Wisconsin Historical Society
The Madison Masonic Center's auditorium, as seen from its stage in 1954.
This weekend you can watch John Wayne on the big screen, "taming a woman the way you tame the land," according to the original poster for North to Alaska. The real attraction, though, is where the 1960 film will be shown: one of the city's most unusual venues, the auditorium of the Madison Masonic Center.
The Masonic Center is at the center of the city, at 301 Wisconsin Ave., between the Capitol and the Edgewater. It's the building whose massive pillars make it somewhat resemble the Lincoln Memorial. The 1925 classical revival center, designed by James R. and Edward J. Law, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
At its heart is the auditorium, a sort of arena or amphitheater with a severely ascending audience section. As Madison performance spaces go, it's wild, as suitable for a small circus as for secret Masonic rites.
It's a year older than Madison's Orpheum Theatre and three years older than the Capitol Theater, now part of the Overture Center for the Arts. Unlike those other two historic venues, the Masonic auditorium apparently has never been updated.
North to Alaska is part of the Collector Plate Cinema series, a fundraiser for the center. The film is half Alaskan western and half comedy, co-starring, of all people, TV funnyman Ernie Kovacs.
This is the series' first year. Its debut offering, in April, was silent comedian Harold Lloyd's Never Weaken. The series continues with The Three Stooges on Aug. 22, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on Oct. 17, and Miracle on 34th Street on Dec. 5. "The auditorium is very impressive, and that is why we want to lure people into it with these movies," says Gail Piper, vice president of the center's foundation board of directors. "I always tell people the Madison Masonic Center auditorium is the best kept secret in Madison."
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra used to use it for its annual Sing-Out Messiah holiday concerts in the 1980s. Otherwise, it's often overlooked by Madison performing arts organizations.
"We would love to have more local theater and choral groups use the space," says Piper.
Like any good theater, the auditorium may be haunted. Allegedly, "there is a ghost that resides in the building, and when a lot of people are there, and it gets disturbed, it comes down to see what is going on," says Piper. Its friendly "presence" was felt by some at the film series debut.
Whether or not the auditorium has a resident spirit, it definitely features the third oldest Wangerin pipe organ in the state, valued at $75,000 when it was installed in 1925. A prelude will be performed before the historic film series' later offerings, but not this weekend.
The name of the Collector Plate series is meant to inspire the same affection felt for historic cars that sport special license plates. Proceeds benefit the Masonic Center and its many causes, including a school for dyslexic children.
"Our long term goals include making improvements and upgrades to the auditorium while maintaining its historic integrity," says Piper. "The Madison Masonic Center Foundation board has a long list of projects for the auditorium, but it is fully functional right now, and we want to see it used and enjoyed more by Madison."
"North to Alaska" will be presented at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 13. Admission is $3. A free tour of the historic building will be offered after the movie. Wheelchair access is via the Johnson Street entrance. For more information, visit the Masonic Center's web site.