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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Daily
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Orpheum Theatre on the brink: Code violations, legal dispute plague historic venue
The Orpheum was within an hour or two of being shut down.
The Orpheum was within an hour or two of being shut down.
Credit:Dave Hoeffler

The city's fire marshal was ready to close the doors on the Orpheum Theatre last month, because its owner had made no progress on fixing several fire code violations the city issued in May.

"We were within probably an hour or two" of shutting the theater down, says Madison fire marshal Ed Ruckriegel. "And that's unprecedented. We've always gotten compliance. And I've been an inspector since 1994."

As it is, the theater is barely operating. Its two owners - Eric Fleming and Henry Doane, who bought the building a decade ago - have been duking it out in the courts over the property for years. And last week, the city's Alcohol License Review Committee recommended that the Common Council deny Fleming, who now operates the theater with his girlfriend, Olesva Kuzmenko, a new liquor license.

Which leaves little hope that the historic theater, which not long ago regularly hosted concerts, screened movies and ran a vibrant restaurant, will be up and running again soon.

Jennifer Zilavy, assistant city attorney, recommends against granting a liquor license because of uncertainty over who controls the property and how Fleming has operated over the past year.

"He sold alcohol illegally for a year," she says of Fleming. "I don't know how you give a license to somebody under those terms."

Zilavy says she has a thick file to review to decide whether to pursue charges or fines against Fleming. Fleming could not be reached for comment.

Ruckriegel says the fire code violations, first issued on May 8, involve expanding the fire sprinkler system to cover the stage - something needed since renovations done on the theater last year - as well as problems with blocked exits.

"We wrote the notice of violation in May and nothing happened for a long time, even though we tried to make contact," he says. That changed at the end of June, as a hearing for the theater's liquor license approached.

There are still outstanding issues with the sprinkler system, but Fleming is waiting for a contractor to do the work, Ruckriegel says. "Our life-safety concerns no longer really exist."

Although events can still occur at the theater, it's unlikely without a liquor license. Weddings that have been scheduled will require an outside caterer with a legitimate license in order to serve booze - and it can't be a cash bar.

Mark Woulf, Madison's alcohol policy coordinator, says that while the Orpheum is a city treasure, it needs to be in good hands. "By issuing a liquor license [to Fleming], we could be preventing that from happening."

Sign of the times

Just about every historic photograph and painting of State Street features the iconic Orpheum Theatre sign. Unfortunately, the sign today is rusted, filthy and always dark.

"It's not in danger of falling down," says Jason Tish, of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. "But the upright part has no lights on it anymore. There are water problems…. It's got maintenance issues. That vertical element could be restored to its 1920s glory."

The Chicago architecture firm Rapp and Rapp, which built theaters all over the country, designed the Orpheum and its sign in the mid-1920s, Tish says. The theater was named a landmark in 1998.

Tish looked into trying to spruce up the sign. The city has access to federal funding that could pay for some of this. Unfortunately, the money is about to run out.

Green Madison has a program, using federal stimulus funds, to help residents and businesses make energy-efficiency improvements. The assistance can come in the form of grants, low-interest loans and incentives. The Orpheum would qualify for a new low-energy LED lighting system, says Matt Wachter, who oversees Green Madison. The city also has funds to improve faades.

"Right now, I don't think the sign functions much at all," Wachter says.

Some money for the program runs out next month, while the rest expires next year. So while other homes and businesses might still be able to take advantage of it, the Orpheum probably won't because of the ownership dispute. "The first thing to do in applying for the program is we have to make sure ownership is established," says Wachter.

Tish says that's a shame. "It's the main element of the Orpheum Theatre. If you never go inside, you've seen the sign," he says. "It's looking kind of shabby. To restore that as the main characteristic would bring back some of the 1920 characteristics of the building."

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