By: Brian Leahy Doyle
Photographs by: Mark Fay
A remarkable number of Wisconsin towns and cities were home to an opera house in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some were freestanding structures built by local benefactors, industrialists, and capitalists. Others were located within a city hall building and financed by local tax dollars with the support of government officials who believed in the value of the arts for their community.
Some of the biggest names in theater and vaudeville graced these Wisconsin stages: Marion Anderson, the Barrymores, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, George M. Cohan, Gracie Fields, Mario Lanza, Jenny Lind, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, the Marx Brothers, Sir Laurence Olivier, Bill "Bojangles” Robinson, Arturo Toscanini. But these theaters—especially those in smaller, rural towns—also served as "a public space for town meetings, lectures, political speeches and rallies, proms, high school graduations, church bazaars, and even basketball games,” notes Brian Leahy Doyle.
Doyle chronicles the histories of ten Wisconsin opera houses and theaters, from their construction to their heydays as live performance spaces and through the periods when many of these stages went dark. But what makes these stories so compelling is that all but one of the featured theaters has been restored to its original splendor. Just as the beginnings of these theaters were often the result of the efforts of local citizens, Doyle discovers that their restoration is due to the commitment of dedicated and passionate people. More than one of these revived theaters has spurred the revitalization of its surrounding downtown business district as well.
Mark Fay’s photographs capture the essence of these structures, from the austerely handsome to the magnificently ornate opera houses.
Published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press
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