For 49 years, Wisconsin Union Theater audiences have been able to take part in a personal, interactive experience that transports them to strange lands.
It's the humble travelogue: movies presented in person by their globetrotting filmmakers. Think of it as DVD commentary before DVDs, with the added benefit of being able to mingle with moviemakers.
The second half of the season's Union Travel Adventure Film Series begins Monday with Exploring Costa Rica: Colors, Creatures and Curiosities. The rainforest, tropical beaches, the Pacific and Caribbean, and the Rincon de la Vieja volcano are featured.
Only about half the presenters still do narration live, but "They all take time to answer questions, and all hang out in the lobby during intermission and after the show," says Ralph Russo, Union Theater director.
Gone are the days of the film series' first, charmingly naive offerings. Congo Conquest, Himalayan Holiday and By Jeep Around the World have given way to more personal, sociological quests. "It's more about the people and less about the place," says Russo.
Other attractions are the Union's themed dinners, now in their third year. At the upcoming film, besides hobnobbing with filmmaker Sandy Mortimer, audiences can dine on 13 Costa Rican buffet offerings, including baked plantain and gallitos de papa.
The travelogue industry is in decline. "Even in the mid-'80s there were a couple hundred filmmakers that traveled the country," recalls Russo. "Now, I'd say it's down to maybe 40 or 50."
But the Union series is still strong, and the theater is a favorite of filmmakers. For one thing, it draws large numbers. For another, it offers sharp, bright, rear-screen digital projection.
"And it's big," Russo says of the screen; audiences can lose themselves. As a venue, "We're very near the top."
Exploring Costa Rica: Colors, Creatures and Curiosities
Wisconsin Union Theater, Monday & Tuesday, Feb. 23 & 24, 7:30 pm