Wisconsin native's book celebrates historic theaters
You've been inside The Pabst Theater and you know just what a treasure it is. But it's just one of many lovely, historic opera houses that survive in Wisconsin. If you don't have time to get in the car and seek out the rest, check out "Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses," a lavishly illustrated hardcover by Brian Leahy Doyle and Eau Claire photographer Mark Fay.
Published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press in its Places Along the Way series, the book focuses on 10 Badger State gems, including The Pabst, the Al. Ringling Theater in Baraboo, Mineral Point Opera House, Oshkosh's Grand Opera House and six others, tracing their histories, discussing their architecture and explaining how they each underwent their own "renaissance."
Doyle, a Wisconsin native, is a theater director and historian and has taught at Lehman College, City University of New York (he lives in Hastings-on-Hudson in New York) and St. Cloud State University and has worked with many theater companies, including Riverside Shakespeare, George Street Playhouse and Irish Arts Center.
As he prepares to visit Milwaukee on Oct. 23 for a 7 p.m. event at Boswell Book Company on Downer Avenue, we asked Doyle about his connection to Wisconsin, about his book and about the state's opera house patrimony.
OnMilwaukee.com: You're a Wisconsin native, right?
Brian Leahy Doyle: Yes, I am a native of Shullsburg, and earned my undergraduate degree in English and Theatre at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did the book come about?
BLD: I was back in Shullsburg for my older sister's birthday in December 2003. I grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family, with lots of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. At the time, I was teaching theatre at a college in New York. Almost in passing, my sister mentioned that some friends of hers, Amy Ressler and Marc Muehlip, had purchased and were restoring the Copeland Opera House, the theater in Shullsburg that had been shuttered for decades. So I called up Amy and Marc and made an appointment to visit the theater.
It was a bitterly cold day in late December, and I had to climb a ladder that was propped against the outside wall of the theater. Even though there was still a lot of work in terms of renovating or restoring the theater, I thought that researching its history as a performance space might be an interesting project. So I proceeded to review microfilm cassettes of the Shullsburg's weekly newspapers from 1882-1950, recording every reference to the Copeland Opera House and charting a history of the theater.
I then contacted Kathy Borkowski of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and asked her if the Press would be interested in publishing a history of the Copeland. She very politely suggested that while it might be an interesting book she doubted that it would have much of a mass market appeal! But she also asked if I would be interested in writing a book about a number of historical theaters throughout Wisconsin that have been or are in the process of being restored as part of Wisconsin Historical Society Press's "Places Along the Way Series." I thought, Why not?
OMC: Was the state unusual in that there were so many opera houses built or just that so many survived?
BLD: It was not unusual in that so many opera houses were built in Wisconsin. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seemingly every small town and city in the United States had a theater, with a major factor being the development of the railroads which allowed for easier access by touring theatre companies to previously isolated locales. This was a particularly vibrant time in American popular entertainment, with stock companies, minstrel shows, jubilee groups, medicine shows, Uncle Tom's Cabin combinations, Chautauquas, lecture series performers, etc., performing on these stages.
The term "opera house" itself is actually a bit of a misnomer: in spite of the enjoyment of this rich, vibrant popular entertainment, small-town audiences sometimes cast a jaundiced eye at actors, considering them somewhat disreputable characters-which maybe some of them were! So these theaters were called "opera houses" because the name connoted something grand, eloquent, or refined. Very little grand opera was actually performed in these theaters, although a lot of touring companies performed comedic operettas, which were one of the forerunners in the development of the American musical comedy.
As to why so many of these theaters in Wisconsin survived, I can't say with certainty. Some of these theaters survived perhaps because the buildings were left alone -- the buildings or theaters weren't converted to serve other purposes, such as being converted into an antiques store -- or worse, razed in order to erect a parking garage. In every one of these communities, a group of citizens came together to save and restore these beautiful theaters in order to preserve their community's rich cultural heritage. These people volunteered their time, talent, and energy to create awareness, raise money, contribute in-kind services, or even shovel out pigeon guano!
OMC: What is the greatest threat to the continued survival of these buildings?
BLD: Well, most of these theaters are in fairly good financial shape, and all of the buildings are structurally sound. And the Wisconsin Historical Society is truly dedicated to the task of historical preservation. It is also a phenomenal resource, with an extensive collection or archival photos, many of which are online. There is also a lot of foundation support in Wisconsin for historical preservation, especially with the support of Jeffris Family Foundation of Janesville, which has provided matching grants for a number of the theaters featured in my book. Still, competition for funding for historical preservation is competitive, especially in the current economic climate. In some of the smaller towns, the biggest challenge was and is still finding the money!
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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