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Historic Wisconsin Union Theater materials are unearthed
Treasure trove
The items date back to a 1937 exhibit.
The items date back to a 1937 exhibit.

Hidden treasure was recently discovered at the Wisconsin Union Theater: a massive collection of documents and conceptual artwork dating back to the venue's earliest stages.

"I think it's very important," says David Null, director of UW Archives. "It's really rare to have something like this, documenting the whole process."

Originally it was an exhibit created by University of Wisconsin-Madison students and the theater's architects in 1937, probably to drive fundraising. The theater opened in 1939. The exhibit was revived 10 years later and then locked away unseen for 63 years.

Many of the materials are unique. They include 20 letters from faculty and staff, 30 original pencil sketches, 45 photographs and 100 blueprints, all of them attached to 24 thick paperboard panels. The 60-by-40-inch panels were rediscovered in a wooden crate in a disused room, while the theater was cleared for ongoing renovation.

"We would take a panel out and bring it down to the theater offices where we could look at it," says Ralph Russo, the theater's director. "Every time we brought one down we just all sort of stared in amazement that this thing even existed, and no one even knew about it."

Of special interest are sketches and photos of a lost model showing designs that were set aside. The Streamline Moderne theater could have been oriented 180 degrees from its current configuration. Its terrace faade could have been metallic, perhaps copper, with a rounded top and a vertical, wedged center crest.

"It helped me understand the whole notion of what the intended outcome of the space was meant to be, and how they tried different things," says Russo.

The Wisconsin State Historical Society is stabilizing the materials, which include 10 suggested fabric swatches for furniture that was built exclusively for the theater. The exhibit is likely to someday live again - on the Internet.

The Bartell Theatre is doing somewhat better. It won't close due to lack of funds until July 2014.

That may sound dire, but the theater's previous financial projections required that it close by December, unless fundraising improved. It has - though there's a long way to go.

"Our individual donor program, the Friends of the Bartell, has more than doubled over 2010-2011," says managing director Sarah Hoover. "Its 34 members collectively gave over $18,000 this year."

The 2012 Bartell Theatre Awards, held July 14, netted the community venue another $2,000.

Says Hoover, "We are researching merchandise sales, unified ticketing and other great ideas that will build collaboration, communication and income."

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