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

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

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?

Sources:

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

The Majestic Theater – Dubuque, Iowa – Rapp and Rapp Architects

Early Majestic postcard, date unknown

The Majestic Theater opened at the corner of Fourth and Main Streets in Dubuque, Iowa on November 16,1910. It  was designed by Rapp & Rapp Architects of Chicago, Illinois to be a replica of the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The theater was built of concrete and brick, had 1400 seats and cost over $100,000 to build.

1900’s postcard of the Majestic at 4th and Main in Dubuque

Over the years C.W. Rapp, with his brother George designed over 400  “movie palaces” across the country – many of them a lot more famous than this one, but, because this was Rapp & Rapp’s first theater design as an architectural firm, I’m starting here. I will get to the Chicago Theater, the Paramount theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Loews in New Jersey, etc., etc.  eventually because I am obsessed with documenting Rapp and Rapp theaters (that obsession started more than a decade ago after I toured another Rapp and Rapp theater, the then debilitated Al Ringling Theater in Baraboo, Wisconsin). The Ringling is the theater that made me fall in love with these opulent spaces. Like the Majestic in Dubuque, I’m happy to report that it too has also been restored in recent years.

Majestic Theater, Dubuque, Iowa, circa early 1930s.

Ethel Barrymore and Eddie Cantor appeared on opening night to promote the theater. 14,000 people (1/3 of Dubuque’s population at the time) attended Majestic events the first week of its opening.  After many successful years, the Majestic fell into disrepair during the 1960s. In 1969 it was slated for demolition. A grass-roots movement of Dubuque residents came to its rescue and the building was saved and restored in 1972. I could hug them all.

Five Flags Center, Dubuque, Iowa. Photo via the Five Flags Center.

Today, the Majestic is known as the  Five Flags Center. While it’s no longer a movie theater, it is the center of culture in Dubuque with a busy schedule of Broadway plays, concerts and local performances. I like to think the Rapp brothers would be proud.

This is my first post about a  Rapp and Rapp Theater and I have so much more to write about them. I am thrilled I finally have a place to document their contributions to the world of classic movies that I love so much.

George Rapp himself stated the firm’s design philosophy: ‘

”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.'”

I believe he accomplished it all.

The former Majestic Theater of Dubuque. Known as the Five Flags Center today.

SOURCES:

Five Flags Center
Rapp & Rapp Architects by Charles Ward Rapp
Encyclopedia of Dubuque

 

For the Love of the Drive-In Theater – A Brief Photo Essay

Massachusetts, circa 1950s

I can’t help but think this would be a good idea right now.

As I write this, we’re in the the middle of social distancing, with its “six-foot rule” for essentials, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s forcing us to think about how we do everything…even how we watch movies. Yes, we can stream right now, thank God, and studios are opening movies on streaming services, but wouldn’t the drive-in be a great fill-in for all those closed theaters right now?

Six-foot social distancing: check. Self-isolation in the car: check. Food delivery to you in the car: check.

Just a thought…

I used to love going to drive-in theaters when I was a child. It usually meant two movies, staying up past my bedtime, pajamas in the car, lots of hot dogs, popcorn and candy we’d never get anywhere else. (I look back at that part now and think, “geez, my parents hated us!”) It was fun for a little girl like me! In my hometown, they tore the last drive-in down and built a trailer park in its place decades ago while I was still a child who loved going to the movies there. It devastated me. After I grew up and moved away, I found a few drive-ins here and there, but for the most part they had disappeared.

Even though there’s a few still open, I wish they’d make a come back.

Dixie Drive-In Theater on 14601 S. Dixie Highway, Miami. source: Miami Herald
From the Everett Collection on Shutterstock. Location unknown.

By all means, I’d want these pole speakers you sit in your window, NOT the radio-tuned to the right station. Sheesh! (Remember, nostalgia rules in this brain.)

Drive-in in Chicago, circa 1951, showing the cartoon, Spring Fever.
Westbury fly-in drive in in New York, circa 1954

A Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum movie seems like the perfect thing to see at the drive-in,…

Sundown Drive In of Whittier, California on opening night in 1954.

…so does a Robert Taylor movie.

Scarboro Drive in, Scarborough, California
84th and O Drive In, Lincoln, Nebraska, circa 1950s.

I wonder how it got that name.

Big Sky Drive In, Dane County, Wisconsin 1974. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.
Source and place unknown.
Star Drive In, Montrose, Colorado. Date unknown.
Sky-Vu Drive-In, Monroe, Wisconsin. This is the last drive-in I went to back in 2005-ish, and we had a long drive to get to it.  The movie was Van Helsing with Hugh Jackman. The Sky-Vu is still open.

What’s the last movie you saw at the drive-in?

I’d like to think going to the “outdoor” as we called them, would meet the requirements of social distancing while still enjoying a movie on the big screen. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but it’s a nice thought.