The Orpheum Theatre – Madison, Wisconsin – a Rapp and Rapp Movie Palace

Photo via the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

The Orpheum Theatre (I spell it that way because Rapp and Rapp did) in Madison, Wisconsin was designed and built over the course of 1926-1927. It officially opened to the public on March 31, 1927 with a Vaudeville show.  George Rapp and his brother Cornelius Rapp designed the Orpheum in the French Renaissance style for vaudeville shows and movies with their design philosophy in mind:

“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.” – Printed design philosophy guiding Rapp and Rapp Architects.

Photo via the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

The Orpheum was, and still is, across the street from another Rapp and Rapp-designed theater in Madison, the Capitol Theatre.  Both theatres are still in business and we’re lucky enough to visit them both often. While the Capitol Theatre has been beautifully restored and is a part of our Overture Center For the Arts, across the street the Orpheum is on a journey, of sorts, to improvement. It keeps getting better every year and provides Madison with a wonderful venue for concerts, movies and public events.




1927 photo by Angus McVicar

“Everyone should see and appreciate this magnificient palace of amusement.” – Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman of Madison, circa 1927.


The Orpheum opened on March 31, 1927 and cost close to $750,000 to build. It seated 2,400 people and was the first building in Wisconsin to have air conditioning.

A recent photo from 2019. Photorgapher unknown.

Over the years the Orpheum saw prosperity and downfalls….and prosperity again. In the course of just a couple of months in late 2004 and early 2005, there were two arson attempts, and one more years later. In 2012, the Orpheum got new management who had the will to purchase the theatre and rehab it.  In 2013, the Paras family acquired the building in a foreclosure sale and continues to work on the front facade, marquee, ticket booth, roof, interior ceiling and sidewalls, bathrooms, etc., They’ve also upgraded the heating and cooling systems. It’s nice to be able to walk in there today, and enjoy a show knowing you’re in a space that is so much like it was when it was built in 1927. I am especially thrilled to be in yet another Rapp and Rapp movie palace when I’m there!

The sign has always been an iconic site on State Street. It was changed at least twice over the years, once to remove the word “new” from the top when they replaced it with “RKO” and again in the 1960s when they “dumbed down” the sign. I’m not even gonna bother with a picture of that, yuk. But, in 2015, the owners won approval from the Madison Landmarks Commission (an exhausting feat on its own) to do an historic replication of the old sign. They spent $200,000 to return the sign to its original 1926 Rapp and Rapp design, complete with “new” on top and the racing lights. For a Rapp and Rapp architects fan and a classic movie geek like me, it’s a welcome site that I get to see, in a normal time, just about every day and I can’t tell you how wonderful that is. The Capitol Theatre sign, from the Rapp and Rapp theater across the street, is in storage at the State HIstorical Society, so the Orpheum’s sign is especially important.

Here’s some memories from the early years of the theatre (all photos are from the Wisconsin State Historical Society, except the last one, that one’s mine :):

The stage, set up for an orchestra in 1937. Photo by Angus McVicar.
Orpheum seating, 1942. Photo by George Stein.
1937 photo of the marquee advertising the movie Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Colman. Photo by Elwin Waste.
Orpheum lobby posters, 1945. Photo by Angus McVicar.
Picture of the lobby, 1927. Photo by Angus McVicar.
The projection room at the Orpheum, 1927. Photo by Angus McVicar.
Theatre seating from the stage, 1941. Photo by Elwin Waste.
Lobby posters, June, 1945. Photo by Angus McVicar.
The Bride Wore Red display at Woldenburg’s, an ad for the Orpheum’s showing of the movie in 1937. Joan Crawford’s dress from the movie can be seen in the back. Photo by Elwin Waste.
Stage set up for movies, circa 1954, Photo by Angus McVicar

While movies aren’t the mainstay of the theatre anymore, they do still show them in addition to providing us a wonderful venue for concerts and public events. If you’re ever in Madison, I recommend a visit to The Orpheum and the Capitol Theatres on State St. for a touch of Rapp and Rapp movie palace design.

photo by Sarah Owens

The Isthmus – Madison’s Lost Theaters, January 12, 2017
Cinema Treasures
Wisconsin State Historical Society

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