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The Orpheum

Evan Verploegh | 2014

Madison’s historic Orpheum Theater is in desperate need of a change. The once immaculate, state-of-the art building has been reduced to a shell of its former self. While the location is currently in function, hosting concerts nearly weekly, it is far from operating seamlessly. Now this is not to say that the Orpheum cannot rise again. The pieces are all there, they just need to be put together.

The theater was built in by famed architectural firm Rapp and Rapp, also builders of the famous Chicago and Riviera Theaters. The Orpheum was completed in 1926 for a final price $750,000. Upon opening its doors the location quickly became a Madison icon with its limestone exterior, renaissance themed interior and elegant sign that overhangs State Street. At the time of completion the building was the first in Madison to have air conditioning. With the massive unit taking up nearly the entire basement area. Initially it was used as a movie theater, as well as hosting vaudeville shows. Today, nearly 90 years into existence, the Orpheum looks nearly identical as it did upon its opening. The enormous marquee has rusted to the point of near illegibility. The terrazzo floors have begun to crack, causing even the most level-headed concert goers to topple. What I’m sure were once marvelous chandeliers are littered with very visible cobwebs. Crusty vomit stains adorn parts of the faded red carpeting and the grand staircase simply does not live up to its name, with each marble step worn to create a treacherous path to the restrooms.

The neglected Orpheum was purchased for $1.7 million in October of 2013 by Madison restaurateur and Comedy Club owner Gus Paras. Paras took on the theater, which seemingly was an endless money pit with the intent of reviving it similarly to the way he turned around the now thriving Comedy Club which sits just down the block from the theater. Paras has begun efforts to lead the Orpheum down the same path as the Comedy Club, but there remains an immense amount of work to get the theater into the condition he would like it. When asked by the Cap Times in 2013 what still needs to be done Paras said, “I need to put on a new roof. The plumbing is in really bad shape. They have one of the bathrooms closed. It’s a big building. You have 2,000 people, you better have the bathrooms work.”

Since the beginning of Paras’ ownership he has not been able to book his own shows. That responsibility is under the concert promotion corporation Frank Productions. Frank Productions was leasing the venue and will continue management until March 1st 2014. The corporation was also who Paras was in a bidding war against to gain ownership. The promotion company during its leasing time has booked and put on successful concerts at the Orpheum with both up and coming as well as established artists. Frank Productions has also worked with local concert venue the Majestic Theater to promote and attract artists. Paras hopes that the relationship with Frank Productions can continue after their lease is up. “We want people to feel welcome, have them feel like they didn’t have to be in competition to bring shows to our room,” Eve Paras said. Eve along with her sister Anna are assisting their father in the duties at the Orpheum.

Having a local Madisonian own and operate a structure as iconic as the Orpheum does have a wonderfully feel good tone about it. Paras, a Greek immigrant has run a number of successful Madison restaurants, including the local favorite Kosta’s. Proven that he can in fact led businesses down a successful path. On paper Paras seems look at more than adequate fit to take on the responsibilities of a dying theater. However, at 68, I’m afraid that Paras looks at this endeavor as a “last hurrah” rather than attempting to create a successful business model. Estimates for the complete renovation of the theater are upwards of $1 million. Paras believes that he can cut that budget to around $650,000. But the Orpheum does not need its overhaul to been done on the cheap. We have seen owners come and go over the last decade attempting to turn around the historic venue, each with their own plan in mind, as well as a strict budget in place. While I believe Paras has the best intentions in mind, stating that he is doing this for pride as opposed to profit, perhaps it needs ownership who will look to make a buck from what could be elegant concert venue.

I attended a concert recently at the Orpheum, and while I enjoyed myself, the walls around me were in shambles. I can say without a doubt in my mind that the theater will need well more than $700,000 worth of renovations. As an avid concert attendee, I have seen highs and lows in terms of venues. The Orpheum is unfortunately a low. Upon entering, I could see plainly that the theater was desperately understaffed. The line to have my ticket scanned was a chaotic mess, with two ushers attempting to corral the sold-out crowd of 1,800. The lines to the bathrooms extended down the hall, with some stating that have been waiting for 15 minutes. The sound quality was very good or near unlistenable depending on where you placed yourself. Security, while I’m not sure who they were hired by, whether it was the Orpheum or Frank Productions who was promoting the show, was very aggressive in their tactics. One fan, who was enjoying the show in front of me stood on a seat to dance and view the concert better was ripped to the floor by a security guard with a far too inflated sense of self-worth. While sticking his knee into the scrawny man’s chest, he scolded the fan to “Sit the fuck down. I’ll beat your ass if I see that shit again.” The crowd, while certainly enthusiastic, was not out of control, nor certainly not violent to instigate this type of treatment.

Now I understand Paras has very recently taken ownership, and has done a fine job getting the Orpheum into a state that can at least support a concert. But with no prior concert promotion experience, or running a space of this magnitude I think he might have bitten off more than he can chew in this endeavor. A more experienced corporation, while maybe not who the city would like, would have been a better option for the Orpheum. With such a beautiful, historic building in a fantastic location on State Street, the theater deserves to be everything it can be. I hope Paras understands the significance and enormity it will take to get the Orpheum up to a point where this city can be proud of this location, which for now remains an eyesore here in Madison.


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