Wisconsin native's book celebrates historic theaters
OMC: Is there an example of one that didn't survive that was an especially tragic loss to a community in the state?
BLD: Yes, the city hall auditorium in Whitehall in Trempealeau County. It was a prime example of what is called a municipal or town hall theater, which is essentially an auditorium in a building that also houses the community's civic offices -- a multipurpose municipal building with a public library, city offices, police and fire departments and sometimes even the jail!
What often happens that leads to the decay of these buildings is structural damage due to a leaking roof. Rainwater or water from melting snow seeps into the building and finds its way into the walls or plasterwork. If the building is left abandoned, the building will gradually deteriorate.
OMC: Is there a real renaissance going on in these opera houses; did you find that the residents of the towns and cities really treasure them?
BLD: Well, I didn't conduct a poll, but I did discover through my research and interviews that restoring the theater or opera house often leads to, or is a part of, the revitalization of the community's downtown or inner city. In Green Lake, for instance, the Thrasher Opera House has a very vital performance series, much of it advertised via the Internet. Fans of a performer will drive to Green Lake in order to see a performance and decide to eat at one of the local restaurants or stay overnight. As the saying goes, you do the math!
OMC: You must have spent a lot of time in Wisconsin working on the book -- did you know these parts of state at all before that?
BLD: Did I ever! I flew back for about four or five research trips, often combining the trips with visits with family still residing in the Midwest. Touring the theaters required extensive driving, and there were communities in areas that I had never visited when growing up in the state. So it was a wonderful way to become reacquainted with Wisconsin, to see the state with fresh eyes.
I've lived in New England, Ohio, Utah and the greater metropolitan New York area, and when I've met people and told them that I was from Wisconsin I have often heard -- besides, regrettably, the cheesehead jokes! -- about how moved they have been physical beauty of the state's topography. So, I really rediscovered the beauty and variety of the land, and a certain amount of my research was on how the different geological areas affected the settlement of these areas and why certain peoples or nationalities immigrated to a particular area, such as the Norwegians to Stoughton or Viroqua.
OMC: Do you have a favorite from among the many in the book?
BLD: As I mentioned before, I come from a large Irish-Catholic family and have eight siblings, and when my mother is asked if any of her children is her favorite she always says that we are all her favorites! So I'm going to say that I like all of these theaters, often for different reasons! The physical scale of The Pabst Theater, which is the largest and most opulent theater featured in "Encore," is astounding, while there is an understated simplicity to the design of the Thrasher Opera House or the Independence Opera House that is reminiscent of Shaker architecture.
The Mabel Tainter Theater in Menomonie has this beautifully hand-carved latticework throughout the auditorium, and when you enter the auditorium of the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo the experience is comparable to entering a palace! In fact, that's why the theater is called a picture palace, because the architects wanted to evoke an uplifting experience! In fact, that is a universal experience that the architects of all of these theaters wanted to instill in their audiences, and the restorations of these theaters have recaptured and preserved that experience for future generations.
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