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Now 25 years old, the Barrymore Theatre took the hard road to becoming a neighborhood treasure
From porn house to our house
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Credit:Brent Nicastro

In light of the troubles at the Orpheum Theatre, there could be no better time to trumpet the longevity of another local show palace, the Barrymore Theatre, which will quietly observe its 25th anniversary this summer.

The Barrymore is the one theater in town that achieved that elusive combination of entertainment venue and neighborhood center that arts administrators rhapsodize about. During its reign on Atwood Avenue, it has forged a bond with its community that any cultural center would envy. It has played host to over 2,000 concerts, dance recitals, film festivals, political rallies, boxing matches, children's shows, national broadcasts, and benefits for causes ranging from hurricane aid to Miracle the white buffalo.

It has been host to both the Vagina Monologues and Puppetry of the Penis. It's where a blasted Hunter S. Thompson mumbled a rant at a hooting audience. It's where blues giant Luther Allison performed a tearful "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on the day he learned he had brain cancer. It's where Garbage played its first Madison gig. It's where Iris DeMent announced she would not be performing due to the launch of the Iraq War. It's where Green Day's Billie Joe climbed a bank of amps to mock-piss on the audience with his water bottle. It's where Dylan practiced.

The theater has also weathered tempests big and small, from the moshing menace of 1995 to the no-carry-ins civil rights crisis of 2003. When men were kept from attending the Lesbian Variety Show, the Barrymore was denounced by Rush Limbaugh. And he didn't even know about the juggling nude unicyclist.

My own connections to the place run deep. Not only have I been designing the theater's advertising for the last two decades, but I got my first job there when it was called the Cinema Theater. I was a pimply 16-year-old during the summer of 1978, when a few madhouse kiddie matinees could still breathe life into the old barn. The building's past fascinated me.

Originally built as the Eastwood, it was the city's only homegrown theater, a five-year project backed by scores of east-side businessmen. With a small stage for road shows, the auditorium charmed audiences with Spanish courtyard balconies along both walls beneath twinkling stars and drifting clouds. The first theater in the state built specifically for talkies, it had everything going for it but timing - it opened two months after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Within weeks the theater was bankrupt and fell into the hands of its builder, who leased the building to various impresarios over the decades.

Still, it fulfilled its community mission by providing a stage for local groups and touring troupes. In 1948 the theater even became the three-year home of Trinity Lutheran while their First Street church was being renovated, hosting Sunday services and Christmas masses, all the while serving up double features during the week.

In 1967 the Eastwood was snatched up by a Milwaukee theater chain that already owned nearly every screen in town. In a quest for modernity, 20th Century Theaters mercilessly stripped the Eastwood's auditorium of its tiled porticos, sealed off the mighty tower, put up mod fixtures and renamed it the Cinema. They booked films that traveled the arthouse circuit, like The Graduate or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the theater gradually reverted to what had always sustained it - a potluck of kiddie features, B-movies and second-run films.

By the time I was sweeping up the popcorn there, the Eastwood bypass had been completed, and sprawling malls had opened on the edges of town. The street became lined with empty shops, weedy lots and seedy bars. And there was an uptick in crime.

I'd been warned that some X-rated films might be booked to buck up the box office, and to my teenage heart's delight there arrived Seven Into Snowy. Our manager was giddy over its debut: "I bet we outgrossed every theater in town!" A coworker thought grossed-out was more accurate.

A few years after I'd left their employ the Cinema turned exclusively to porn, feeding off the shrinking pool of people who still didn't own a VCR. Ultimately, it was the X-rated titles on the marquee that hung heaviest over the neighborhood. They also provoked the theater's rescue.

By the time Richard "Sich" Slone landed in Madison, he had already majored in business and psychology in Peoria, opened a restaurant in Champaign, and helped run a collective farm in Kentucky. Years later he found himself in the refrigeration repair business, maintaining freezers for grocery co-ops. At the Langdon Area Grocery Cooperative he befriended manager Tom Petersen, a like-minded soul with a background in theater.

Strolling Atwood Avenue one day, Slone and Petersen stopped beneath the marquee of the all-porn Cinema. "We thought, wouldn't it be nice if someone could do something positive with the place," says Slone.

They could screen arthouse films, stage live productions, perhaps act as a neighborhood center. "I think it could be the cornerstone for an entire revitalization of the Atwood-Schenks Corners area," Slone dreamed aloud. After learning the theater could be had for $150,000, he began the humbling task of rounding up the necessary capital.

Slone began with family and friends, and then began visiting area businesses. He found an encouraging number of backers, including Trinity Lutheran, which gave $3,000. A key supporter was Madison Kipp Corporation CEO Reed Coleman, who gave $100,000. Not only did Coleman host investor meetings at Kipp, but he would whip out his checkbook to cover such hefty expenses as resurfacing the theater's parking lot. Slated to open during the summer of 1987, the theater would be called the Barrymore, after a film society head suggested trading on the famous acting family's prestige.

Postponing the opening a month, construction crews hurried to finish what had turned into an immense renovation of a 58-year-old building. Born on the 10th of July, the theater displayed the eclecticism that would become its hallmark. The grand opening featured a puppet show, a John Cassavetes film and music by Womonsong and the Tony Brown Band. The Barrymore was aloft.

But the theater began to lose money rapidly. While the occasional live events could do well, the Barrymore struggled as an arthouse cinema, losing $4,000 a month. "We're the only independent theater in town, and now I know why," Slone said then.

So the artsy foreign films were dropped and the Barrymore became a $2 budget cinema, showing mainstream fare with some success. But expenses still mounted. "If we could break even, I'd be ecstatic," said Slone.

In 1988, the theater turned to drink. It wrangled a liquor license from the Alcohol License Review Committee that permitted selling beer and wine, but not during or before movies and only before and during intermissions of live performances, with no liquor allowed in the auditorium. These rules underwent a gradual loosening.

But despite the movie house's rough start, as a concert venue it began to bloom. Slone booked a panoply of musical acts, from Sanfoka African Drum and Dance to the Bulgarian Women's Choir, and the variety paid off. The Barrymore's 800-seat capacity was just the right size between a large club and the downtown Civic Center, making the house attractive to a new breed of promoters. Formerly of Cleveland, Tag Evers began booking '60s favorites like Richie Havens and the original Jefferson Airplane there. Milwaukeean Peter Jest delivered perennial folkies like Leo Kottke and Arlo Guthrie, and former O'Cayz booker Tom Layton brought cutting-edge acts like the Pixies and Digital Underground.

More importantly, the neighborhood itself was on the rebound. Spawning businesses that catered to the before- and after-show needs of theater patrons, the Barrymore landed a hip tenant for one of its storefronts when Pasqual's opened in 1989. The next year Monty's Blue Plate opened across the street, with the Harmony Bar and Wonder's Pub emerging as alternatives to the biker bars. The entire area was on the rise, changing from retired homeowners to a new generation claiming their piece of the boho east side. People began buying bargain properties and fixing them up.

But as the neighborhood thrived, the Barrymore's finances worsened. Slone wrestled with a crushing debt that threatened to claim his house. In addition, Slone and Petersen had a falling out. After becoming a father, Petersen wasn't interested in attending to the dozens of tasks of co-manager, and walked away. By 1990 the money troubles had become so continuous that one scenester joked that the theater should be renamed "the Borrow-more." A drive-by "Give a Buck" campaign was launched for two days in December, and it was successful enough to cause a traffic jam and for the theater to fight another day. Stability still beckoned.

Recognizing the Barrymore's pivotal role in the revival of the area, the Schenk Atwood Revitalization Association stepped in to buy the theater in 1992. The opportunity to secure control of the area's new economic magnet was not to be missed. SARA's nonprofit status made the theater eligible for grants and tax credits, and its ownership ensured that the enterprise would continue to be run in the best interests of the neighborhood.

The newly formed board crafted a new business plan, and consulted with Madison Civic Center director Bob D'Angelo for a dollar a year. They would no longer screen first-run films, nor would they bid against promoters for shows, but instead would become strictly the landlord, renting the house and letting the promoters take the risks. The theater would also have a new general manager, former cab driver and freelance journalist Sherri Wilder. Having recently become a mom, Wilder still relished the opportunity to run the ship, even if that meant changing diapers as an ascendant Phish wowed a packed house.

For the first time, the theater was in the black. The Barrymore was riding the alternative music wave with acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and They Might Be Giants. Despite declaring it "the greatest job ever," Wilder knew she was burning out, and after being charmed by a visit to New Orleans, she moved her family there in 1996. She already had her successor in mind.

When first told he should be the Barrymore's next general manager, Steve Sperling said "absolutely not."

Sperling was running Briarpatch, the nonprofit shelter for runaways in Madison, when he read Slone's first appeal for backers in the paper. Becoming intrigued after repeatedly passing the theater on his way to work, Sperling put up $5,000 and kept an eye on the enterprise, not so much for the sake of his investment as for the possibilities it offered. Sperling was always "a music guy," an attendee of Woodstock and over 250 Grateful Dead shows. After SARA's purchase wiped out his investment, he landed a seat on the Barrymore board. Confident in his ability to run any business, Sperling finally consented to steer the Barrymore after enough people told him he was the guy.

One of those people was consultant D'Angelo, whose early wisdom helped the theater tremendously. "The Barrymore probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Bob D'Angelo," says Sperling.

His invaluable advice? "Make sure everything you do is aboveboard and legal," says Sperling. That means making sure the promoters pay sales taxes and song publishers, insure their shows, and hire licensed security for every performance. That practice has served the Barrymore well - so well, in fact, that the theater is now a "for-profit business run as a nonprofit," says Sperling.

How's the Barrymore doing? "We're doing okay, but not great," says Sperling, bemoaning the glut of new venues in town.

The challenges in such a business are constant and unpredictable. "In 2010 we lost a ton of money," he says, chalking it up to the economy and new competition from Overture's Capitol Theater. "In 2011 we bounced back."

Always diversifying its calendar, the theater has lately had success with comedians like Gabriel Iglesias and Demitri Martin. Jam bands and roots music continue to draw crowds there, but throbbing electronic DJ acts like the recently featured Excision may have to look elsewhere.

"They rattled every window in the neighborhood!" says Sperling, who needs no reminding who the theater's really working for.

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