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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Overcast
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The Majestic Theatre: New club, old building
The rehabbed venue on King Street comes with a lot of baggage
Can Gerding (left) and Leslie succeed where the old Club Majestic failed?
Credit:Timothy Hughes

Two guys in their 20s trying to make it in the music industry. A historic landmark trying to find a future for itself. A city trying to resolve crime problems surrounding an old nightclub. Competing venue owners and promoters trying to figure out how they'll fare with a new club on the block.

Previewing a new club like the Majestic Theatre, at 115 King St., is like pouring puzzle pieces from a box. It's easy to describe the parts, not so easy to describe how they'll look when the whole thing is finished.

The Majestic opens at the renovated facility on Saturday, Sept. 29, with a concert by Mandy Moore and Ben Lee. But it will take a while for the whole picture to come together, when the fate of the two guys, the landmark, the neighborhood and the competition is finally settled.

The Majestic has proven itself capable of enduring the test of time. Over the past 101 years, it has operated as a vaudeville theater, an arthouse cinema and, most recently, a hip-hop dance club. That iteration - Club Majestic - became strictly regulated by the city after a series of violent incidents along King Street that involved club patrons. Club Majestic ceased operation last year.

Will the Majestic Theatre succeed where Club Majestic failed? Here's a preview of the new club, piece by piece.

Owner #1

Matt Gerding is 29, tall, lanky and reserved. Gerding is originally from Kansas City, went to college at the University of Missouri and graduated with a degree in marketing. He moved to L.A. and spent a few years working at the Creative Artists talent agency. He met Majestic co-owner Scott Leslie through his brother in L.A.

"Scott and my brother were good friends," says Gerding. "I met him in the apartment of my brother's girlfriend. He was in a band, and I was booking shows through the agency, so we talked a lot about our different perspectives on venues and what it would be like to operate one."

Gerding's father is an accountant in Columbia, Missouri, and has played a key role in financing the new Majestic. He bought the building and is leasing it back to Leslie and his son.

"He fully expects us to make money on it," says Gerding. "We have a lease agreement, and the rent is not cheap."

Owner #2

Scott Leslie, 28, has spent the better part of the last decade pursuing the rock 'n' roll dream. He grew up in Chicago and started college at the University of Iowa. Then he dropped out to join a pop/rock outfit called the Push Stars. The band moved to L.A., where Leslie met Gerding and became his roommate.

"I met a girl while the Push Stars were on tour in the fall of 2004," recalls Leslie. "By May 2005 I had packed up my bags and moved to New York to be with her."

That didn't sit well with Gerding, his jilted roommate.

"Matt was mad that I left," says Leslie. "The next month he sent me an email that said, 'Luther's Blues just closed in Madison. Do you want to move there and buy it?'"

"My answer was one word," says Leslie. "Yes."

But the Luther's deal was not to be.

"After deciding that Luther's was not the right fit for us, we looked at options in a couple different cities," says Gerding. "But when we found out that the Majestic was on the market, we came full circle back to Madison."

Why was Madison on their radar?

"Choosing Madison had a lot to do with my experience booking Midwest club venues while working for Creative Artists," says Gerding. "We brought a good chunk of shows to Luther's, and when it went out of business I noticed a lack of venue options in this market.

"Scott is from Chicago, so he was very familiar with Madison. And we were both aware of what a great town this is."

The business model

Gerding and Leslie have some thoughts on what distinguishes their business model from those of other venues in town. "We're promoters that have our own space," says Gerding. "We can rely on ourselves."

"A promoter who owns a club can sometimes offer more to artists because you're getting the bar sales," adds Leslie.

Gerding and Leslie operate the Majestic using two separate business entities. The Majestic Theatre LLC is the venue. The Majestic Live is the production company that's responsible for booking the events.

Despite their business instincts, Gerding and Leslie try to downplay the competitive nature of their enterprise.

"We didn't come here to be competitive sharks," says Leslie. "Our capacity is only 600, compared to about 900 for the Barrymore and 1,800 for the Orpheum. So we think we're creating a niche for shows others might not book."

Plus, adds Gerding, they like the people they'll be competing against.

"We've met the people booking other venues like Cathy Dethmers [of the High Noon Saloon], and we know, like us, these people all got into this because they love music."

The historic restoration

"This project gave us the chance to give this place the real love that it needed," says Majestic architect Matthew Aro. "We brought back a lot of the classic theater elements."

Aro has presided over other recent King Street projects such as Cocoliquot and Restaurant Muramoto. He takes me on a walk-through of each room of the new Majestic, describing every detail of what was, what is and what shall be.

He starts outside, where he envisions the porcelain yellow panels that frame the front entrance eventually giving way to a chrome metal.

Inside is the most notable departure from the days of Club Majestic - the funky purple paint is long gone. Plush hues of velvet red now coat the walls and ceiling, punctuated by stately light fixtures that replicate historic chandeliers.

The flower-leaf medallion moldings framing the stage are being restored, and they're wired with lights that can illuminate the audience.

From the stage, Aro points upward to the unique angles that delineate walls from ceilings.

"There's no symmetry in this space," he says. "The volume is so wonderful."

Overlooking King Street, the Marquee Room will offer bar service in an intimate space that glows from the lights of, yes, the marquee.

"This building may be 100 years old," says Aro. "But it doesn't look a day over 75."

The alcohol problem

Gerding emphasizes that the era of $12 all-you-can-drink specials is over at the Majestic.

The demotion of alcohol is plain to see in the new floor plan. Gone is the balcony bar that crowned the space above the stage. Indeed, the balcony bar was the visual epicenter of Club Majestic. In the new Majestic, the main bar is gently set back from the stage and seats, tucked away along the eastern wall of the first floor. The symbolism of that change is enormous.

What's replaced the balcony bar? There's the office for Gerding and Leslie. There's artist dressing room number one and artist dressing room number two. The balcony visible above the stage is now a narrow catwalk.

"We picture band members coming out on this and waving to the audience," says Leslie.

The local effect

"We've been a little surprised at what a big deal this is to the city," Leslie tells me as we cross King Street to get a cup of coffee. "In a bigger city, opening a venue wouldn't be getting this kind of attention. But here, it gets a lot."

There's more than one spotlight on Gerding and Leslie. The city and the neighborhood association wait to see if the new Majestic can avoid the security problems of its predecessor.

And the entrenched core of local promoters and touring-band venues wait to see how the new club will affect their business.

Does Madison have enough live-music patrons to support a new influx of shows? If not, success at the Majestic may hurt other local venues or promotion companies.

"Matt and Scott believe there's a viable niche for bands too big for, say, High Noon and too small for the Barrymore," says local promoter Tag Evers of True Endeavors. "If they're right, and I hope they are, we should see more artists coming to town that previously would have bypassed the market. If they're wrong and there's not enough business that fits that particular niche, then their success would be at the expense of important local music institutions like High Noon and the Barrymore."

The schedule

So far, the schedule of the new Majestic is a little bit New Loft, a little bit Barrymore and a little bit Luther's Blues. The Journey Music's Tom Klein has already begun to work with Leslie and Gerding. He's booked two of the youth-oriented bands he would normally bring to the Loft, My American Heart on Nov. 20 and We the Living on November 9.

"I'm excited about the Majestic," says Klein. "What they're doing with that space is amazing, and it gives me the chance to bring shows here I otherwise wouldn't book."

Former Crystal Corner/Luther's Blues act Leon Russell is scheduled for Nov. 11, suggesting that the Majestic may absorb a share of the blues and roots bookings displaced by the closing of Luther's.

There's a healthy dose of adult alternative artists, too, like Mat Kearney on Oct. 16.

Return to glory

The Majestic building is a hallowed space for many Madisonians. Since it was opened by a gold prospector in 1906, the Majestic has changed ownership and program direction many times, reflecting the perennial struggle of entertainment venues to make their way financially.

Club Majestic may have put a dent in the historic venue's image, but Gerding and Leslie have already designed a promotional flyer to address that problem.

Its banner: "Returning to Glory."

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