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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The once and future Orpheum Theatre
Madison's glorious theater is a wreck, but it's poised to rise again
Upper State Street was a theater district of sorts in 1936.
Credit:Wisconsin Historical Society

On the afternoon of March 31, 1927, while bands played under bunting outside, Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman walked onto the grandest stage the capital city had ever seen.

"The new Orpheum Theatre is a conspicuous addition to Madison's civic assets. Everyone should see and appreciate this magnificent palace of amusement," he announced, officially opening the venue.

That night he returned to give the speech again. It was that important.

The city indeed enjoyed State Street's palace of amusement for generations, until it closed in June of this year. As the owners squabbled, the Madison Common Council unanimously voted to deny the theater a new liquor license. This effectively shuttered the business, which had come to depend on rentals and weddings.

As Isthmus reported Oct. 18, there's new hope for the venue. A foreclosure action by Monona State Bank has paved the way for temporary management by Madison's Frank Productions, one of the country's largest independent concert promoters.

"I actually considered it a blessing when the court ordered that a receiver have control of the property," says Ald. Mike Verveer, who sits on the city's Alcohol License Review Committee and represents the district that includes the theater. "I think it's a necessary first step to get the Orpheum's lights back on."

Besides debt to its other creditors, the theater owes the bank more than $1.1 million and interest of about $200 a day. The 19,469-square-foot property is assessed at only $958,700.

Frank Productions successfully negotiated with the receiver to take over management of the building. While ownership is still up in the air, this change paves the way for the Orpheum to reopen as soon as Frank Productions receives a liquor license for the building. This could happen before the end of the year, as Verveer expects the ALRC to take up the matter Nov. 21. As of press time, True Endeavors, a division of Frank Productions, has announced three February concerts at the Orpheum.

The Orpheum appeared to have finally found a successful business model last December. After trying movies and adding a restaurant, then closing the restaurant, halting movies and restoring the backstage space, it was poised to be a profitable concert venue and rental space with catering services.

Then, in June, everything came undone. Restaurateur Henry Doane's ongoing feud with the building's other owner, Eric Fleming, turned public and ugly.

Fleming stripped Doane of his management duties when foreclosure threatened in 2011. The city couldn't tell who owned the theater or who was running it. The ALRC also noted that there were multiple fire-code violations - especially alarming for a building that suffered three mysterious cases of arson in 2005. Insiders think they know who did it but decline to go on the record.

"The fire department was extremely concerned, and the [city] attorney's office filed a complaint," says Verveer. "The fire department was on the verge of declaring the building 'no occupancy' because of fire-code violations."

What followed this past June and July was an epic tale of competing Orpheum corporations, threatened corporate dissolution by the state, and a string of lawsuits and countersuits. The theater was auctioned off during another foreclosure action in Waukesha County. But then it turned out that it wasn't really auctioned off, because there was no clear title. Waukesha County has reopened the case, but the current foreclosure action is in Dane County.

"It's pretty complicated," admits Doane. In short: Only the courts can figure it all out.

In its 85-year history, the Orpheum has seen more drama offstage than on. The story's not over by a long shot, either. The current foreclosure proceedings will almost certainly bring another sheriff's auction within six months. Frank Productions says it will bid on the theater, but Madison may still lose this historic venue to new owners who might want to redevelop the property. The Orpheum has seen several such battles before.

But Doane is confident that the theater will surmount this challenge. "I think that the Orpheum will survive this," he says. "I mean, it's had a tumultuous history, even at the beginning."

Many Orpheums

The Orpheum was declared a city landmark in 1998. In 2008 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. But in many ways our Orpheum is not rare. Los Angeles has its own Orpheum. So does Minneapolis. So do Boston, San Francisco, Memphis, Flagstaff and countless other communities. It's not because "Orpheum" was once a popular name; it's because it was a powerful name.

To understand why, we must realize that the Orpheum was never intended to be only a movie palace. The era of entertainment in which it was born belonged not to Hollywood but a peculiar, uniquely American format termed "variety" or "vaudeville."

Nowadays it's difficult to understand just what vaudeville was, or why it was once so important. One reason is that it became so pervasive in other media. You could conceivably stretch its definition to cover programs such as Saturday Night Live. Ed Sullivan's TV show certainly came close to re-creating it.

When vaudeville began in the early 1880s, it was the only mass pop-entertainment medium other than comic strips. It was essentially a circus on a stage, with multiple short acts of every kind: dancers, strongmen, jugglers, comics, plate-spinners, puppets, animal acts, hypnotists, politicians delivering speeches, and women in flesh-colored tights posing as "living statues."

And it never stopped. Like all the best vaudeville theaters, our Orpheum was a "continuous house." The bill of acts repeated over and over, day and night. You could enter or depart at any time and get the full show. That's where we get the saying "This is where I came in."

Acts traveled theater chains, or "circuits." The second-largest circuit was Keith-Albee-Orpheum. That's why we have so many Orpheums today; they're remainders of the circuit. In 1928 the chain combined with the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, to expand into new business areas, becoming Radio-Keith-Orpheum. You may know it by its Hollywood initials: RKO.

Officially, the Orpheum at 216 State St. is named the New Orpheum Theatre. Madison's original Orpheum stood at what's now 113 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The original Orpheum opened in 1908, and, when the New Orpheum appeared, it was renamed the Garrick Theater. It became the Madison Theater in 1936 and was eventually demolished.

Upper State Street was already a theater district of sorts - more along the lines of the early, humble storefront nickelodeons, not entertainment palaces. Adjacent to the New Orpheum's site stood the Grand Theater. Across the street, near where the Capitol Theater debuted in 1928, stood the Varsity Theater.

The New Orpheum was much grander than anything Madison had seen before, a sort of proto-Overture Center. Locals knew it would attract business to downtown and drive additional development. The president of the Orpheum circuit, Marcus Heimen, took a personal interest in the theater. A former Madison resident, he got his start at the Fuller Opera House just off Capitol Square.

Some neighbors fought the Orpheum's arrival. The theater's slender State Street face replaced just one house, but its vast auditorium filled much of West Johnson Street. Members of Holy Redeemer Parish, whose church and parochial school would overlook audience exits and the dressing-room windows of "show people," launched a petition drive to halt development. The theater's primary promoter, Stanley Hanks, choked off protest by pointing out, "The same parties that [oppose] the theater, a year ago negotiated with me for this property."

Forty-four Midwestern firms and two million pounds of structural steel came together to create the Orpheum, at a staggering cost of $1 million. Adjusted for inflation, this would be more than $13.5 million today. The venue was designed by the prestigious Chicago theater architects Cornelius and George Rapp, who later helped design New York's Radio City Music Hall and Madison's Capitol Theater.

From Mickey Mouse to Bette Davis

On opening day, all State Street businesses staged open houses and stayed open late, even barbers. "Windows will be decorated with special displays, and flags and streamers bedeck the street for the occasion," reported the Wisconsin State Journal. Bands from Central and East high schools presented street concerts day and night. A double line of theatergoers rolled down State Street and wrapped around West Johnson Street, halfway up to Carroll Street. Parking was not allowed on the top two blocks of State.

About 7,000 people attended the first day. The bill included Gibson's Navigators, a Navy-themed girl band; Lang and Haley, who presented a comic household sketch; and Will Higgie and His Girls. Higgie, creator of the Charleston, was excited to unveil his latest dance, the "Higgiejig." The Capital Times reported that it had already "taken Chicago by storm and it is now sweeping the nation."

There was also singing of the national anthem, presentation of a newsreel and a screening of the silent movie Nobody's Widow, which the program described as a "photoplay." Orpheum organist R. Morton Floodas, who had been lured from Chicago's Diversey Theatre, provided accompaniment. The entire orchestra from Madison's "old" Orpheum became the new house band.

The outer lobby featured a freestanding ticket booth. Present-day fans of the Orpheum might be shocked to learn that the theater's opening-day palette was black, gold and red, not the cream and gold of the lobby décor. Some of the original carpeting can still be seen on the mezzanine level, where European oil paintings once hung. Fontainebleau and the Palace of Versailles were the architects' reported inspiration. Trim was lacquered ivory. Hallways were paneled with walnut veneer.

Downstairs, in the women's "cosmetique salon," drapes were orange and gold. There were dressing tables, "and all the comforts and accessories of their boudoirs," according to the opening-day program, which also noted that "a maid is in constant attendance."

Over it all stood a massive vertical sign that cost $18,000. More than 63 feet tall and 10 feet wide, it spelled out "ORPHEUM" over and over, all night long. It has since been stripped of its animated lights.

Madison being Madison, the Wisconsin State Journal sniffed that the sign was "incongruous and out of place, towering above the three- and four-story buildings which line the street."

And so things went relatively well for decades. Vaudeville died in the early 1930s, but the Great Depression brought audiences hungry for escapist movies and perhaps eager to enjoy the air conditioning, which was supposedly the first in the state.

Then there were the promotions and special events, including an exhibition of "the world's largest tire." Crowds gathered by a truck with a calliope. Mickey Mouse appeared "in person" with an 1898 Oldsmobile. To bring in dads, there was fan dancer Rosita Carmen. On Poultry Night, lucky patrons received ducks, turkeys and baskets of groceries. The comedy team of Olsen and Johnson milked cows out front.

The theater never completely gave up live performance. Bob Hope played there in the early days, as did George Burns and Gracie Allen. Later came Charles Laughton, Mort Sahl, Rod Steiger, José Greco, Benny Goodman, the Smothers Brothers, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Cash, Dick Clark, Pete Seeger, Frankie Avalon, Ray Charles and Bette Davis.

The rise of the suburbs soon challenged both the Orpheum and its neighbor, the Capitol Theater. But that was still far off in 1959, when one of the its most important milestones occurred: 17-year-old Gerald "Jerry" Fladen was hired as an usher.

Orpheum Health Club?

Fladen was an exuberant theater and film buff, beloved by Madison moviegoers. Before his death in 1996, he was instrumental in saving both the Majestic Theatre and the Orpheum.

A year after he was hired, Fladen became assistant manager of the Majestic. Later he rose to also manage the Hilldale Theater and Big Sky drive-in, which had been combined to form Madison 20th Century Theaters (no connection to the Fox movie studio).

"He was the sort of person who I never once in my life saw get mad, which is pretty amazing," recalls Tim Romano, a union film projectionist who started working for Fladen in 1978. "The Orpheum - all those theaters - were his passion."

The Orpheum received $250,000 worth of remodeling in 1969. Many of the new fixtures were decidedly groovy, but that was their purpose, to provide a facelift. Fladen saved many of the original fixtures and other décor elements, plus memorabilia dating back to the silent-film days. He squirreled his treasures all over the theater's crannies, allowing Doane to later find and reinstate them.

As part of the remodeling, the island box office was removed, as were the bronze doors separating the inner and outer lobbies. A fancy new concession area was installed. It served cake.

Seating in the auditorium was replaced, and audience capacity was lowered from 2,500 to 1,834, allowing for roomier aisles. The backstage area was walled off to create a separate 340-seat theater, the Stage Door.

The Orpheum fought its way into the 1970s, when long lines waited for the premiere of Star Wars and the first movie installment of Star Trek. But then audiences drifted to suburban multiplex cinemas. In 1985, 20th Century started looking for new owners and other uses. While demolition was out of the question, wild remodeling was not. Ideas such as a mini-mall and a trade-show exhibition space were floated.

Another concept involved turning the building into a $6 million health club, of all things. The lobby and auditorium ceiling were to be retained, but the rest would go to make room for a pool, running track, and racquetball and handball courts. One prescient notion was to include a restaurant and bar.

The deal was pretty far along when Fladen stepped in and scotched it. He told city commissions that he could "very easily" add three more screens to make the theater profitable enough to please 20th Century, which was not thrilled by its manager's public interference in private negotiations. The proposal stalled.

In 1987, there was talk of the Madison Art Center (today the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art) using the Orpheum as exhibition and office space. In 1995, there was looser talk of having the Madison Symphony Orchestra move in. But the idea that really caught on was making the venue into an IMAX theater. The Madison Idea Foundation raised $1.5 million for the effort. But the proposed conversion was so radical that the space would have seated only 250 people. A fierce public debate ensued.

One of those who opposed the IMAX proposal was Henry Doane. The press grew excited. Would he? More importantly, could he?

In December 1998, his purchase offer was accepted. The media praised Doane as a white knight who arrived just as time had run out.

In summer 2012, time ran out again.

Saving the theater

Doane had such high hopes. "My main goal was saving the theater from some terrible fate that was almost guaranteed," he recalls. He retained most of its staff, wisely including Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray, a savvy successor to the late Fladen. She now manages Sundance Cinemas Madison.

When Doane talks about the theater these days, he sounds tired. He's busy managing his restaurants, the Tornado Room and Tempest Oyster Bar, and he still owns half of the Orpheum. After the mortgage and any liens are settled, he might earn something for his time and trouble.

Who owns the other half of the theater is a bit more nebulous. It appears that 99% of this share belongs to Olesya Kuzmenko. A native of Daugavpils, a city in Latvia, she resides in Sun Prairie, where she apparently oversees her myriad business interests. She is the state-registered agent and majority owner of several real estate concerns, including 428 N. Livingston LLC, Rainmaker Development LLC, State Street Properties I LLC and State Street Properties II LLC.

At first glance, Kuzmenko doesn't appear to have a background in business or theater management. Her Facebook page reveals that her favorite hobbies include cooking, fashion, going to Madison's Au Fait hair salon, watching Nip/Tuck and "eating sweets." One of her favorite movies is Titanic, an unfortunately appropriate choice for a half-owner of the Orpheum.

Kuzmenko does have one tremendous asset: 99% of her half-share was until recently owned by Eric Fleming, whom Verveer and others have named as her boyfriend. According to court documents, most of her other business interests belonged to Fleming at one point. The documents also indicate that creditors are trying to find Fleming's money and property.

The Capital Times came right out and said it: "One might see Fleming's sale of the properties to Kuzmenko as a bald attempt to shelter his assets."

Court records show that Kuzmenko and Fleming share an address but not law firms. Trouble in paradise? It's hard to say.

"Neither Mr. Fleming nor I have any comment at this time as to any of the pending litigation matters," says Rhyan Lindley, Fleming's attorney. "Mr. Fleming may be able to add information as to improvements that have been made to the Orpheum in recent years, but he is out of town at this time."

Kuzmenko's attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Lights out

"It's been a real tragedy, what's happened to a landmark institution in our community," says Verveer. "On a personal level, I can speak to how much I've missed the Orpheum, but more generally, I know I speak for thousands that have missed being able to take advantage of all the Orpheum has to offer."

"If there were an opportunity to go back...I would," says Doane, hesitating. "Obviously I would, you know, prefer to have a better partnership."

The foreclosure offers hope. Meanwhile, the Orpheum is crumbling - literally.

"It needs help," says Romano, the projectionist. "It's needed help ever since I've been with it. I was just in there this last spring, and I was astounded at how much plaster was falling off the ceiling. I thought, 'I wouldn't want to sit there watching a movie with all of that plaster.' A chunk of that hits you on the head, and it's lights out."

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