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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Inside the green rooms
From swank to dank, local dressing areas are musicians' havens
The Frequency's green room. (To see more, click gallery, above.)
Credit:David Michael Miller

There is no one accepted theory as to where the term "green room" got its start, but it's been in used for centuries. A space where actors, musicians or speakers can go before, during or after a performance to be away from the crowds, these secluded areas have gained a reputation for various shenanigans. They can serve as anything from silent temples of preparation to rowdy dens of ill-repute.

Most green rooms aren't actually green, of course, unless you count the less sanitary of the bunch, where mold might be a factor. In fact, there's little that these spaces have in common. For musicians, there's an eternal element of surprise and possible horror when coming to a new venue and its unfamiliar prep room. Will it have its own bathroom? Sinks? Chairs without suspicious stains? Will there be a green room at all, or will the band be forced to mingle with the masses out in the bar before and after the show?

The moments before a performance can be crucial for tuning instruments or just spending time screwing around with band mates, groupies and other hangers-on. Whatever it is that musicians require before hitting the stage and melting the audience's faces off with their innovative sound, a decent green room can be a lifesaver.

In Madison, these havens run the gamut from posh to paltry. Talk to any gigging musician and you're liable to hear all sorts of green-room horror stories, and even the occasional glowing review.

"I find them terrifically useful," says busy local rocker Sean Michael Dargan. "Not only for gathering one's mind and warming one's voice but -- for high-maintenance, über-dorky, suit-and-bow-tie-wearers like me -- for having a sacred space in which to change from average citizen on the street to bona-fide rock star about to launch."

In the basement of the Crystal Corner Bar on Williamson Street there is a remarkably swank space. It boasts, notes Dargan, "a very large, attached band bathroom and fully featured shower and magically refilling candy jar." Certain unwashed musicians have even been ejected for using the facility's showers on nights when they weren't actually playing the venue.

The Majestic Theatre lacks bathing accouterments, but its green room does have its own bathroom and mini-fridge and is one of the cleanest in town, alongside the fancy new rooms at the Overture Center. Dargan says the Majestic's dressing room is a favorite, along with the Barrymore's -- "though one can get lost, if one isn't careful, when trying to get back to the stage at either of those venues."

Then there are the wonderfully old-school facilities at Wisconsin Union Theater, which are "as they were when they were built in 1939," according to communications director Esty Dinur. They have seen too many important people to list, she says, but among them are John F. and Robert Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Martha Graham, Joan Baez, John Cage, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Uta Hagen and Vladimir Horowitz.

The Brink Lounge on East Washington Avenue also has a performer-pleasing green room that includes unsoiled couches, as well as TVs on which you can see what's happening on stage.

A green room doesn't have to be posh to keep musicians happy. At the Frequency, the basement lounge may look a little dank, but it's spacious and has its own bathroom. The High Noon Saloon's closet-size green room is pretty much just a room, but it gets the job done. "I'd love to be able to provide a bigger, cushier space for bands," says High Noon owner Cathy Dethmers, "but our dressing room is what it is mostly because that was all the space we could manage to allocate after designing the club."

Dethmers is a musician herself. "I've certainly seen worse in other clubs I've played."

Also notable are the vaudeville-era green rooms at the Orpheum Theatre, which have gained a certain notoriety among local performers who've worked there. "They have a certain dingy charm, as far as simple, concrete rooms go," says Dargan. The long-gone Anchor Inn used to put its performers in with the drink refrigerator.

Dargan recalls the truly awful green rooms at the late, lamented Cafe Montmartre. "Watch out for your head on that pipe!"

Here's a tip for you musicians. Whatever kind of green room you find yourselves in, remember those less fortunate, and always abide by the campground rule: Leave it in better shape than you found it.

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