Wisconsin Historical Society
The view down State Street, 1930
If there is magic in a theater, there’s even more in theaters now lost to us. We still have the shadows of the silent films that ushered in the cinematic age, but the earlier road companies and tent shows aren’t even history book footnotes. The show-time laughter and tears of our grandparents and great-grandparents are long forgotten, but a few reminders are left — if you know where to look.
Madisonians are hungry for glimpses of these past beauties. When a replica of the 1926 Orpheum Theater’s massive, original sign was lit in early July, a crowd thronged State Street, despite thunderstorms. “You won’t believe how many people stop me in the street to shake my hand,” says Orpheum owner Gus Paras. “People I’ve never seen in my life, young and old, and they want to thank me for bringing back the Orpheum, and especially the sign.”
In 2013, Paras told Isthmus he wanted to restore the theater to its former glory to give back to the city that had welcomed him; he sees the more than 100-year-old institution as a community treasure. “The Orpheum to me is not private property,” he said. “It belongs to Madison.”
The Orpheum’s sign restoration pays homage not only to the largest intact movie palace we have left, but to the Orpheum “circuit,” a national organization that booked vaudeville entertainers into Orpheum theaters around the country. Vaudeville was the only mass pop-entertainment medium other than comic strips when it began in the late 1880s. It was an ever-changing variety show, with multiple short acts of every kind: dancers, strongmen, jugglers, comics, plate-spinners, puppets, animal acts, hypnotists, politicians delivering speeches and cartoonists with blackboards offering “chalk talks.”
After a series of mergers the Orpheum circuit became Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or RKO, the movie studio that produced Citizen Kane, King Kong and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Passersby may wonder why the sign reads “New Orpheum.” It’s an authentic replica, reflecting the fact that Madison once boasted two Orpheum theaters. The “old” Orpheum once stood at 111 Monona Ave. (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), roughly the site of today’s Francesca’s al Lago restaurant.
Diane Kostecke, a writer and former producer for Wisconsin Public Television, researched Madison’s early theater history while a UW-Madison graduate student in the late 1970s. “I was lucky to find and interview people with direct working knowledge of the early- to mid-20th-century theater history of Madison,” says Kostecke. This history connects generations, she adds. “As long as people are willing to gather together in a darkened room to watch stories unfold on a stage or a screen, we have a connection reaching back to our recent and distant ancestors.”
Kostecke’s research focused on movie palaces of the 1920s.
“They were such amazing structures reflecting a mish-mash of exotic styles and a gaudy manifestation of imagination in service of commerce. They brought a kind of glamour and show-biz aesthetic to even medium-sized cities like Madison,” she says. “Theater-going was a formative experience in the 20th century.”
Obviously, theaters are more than their physical structures. They are centers of culture and community, and their flourishing and eventual demise reflect changes in the city. “The course of Madison’s theatrical activities so closely parallels the growth of the city as to clearly mark its place in the city’s culture,” Henry Youngerman wrote in an article in the 1947 Wisconsin Magazine of History. “Gateway to much of the West, host to many who came to the frontier better to understand the making of a nation, Madison nourished and supported the theater for professional and amateur alike.”
Adding to the many mysteries of Madison’s early theaters are the frequent name changes. When the New Orpheum opened, the original became the Garrick Theatre. Later it became the New Madison. (An earlier Madison Theater was at 204-206 State St., across from what today is the Overture Center for the Arts. Its original name was the Grand. Nearby, at 216 State, was the Varsity Theatre.) Downtown was a bustling theater district; counting early storefront movie houses, or “nickelodeons,” there were at least nine within seven blocks of the capitol.
As Madison celebrates the reinstatement of the Orpheum’s sign, we thought it was time to revisit a time before Netflix and social media, when even a small city like Madison was bursting with live entertainment.
Madison Theater (first Orpheum Theater)
Wisconsin Historical Society
The Madison Theater (formerly Orpheum), 1936
The Orpheum’s original décor was Second Empire, with huge murals, gilt and lavish French ornamentation. Yet despite its highbrow appearance, it was built for lowly vaudeville, and for vaudevillians only. These were the dog acts, the plate spinners, the ventriloquists and “living statues” — hourglass women dressed in tights, standing stock-still as “art,” to beat censorship boards.
There were several vaudeville circuits, or franchised chains of theaters. The western Pantages circuit was dubbed “Siberia” by vaudeville performers; travel was by train, and far-apart theaters meant lost time. The top circuit was the Orpheum, whose flagship was Broadway’s celebrated Palace Theatre.
Young Judy Garland, George M. Cohan, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Wisconsin native Harry Houdini all “rode” the Orpheum circuit. But by the 1930s, vaudeville gave way to radio and motion pictures, and ornate French décor was out of favor. In 1934 Madison’s original Orpheum closed for two years. It reopened with a stunning art deco theme, featuring a piano-key proscenium.
Our first Orpheum (which later became the New Madison) closed and was demolished in 1957.
Wisconsin Historical Society
The Madison Theater interior, 1936
Hooley’s Opera House
Wisconsin Historical Society
One of Madison’s earliest theaters was Hooley’s Opera House, which opened on the third and fourth floors of a building framed by South Pinckney, East Main and East Doty streets, just off the Capitol Square, above today’s Marigold Kitchen. Such pre-vaudeville venues operated much like live theater today, booking touring presentations of plays and individual stars.
Hooley’s once hosted live comedy, music and dance. It was at this thriving hub that Madison witnessed performances by Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883), the little person known as General Tom Thumb. Manager P.T. Barnum created the stage name for the singer, dancer and comedian, helping make him an international sensation.
Hooley’s was built in 1855 and seated 800. Sometimes spelled “Hoolley’s,” it was first called Van Bergen Hall, after its owner. But Peter Van Bergen later changed the name, apparently to claim association with Chicago’s famed Hooley’s Theatre.
Despite its claim to be Madison’s oldest theater, the earliest was likely Lewis’ Hall, 221 Wisconsin Ave., at the corner with Johnson Street, built in 1851 and demolished in 1922.
Wisconsin Historical Society
The Strand Theater, 1930
Preservationists fought and fought, hoping to save at least the lobby and façade, then just the façade, but the remains of the Strand Theater, 16 E. Mifflin St., were finally demolished in 1996.
The Strand began just after 1900 as the Amuse Theater, a humble nickelodeon. After a name change, it was rebuilt and vastly expanded in 1916. Officially named the New Strand, the successor venue was designed by distinguished Chicago theater architects Rapp & Rapp, who also designed our current Orpheum and the Capitol Theater, now part of Overture.
The Wisconsin Historical Society saved the Strand’s last marquee.
Open Air Theater
The Open Air Theater sloped behind Bascom Hall toward Charter Street.
In 2013 Webb Management Services Inc., a New York consulting group, delivered a performing arts study requested by Mayor Paul Soglin. It identified the need for a permanent, “well-equipped outdoor performance space.”
We once had one. Little is known today about the Open Air Theater at the UW-Madison, but it lasted at least from the 1910s through 1920s. A more formal classical outdoor theater was first considered, similar to the one still used by the University of California at Berkeley, the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre.
The Open Air Theater was an experiment launched by Thomas H. Dixon, a UW-Madison theater professor, who helped create a pastoral “meadow theater” behind Bascom Hall, just north of Sterling Hall. The meadow theater had two incarnations, with the first one facing north. “Groups of trees frame the wooden platform stage at both sides, but at the back is an almost unbroken view of Lake Mendota,” wrote Sheldon Cheney in his 1918 book, The Open-Air Theatre.
“The whole forms a very pretty composition,” he concluded, “and a more satisfying background for pageant-like production could not be desired.”
Fuller Opera House
Fuller Opera House interior, 1900
Madison’s best venue for decades was the Fuller Opera House, on the Capitol Square, mid-block and roughly behind what today is the Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club. It opened in 1890 and was renamed the Parkway in 1921.
It was demolished in 1954, but dramatic destruction nearly came twice earlier. During a performance in 1896, a tornado lifted off the roof and dashed it a block away, onto the area today occupied by the Bartell Theatre. By chance or the designs of fate, onstage was comedian Eddie Foy Sr. He calmed the audience, perhaps gleaning experience that allowed him to remain front and center during Chicago’s horrific Iroquois Theater fire seven years later. More than 600 died in the “fireproof” building. An unexpected hero, Foy stayed onstage, begging all to exit in an orderly fashion, even as burning scenery collapsed around him.
The Fuller’s own fiery turn came in October 1925. A live fashion show was ending when, apparently, a spark ignited backstage rigging. Fire spread quickly. The asbestos fire curtain was dropped, but when stagehands fled by a rear exit, the sudden inrush of fresh air caused a “backdraft.” A massive, exploding fireball flashed onto 1,000 theatergoers.
Betty Harb, age 13, was attending with Roland Allen, a 6-year-old she was babysitting. “The curtain suddenly burst into flames and swung right out towards us,” she told a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. “I didn’t know what to do, but I remembered the folks had said, ‘Take care of little Roland.’”
She sheltered the boy with her own body, suffering smoke inhalation and third-degree burns on her face and hands. The flaming roof fell in.
Miraculously, though the fire’s ferocity led Fire Chief Charles Heyl to believe “the entire block was going,” there were no fatalities.
The Fuller’s name was changed in 1921 to Parkway. Something of it survives. For many years its transplanted 1926 pipe organ was a beloved icon of Iowa State University, in Ames. Played virtually to death, some of its abandoned components are now parts of the organ at the opera house in Pella, Iowa.
Bryce Richter / UW Communications
An anthropology lecture in room 272 Bascom, where theater luminaries once had their turn in the spotlight.
Not all of Madison’s lost theaters are truly lost. One has merely been disguised and obscured. It’s the UW Department of Theatre and Drama’s former home stage, or — as it’s known today — room 272 in Bascom Hall.
The building’s theater wing, which was added in 1899, included a stage and seating for 347. The proscenium was framed elegantly if minimally by scrollwork and ornamental leaves. The theater included a fly loft, into which backdrops were raised and hidden, for fast changes of scene.
This stage hosted the live performances of Broadway and Hollywood legends, among them Don Ameche (1908-1993); Uta Hagen (1919-2004), a three-time Tony winner including one for lifetime achievement; Madison native Gena Rowlands (1930- ), four-time Emmy winner and recipient of an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement; and Fredric March, the only actor to receive two Tonys and two Oscars. And then in 1972, the UW underwent a different kind of scene change. Vilas Hall opened, its modern stages so eclipsing their predecessor that Bascom’s theater doesn’t even appear in a UW history of campus arts.
Everything from the curtain-line back was walled over, leaving only the hint of a stage in what is now a Bascom lecture hall. Used today for storage and shop space, the “backstage area, including the fly loft and catwalk, of the original Bascom theater is still extant,” says Steve Wagner, UW Facilities Planning & Management communications director.
Perhaps, like King Arthur in Avalon, our oldest surviving theater is not dead but merely asleep, waiting to someday be awakened — when needed.