Awaiting the comedic return of Duck Soup Cinema

Joe Thompson

“The shows feel like having a bunch of people in your living room for a party, and I’m the host.”

Joe Thompson wishes he was wearing his tuxedo and red bow tie, standing on the historic Capitol Theater stage, telling jokes and entertaining a crowd of friends and film fanatics. Instead, until Overture Center reopens, he must be content to reminisce about his two decades as emcee for Overture’s silent film series, Duck Soup Cinema.

“I haven’t been in Overture Center in a year, and I miss it,” said Thompson, a resident of Madison and teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School.

Thompson has been active in Madison theater for nearly 40 years, performing his first show, “A Christmas Carol” with Children’s Theater of Madison (CTM), at the Civic Center in 1983. He has acted in 10-15 CTM shows since then and graced Overture Hall and Capitol Theater stages with his narratives and humor alongside the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and other local arts organizations.

Always ready with a quip to make people laugh, Thompson enjoyed more than 15 years with ComedySportz, a Madison-based competitive improv comedy group. He also hosted Shakespeare Rocks with Triple M radio. When the Civic Center decided to add vaudeville to its silent film series, Sounds of Silence, Thompson was recommended for the master of ceremonies role.

The film series was renamed Duck Soup Cinema in honor of the greatest vaudeville act in American history, the Marx Brothers, in 1998 and grew to include vintage-style performances preceding the movie—from jugglers and acrobats to musicians and dancers.

“I’ve hosted every show since then, usually three per year,” said Thompson. “It’s been a tremendous experience, so much fun!”

He says the shows run smoothly, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Thankfully, according to Thompson, the Duck Soup Cinema crew is the best, from the season coordinator Rudy Lineau to the stage managers and lighting and audio technicians to the mind-boggling talent of the organists including Clark Wilson and Jelani Eddington.

Thompson’s last gig was in January 2020 when Duck Soup Cinema featured “Good References,” a 1920 American silent romantic comedy drama featuring actress Constance Talmadge.

As master of ceremonies, Thompson keeps the crowd entertained before the show and between reels. In addition to the now-expected light bulb jokes, he shares details of upcoming shows and programs at Overture Center and gives away raffle prizes. Two of his favorite memories were the shocking giveaways of diapers with a real live baby. The audience didn’t know the babies were his and the “winner” was his wife!

“The shows feel like having a bunch of people in your living room for a party, and I’m the host,” he said. “We get to know one another, and we share a lot of laughs.”

Thompson says the Duck Soup Cinema films are classics, standing the test of time. He loves hearing people laugh at the jokes, which are still funny 100 years later.

To Thompson, Overture feels like home, and he can’t wait to be on stage again when the center reopens.

“Overture Center has something for everyone—for any budget and any age,” he said. “The range of shows is like New York, Chicago, London, and the local talent is incredible. I’ve seen all kinds of touring shows and resident company shows, performed on all the stages and sat in the audiences. It’s an incredibly energizing and welcoming place.”

Overture Center is grateful to Thompson for his many years of service as Duck Soup Cinema emcee and to the series’ sponsor Goodman Jewelers.

“Overture Center is a great asset to the city of Madison and southcentral Wisconsin, really for the entire state,” said Thompson. “I love being on State Street on Overture show days. There is an unmistakable energy surrounding the building. We need that energy and excitement back in our lives.”

Until Thompson returns to the Capitol Theater stage for Duck Soup Cinema, he leaves us to ponder this question: “How many ophthalmologists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: 20 (beat) 20.

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