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Madison fire investigators say the Dec. 19 blaze that has temporarily closed the Orpheum Theatre was arson.

It's potentially the third intentional fire in less than a year at the historic State Street theater and restaurant.

Co-owner Eric Fleming, who bought into the business a year ago, said the finding came as no surprise to him. He's assumed all along it was arson.

"It's our third fire," Fleming said, clearly frustrated. "I mean, come on."

Orpheum manager Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray, said she intends to reopen the restaurant in the lobby by Jan. 14 and the theater in early February.

Fire Department Lt. Bradley Olson said investigators have been "looking at burn patterns, at artifacts that were found in the fire debris, and we've spoken to numerous employees and people to try to obtain information. Based on all of that ... we believe that that fire was intentionally set."

The fire was discovered at 7 a.m. that Sunday morning when an employee came to open the theater. It apparently started in a wait station that was added in a June remodeling of the 76-year-old building.

Olson wouldn't say what was used to set the fire or where in the wait station it started.

Fire officials estimated damage at $100,000.

In April, a fire, which investigators said was arson, started in the first-floor bathroom janitor's closet. It caused about $20,000 damage but didn't close the business.

In early December, a minor fire in another janitor's closet caused about $1,000 damage, Endrizzi-Ray said. Although it wasn't investigated, she suspects it was also arson.

All the debris from the Dec. 19 fire is gone, Endrizzi-Ray said, and the walls are washed. Volunteers and employees have been doing much of the work.

"We're working on fixtures next," she said. "And right now we're taking bids on painting. I'm surprised by how far (workers) got."

The closing has hurt business, she said, although exact figures are still being calculated for insurance purposes.

"We thought we'd have a great January," Endrizzi-Ray said. "They have 24 shows across the street (at the Overture Center for the Arts)."

Officials haven't identified any suspects.

The Wisconsin Arson Insurance Council is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who set the fire.

Tips can be forwarded to the council at 800-362-3005 or to Crime Stoppers at 266-6014.

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