Our Opening Act
In 1928, the Capitol Theater opened its doors to the public. Designed by Rapp & Rapp, the Capitol was a marvelous example of the opulent movie houses built for the silent age. Uniformed ushers escorted guests to seats to watch vaudeville acts and feature-length shows with international stars. The theater boasted the latest in modern conveniences, including a Grand Barton theater organ, custom built by the Barton Musical Instrument Company of Oshkosh. And though silent movies are no longer a principal form of entertainment, the original organ remains intact and serves as the centerpiece to Overture’s Duck Soup Cinema series.
The Capitol Theater was first and foremost a silent movie house. So when sound ushered in a new era of entertainment, the theater found itself amid a rebirth as one of the city’s most popular concert halls. Between 1940 and 1970, the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, Perry Como, and the Beach Boys all graced its stage.
In 1974, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin announced the groundbreaking for the new Madison Civic Center. The Capitol Theater would serve as the anchor in the innovative city-owned development. The Oscar Mayer Foundation put up a large donation for the project, and the Capitol Theater was reborn as the Oscar Mayer Theater. The Civic Center would also encompass a smaller theater, to be named the Isthmus Playhouse; an art gallery called Madison Art Center; and the Crossroads Lobby.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Oscar Mayer Theater hosted Broadway shows and touring acts from all over the country. The theater grew in cultural significance as it became the performance home of local arts groups like the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Madison Opera, and Madison Ballet.
The Oscar Mayer had been built for silent movies, and by the mid-1990s, it was showing its age. Acoustically, it was not the ideal space for Broadway or symphonic music. A group of local arts leaders, understanding that the community deserved a theater, put their heads together and set their sights on a new, modern, and much larger performing arts center.
In 1997, Jerry Frautschi, a fifth-generation Madisonian, delighted the community by pledging $50 million to build what he called Overture Center for the Arts. Two years later, it was clear that his initial gift would not be enough to carry out his original vision, and so he pledged another $50 million. When all was said and done, he had donated $205 million — the largest single gift to the arts in American history to date.
Overture Hall opened on September 19, 2004, along with four other performance spaces. Opening celebrations included a spirited gala and a weekend full of lively performances. The national tour of Phantom of the Opera was the first major Broadway show to open on an Overture stage, greeted by an enthusiastic Madison audience.
The Oscar Mayer Theater, Isthmus Playhouse, and Madison Art Center were completely renovated and reopened to the public in 2006 as the Capitol Theater, restored to its original designation and look; The Playhouse; and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
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