The Barrymore Theatre is not just another entertainment venue. With its one-of-a-kind atmosphere and rich history, the Barrymore is a true Madison landmark. With a 971-capacity, venue’s stage has held over 2,000 events in the form of concerts, films, recitals, rallies, comedy shows, community events, and more.
Located on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin, the Barrymore Theatre was originally opened in 1929 as the Eastwood Theater. The grand opening was on December 27, 1929. It was attended by Madison Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman and featured Mack Sennett comedy Midnight Daddies along with radio organist Dave Welton, and within weeks, the theater was selling out.
Unique from the start, the auditorium was designed and built in Spanish colonial style while the exterior featured an Italian Renaissance-style octagonal dome. The auditorium was complete with tile-roofed balconies and twinkling star lights in the ceiling, a feature the theater is still known for today. The original theater included top-notch modern acoustical features, and a Western Electric Vitaphone system, the widely-used analog sound-on-disc system developed for feature films. Later developments included the addition of air conditioning in 1938.
At the time, the theater mostly screened double features of films, special features, vaudeville performances, organ recitals broadcast over commercial radio, Chicago radio country music stars, plus live music and events. The theater made national history in December 1943 when local defense workers were the first in the country to see the Academy-Award nominated documentary propaganda film, War Department Report.
The theater was sold in 1946 and was remodeled in 1948 after being added to the Milwaukee theater chain, Standard Theaters. During this period, the theater was used for various church, community, and children’s events.
The theater was purchased again in 1967, and underwent another more extensive remodel. The lobby was paneled, carpet was added, and a modern-day vending stand was installed. A drop ceiling was also installed and the Spanish style porticos were stripped in the auditorium. The capacity was reduced to 825, and the venue was renamed the Cinema Theater. The grand opening was held on December 20, 1967, nearly forty years to the day that the theater first opened. With Madison Mayor Otto Festge in attendance, the theater debuted the extended cut of John Huston’s The Bible.
In the 1970s, the theater began to move towards more mainstream movies, as well as second-run films from downtown theaters and children’s features. Into the 1980’s, the theater’s success ebbed and flowed as the community changed.
In 1986, the theater’s Schenk-Atwood neighborhood faced another revival. Local investors had a vision of purchasing, refurbishing, and converting the theater to be an arthouse movie theater. Through investors and organizers Richard Slone, Tom Petersen, and Steve Sperling, plus other investors and neighborhood support, the theater was revamped once again. The venue reopened on July 10, 1987, as the Barrymore Theatre. The theater’s namesake comes from the famous family of Barrymore actors. Though the movie aspect of the theater did not see success, the music aspect stuck. The venue began to attract niche artists and audiences such as rock, folk, and women’s acts. In 1988, the theater acquired a beer and wine license, as well as a neighboring restaurant shortly after that.
The Schenk Atwood Revitalization Association saw continued success in the Barrymore Theater, and purchased the venue in 1992, and from then on shifted focus to utilizing the space as a rental opportunity. In 1996, former investor Steve Sperling became the theater’s general manager, and continues to bring the Barrymore Theatre quality entertainment and steady success.
Madison is Wisconsin’s capital city, and is home to over 250,000 residents, as well as the University of Wisconsin and numerous government entities. The entire Madison metropolitan area is home to nearly 600,000 residents. The city itself is on an isthmus, one of only two major U.S. cities, located between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. The city is known for life along the lake, one-of-a-kind restaurants, and endless parks, bike trails, and other outdoor recreational activities. Proving its passion for the arts and culture, Madison’s Wisconsin Historical Society has one of the world’s most expansive entertainment industry archives at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
STATS & INFO
Date Opened: December 27, 1929
Amphitheatre Seating Capacity: 971