As of Thursday night, Madison has a new live entertainment venue: The Sylvee, a three-story theater in the Capitol East District that its creators say will help define Madison as a destination for touring artists.
The Americana band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats will christen the space tonight with a sold-out show at the new theater — a cavernous, industrial-chic 45,000 square-foot theater space with a capacity for 2,500 people, nestled on the lower floors of the new Gebhardt Building at 25 S. Livingston St.
Frank Productions, the 54-year-old Madison-based music promotion company, owns and will operate the space. From its buffed concrete standing-only ground floor to the sightlines from its balconies, it’s a theater that company leaders say has been engineered with concertgoers in mind.
“This has been built up from the ground to be a concert venue,” said Scott Leslie, the co-president of Frank Productions’ local promotional arm FPC Live. “This isn’t a movie theater or an old warehouse.”
The contrast Leslie painted is a nod to the older venues that have historically hosted Madison music events. The Majestic Theatre, the Orpheum Theater and the Barrymore Theatre were moviehouses or vaudeville theaters before they became concert venues.
Joel Plant, the CEO of Frank Productions, said that members of the public who have already managed to sneak a peek of the space say they were struck by the contrast.
“They didn’t feel like they were in Madison. They didn’t feel like they were in an older music hall. They felt like they were in a state-of-the art concert hall,” he said.
The venue’s “state of the art” pedigree includes columns on the ground floor bedecked with outlets and charging ports for smartphones or other devices, a bar with walk-in coolers and video-displayed taplists, and six VIP lounge suites on the third level.
There's also another bar on the second floor of the venue, tucked behind the 158-seat balcony area, offering a sweeping view of the city's downtown and near east side.
The venue also makes subtle nods to its ownership throughout the space. In the bathrooms, stall doors are illustrated with art from past shows that Frank Productions promoted. One wall on the ground floor level features a large portrait of Sylvia Frank — the co-founder of Frank Productions with her husband Herb and the theater’s namesake — painted on a canvas of old cassette tapes.
Frank Productions leaders have long asserted that their new venue is a reflection of the city’s growing demand for premium touring artists. A space with the capacity and panache of the Sylvee, they say, could signal to artists that Madison is a worthwhile place to play shows.
“We’re absolutely confident that for many decades, this will help us cultivate Madison as a major market in the live music industry,” said Plant.
Frank Productions has been consolidating ownership and operational control over many of Madison’s music venues for the past two years. Besides the Sylvee, it now owns the High Noon Saloon and manages the Majestic and the Orpheum Theatre. It also books musical acts at Breese Stevens Field, the Capitol Theater and the Barrymore.
Plant observed that with Breese Stevens Field kitty corner from The Sylvee, and the High Noon just down the street, the Capitol East neighborhood is becoming a live music district.
“We’ve got this microcosm of venues that we own and operate and control in a small space. We’ve got an entertainment mile here,” he said.
Plant added that he was also excited to be a part of what he called “rebirth” of the Capitol East neighborhood as a residential, commercial and business hotbed, with buildings like The Spark and the new Gebhardt building across the way from The Galaxie and the Cosmos.
“Our building fits perfectly into that mix,” he said.
Meanwhile, the 84-year-old Herb Frank said he’s happy to see the venue completed, and described the location as a good thing “for all of us, for the city and for the community.”
As for what he thought Sylvia Frank, who died in 2006, would have made of the venue named for her: “It is so beautiful and so magnificent. Knowing her, she’d be very embarrassed,” he said. “She was always one to stand in the back row, the back corner.”