The Capitol Theatre – Madison, Wisconsin – Rapp and Rapp Architects

My obsession with Cornelieus Ward Rapp and George Leslie Rapp, Rapp and Rapp Architects, theatres (I spell it that way here because they did) began when we visited the Al Ringling Theatre in Baraboo, Wisconsin decades ago. I’ll eventually get to that one on Mrs. Charles too but today’s post belongs to the Capitol Theatre on State St. in Madison, Wisconsin. This is my “home theatre.” I live mere blocks from it. We’ve had a lot of great times in this theater, seeing a lot of great modern shows in this beautiful, historic space. You have no idea how grateful I am that the public stood up and screamed to stop its demolition in the 90s. Movies, concerts and plays are all a part of the Capitol Theatre’s schedule today, exactly as they were when it first opened in 1918. Believe me, we take full advantage of what this place offers today. As a classic movie fan and a Rapp and Rapp Architects fanatic who loves her city, the Capitol Theatre in Madison means so much me. It’s a special place.

I love being inside a Rapp Brothers-designed movie palace like this, not just because it’s an old movie theatre, but because just knowing the Rapp Brothers’ design philosophy behind each one of these places makes them that much more special:

Watch the eyes of a child as it enters the portals of our great theatres and treads the pathway into fairyland. Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shopgirl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens. See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theatre. There you have the answer to why motion picture theatres are so palatial. Here is a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons. The wealthy rub elbows with the poor — and are better for this contact. Do not wonder, then, at the touches of Italian Renaissance, executed in glazed polychrome terra cotta, or at the lobbies and foyers adorned with replicas of precious masterpieces of another world, or at the imported marble wainscoting or the richly ornamented ceilings with motifs copied from master touches of Germany, France, and Italy, or at the carved niches, the cloistered arcades, the depthless mirrors, and the great sweeping staircases. These are not impractical attempts at showing off. These are part of a celestial city — cavern of many-colored jewels, where iridescent lights and luxurious fittings heighten the expectations of pleasure. It is richness unabashed, but richness with a reason. – Rapp and Rapp Architects design philosophy

State Street, Madison, Wisconsin. The Capitol and Orpheum theatres, two Rapp and Rapp theatres, across the street from each other in downtown Madison. Yes, they’re both still there.

Rapp and Rapp Architects designed the Capitol Theatre in 1917-18 for vaudeville, silent movies and musical performances. At the time, it was a 20th Century Fox “house.” Rapp and Rapp had already been designing theatres for a few years by now, and were creating “opulent palaces” that lived up to their philosophy. In 1926, the Rapp brothers also designed the Orpheum Theatre that was built right across the street from the Capitol Theatre.

Photographs from the original construction in 1917 and 18 are scarce (let me know if you know where to find some, please!) There were, however, photographs from the 1920s renovations when the Capitol Theatre became an RKO “house:”

Capitol Theatre renovations, July 2, 1927. Photo by Angus McVicar via the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Capitol Theatre Remodeling. Photo by Angus McVicar via the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Capitol Theatre Remodeling, 1927. Photo by Angus McVicar via the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Capitol Theater ad for opening night from The Capital Times.

The Capitol Theatre’s opening night in 1918 attracted over 6,000 patrons to see Colleen Moore and Larry Kent. star in Her Wild Oat, (1927), for First National Pictures

Colleen Moore and Larry Kent publicity photograph for Her Wild Oat

In Her Wild Oat, Mary Lou Smith (Moore) owns a food wagon when she decides to take a well-earned vacation where the rich and famous gather for fun. The other guests at this beach retreat are rude and mean to her, so her reporter friend (Kent) decides to help with matters.

Have you seen it?

Interior view of the Capitol Theatre balcony in the auditorium,   Madison, Wisconsin, January 23, 1928. (Photo by Angus B. McVicar/Wisconsin Historical Society/Getty Images)
Photo by Angus McVicar via the Wisconsin Historical Society collection.
Photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society collection.
Photo by Angus McIvar from the Wisconsin Historical Society collection.

The theatre always offered movies and shows…

Evan Hughes, doorman at the Capitol Theatre, May 17, 1945. Photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society collection.

…with a full staff of doormen and ushers to take you to your seat at every performance. Yep, they still do.

Over the years the theatre thrived.

In 1980, it underwent another round of renovations when it became part of the Madison Civic Center, which also included the Oscar Mayer Theater.

In the late 1990s when the new Overture Center was being designed, the Capitol Theatre was slated for demoltion. The public outcry stopped it from happening. Thank goodness.

The first movie I saw at the Capitol Theatre was Grandma’s Boy, 1927, starring Harold Lloyd. It marked the first time I saw a silent film on the big screen. Talk about fun. The theatre was full of people laughing out loud at every joke in the movie and simply having fun. I remember feeling a sense of relief that day. And like I had finally found my tribe, as they say. This was heaven for me!

The Capitol Theatre today.

In the late 1990s, the Overture Foundation was founded and plans began for a new performing arts center. In 2004, renovations began to incorporate the Capitol Theatre into the new Overture Center for the Arts. While the original marquee is gone…

…the interior is restored and as opulent as ever. I like to think Rapp and Rapp would be pleased. In addition to other shows there, we go back for several Duck Soup Cinema showings every year. There’s usually three or four shows a year that have vaudeville acts first, the door prizes, then a full-length silent movie.

Just like those original silent movies, the Duck Soup Cinema movies are accompanied by an organist on the fully restored Grand Barton Organ which was originally built by the Barton Musical Instrument Company in Oshkosh.

When we go, for whatever show, I catch myself staring at everything around me. It’s dazzling. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that by being in this space, that  I am connected to those early theatre days Rapp and Rapp wanted us all to experience. It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling experience all at the same time.

My view for Duck Soup Cinema.

In addition to the silent movies I’ve been introduced to here, we’ve seen comedians, plays and concerts here several times a year. I can’t help but be happy and excited to have the Capitol Theatre so close. I hope it opens again one of these days, because I can’t wait to get back. I miss it so much.

Do you have a historic theatre you love to visit? Which one? What do you see there?


Wisconsin Historical Society
Madison’s Lost Theaters – The Isthmus
Al Ringling Theater
Overture Center for the Arts
Rapp and Rapp by Charles Ward Rapp

3 thoughts on “The Capitol Theatre – Madison, Wisconsin – Rapp and Rapp Architects

  1. This article brings back so many memories of growing up in Madison. We lived on the 500 block of W. Mifflin st. so it was only a few blocks from the theaters, schools and our church. Saturday afternoon matinee’s were always a treat in the mid 50’s and early 60’s for this young lad. We sure got our quarter’s worth of entertainment. If you got there early, you get your pick of the seats of which I preferred the front row balcony seats. It always started with a few choice cartoons, then a Movietone News, usually about the wars (WWII and Korean) and famous Hoywood actors etc. then the feature presentation. I remember seeing “Ben Hur” there back in 1959 and the organist playing during it’s intermission. Over the years I saw countless movies, live performances etc. I was so relieved when they decided to keep the theater and front facade of the building when turning it into the Civic center. Whenever I return to Madison from my home on the Mendocino coast of N. California, I always look to see if there is something playing there. It brings back so many “good times” of living in the jewel of the Midwest! Madtown, USA!

    1. Oh Rick! I can’t tell you how much these memories of yours mean to me to have with the Capitol Theatre post. Thank you for taking the time to write this! I would have loved to see more movies in it like you did. Fun! I do enjoy the Duck Soup series running there these days, and I always make sure we go to the matinee. Having your memories to go along with that (and the organ!) is fantastic! We live a few blocks from the Overture Center. It’s all closed down right now, and we miss it a lot. My happy place is the Capitol Theatre for sure.

      This is great, thank you so much again for writing! (Pssst….I love the front row balcony in there too!)

      I’m gonna write about our Strand Theatre next…..😉

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