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Barrymore Theatre is sprucing up seats, floors and walls — but won't touch the twinkly lights

Barrymore Theatre is sprucing up seats, floors and walls — but won't touch the twinkly lights


The interior of the Barrymore Theatre, shown above at a mayoral debate in 2015, will undergo a renovation over the summer.

The twinkly lights on the ceiling will stay right where they are.

But much of the Barrymore Theatre is due for a facelift. The historic arts and music venue in the Atwood neighborhood, is in the middle of a capital-raising campaign to finance a makeover of its interior this summer.

The venue launched the public charity campaign last month to help pay for the renovations, which will encompass new flooring, a fresh coat of paint and new chairs in the 87-year-old space. The goal of the so-called “Chair-ity Appeal” is to raise $200,000. As of Friday, house manager Ginny Jenkins said the public campaign had raised $10,000, enough to cover the replacement of about 50 chairs. 

Both Jenkins and the Barrymore’s other house manager, Zach Richmond, said the decision to renovate comes after years of hearing extensive community feedback about the state of the space — particularly the state of its 755 worn and faded turquoise chairs, which are over 50 years old.

“Some of the padding is definitely faded,” said Richmond. “Some of the integrity of the chairs, we’re constantly maintaining and fixing them.”

“There’s been so much beer and who knows what else spilled on them,” Jenkins said.

Jeff Kunkle, a bassist with the local bluegrass band Oak Street Ramblers, has performed in the theater for years as part of an annual United Way fundraiser. He said that the building is a gorgeous one. 

“You walk in, and it’s such a unique place….but it is feeling a little threadbare in places. It could use a facelift,” said Jeff Kunkle.

Barrymore staff that the renovation will not alter the space’s capacity — or the iconic ceiling lights.

The move to renovate comes as Madison’s live music scene undergoes profound transformation and consolidation. Following a series of mergers and acquisitions, the multinational entertainment giant Live Nation now owns a controlling stake in FPC Live, a local firm that owns the High Noon Saloon and operates the Majestic Theatre and the Orpheum.

FPC Live is also on the cusp of opening the Sylvee, a 2,500-seat space on East Washington Avenue, about a mile and a half away from the Barrymore.

The renovations are to some extent a move to stay competitive as a performance space, indicated Allen Arntsen, a board member of the Atwood Barrymore Corporation, the nonprofit that owns the theater.

“People have (other) places where they’re going to put their shows," Arntsen said. "We try to operate on a shoestring, but you’ve got to provide a good experience for your event-goers." 

“There’s a very strong feeling on the board about keeping the theater local and locally owned,” said Steve Sperling, the general manager of the space. “We’re trying to do things that will further that.”

The renovations are also an effort to enliven a beloved neighborhood institution that has served as an anchor of community development, those involved in the campaign say.

“Talking to people who have lived in the area for a long time, this theater … it’s seen as a big turning point in the neighborhood,” said Richmond.

The Barrymore will close down for a few months during the summer during the renovations. Staff could not provide a precise date for when the closure would occur; summer performances are scheduled at the Barrymore through June 8.

A show by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues on Aug. 30 will be the grand opening of the new-and-improved Barrymore, said Richmond.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.

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