does not often get to take in an entire performance. "There are only two shows in all the years I've been here that I have sat down and watched from start to end." The artists that were important enough to make him sit down and watch: Emmylou Harris, on March 23, 1996; and Ray Davies, on Nov. 4, 1997.
Another memorable show: "Luther Allison, who played here the day he was diagnosed with brain cancer, and it was his second-to-last performance."
At most events, Sperling can be seen doing almost everything that needs to be done except for the performance itself. What makes it worth all the stress? "What're you talking about?" he asks. "This is a great gig."