When Madison’s much-anticipated new music hall, The Sylvee, opens Thursday night with a sold-out show by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, it’s guaranteed that the crowd will be on its feet.
Like First Avenue in Minneapolis, Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, the Rave in Milwaukee, and, to some extent, the Pageant in St. Louis, The Sylvee is primarily a general admission, standing-only venue.
Madison didn’t need another large, seated music venue with a couple thousand seats, when it already has the Orpheum theater (2,200 capacity, seating for 1,700) and Overture Hall (2,255 seats), the venue’s developers said.
“I think it’s about taking stock of the existing venues that are already in the market and trying to carve out a niche that’s unique,” said Scott Leslie, co-president of Madison-based FPC Live, which operates The Sylvee.
“Madison did not have a need for a 2,500-capacity seated venue. The Overture and Orpheum more than adequately service the market for that, but it doesn’t have the 2,500-capacity GA (general admission) music hall,” said Leslie, the former co-owner of Majestic Live which in 2017 joined with Frank Productions to form FPC Live.
The $15 million Sylvee has 158 fixed seats on its second level. There’s also a third level with six private suites, similar to what’s available at the Kohl Center.
The Sylvee, 25 S. Livingston St., is between the 800 blocks of East Washington Avenue and East Main Street. The 44,000-square-foot venue takes up a portion of the first three stories of Gebhardt Development’s eight-story Gebhardt building, originally known as Cosmos. The Sylvee has 100,000 square feet of commercial space above and around it.
Fred Frank, chief operating officer for the national concert promotion company Frank Productions, said the venue has an industrial, warehouse-type feel, but also exudes warmth. “Even though the capacity is 2,500, the room does not feel that big.”
The room may be almost as tall as it is wide, which makes for great sight lines, Frank said. “Not only is the artist going to be very close to the fan, the fan is going to feel very close to the artist.”
Different type of theater
General admission rooms help drive ticket sales because concertgoers don’t have to buy their tickets at the same time to be together, said Charlie Goldstone, FPC Live’s other co-president.
Another thing about this type of theater is that a customer can buy a ticket three weeks after a show goes on sale, and have as good a chance of being in the front of the theater as if they bought their ticket the second the show went on sale, Leslie said. “So you don’t miss out on necessarily having a great seat if you’re at work” or can’t get tickets immediately when they go on sale.
Officials with FPC Live — which stands for Frank Productions Concerts, and is the Madison operation of Frank Productions — say general admission won’t automatically create long lines to get in with concertgoers vying for the front area.
They’ve developed a curtain system where a few hundred people can wait in a section of the large lobby and be able to access a coat check, bathrooms, and a bar before they enter the concert area, Frank and Goldstone said.
The building was designed with Wisconsin weather in mind, Frank said. It’s “a place to be warm or dry until we’re ready to ‘so-called’ open the doors,” he said. “We hit a button, the curtains go up, and then people can find their place to watch the show. It’s a very unique feature.”
There won’t be parking in the building, but the city is building an adjacent garage on South Livingston Street for about 600 cars that could be ready by October, Frank said.
A mostly standing venue like The Sylvee isn’t a novel concept, Leslie said, but a standing-room, GA venue of this size will be unique for Madison.
Smaller venues like the Majestic Theatre and the High Noon Saloon, both of which FPC now runs, are mostly standing. The Orpheum, which FPC exclusively books, has a very large standing room space in its pit. “So I think patrons in Madison are used to that,” Leslie said.
Putting shows in the ‘best room’
Global entertainment giant Live Nation, which early this year bought a controlling stake in Frank Productions, rents the Orpheum from owner Gus Paras. Paras opposed The Sylvee early on, because he “was positive” it was going to hurt the Orpheum and the Overture Center.
But eventually Paras stopped speaking out. “I wasn’t going to make the whole city enemies,” he said.
“I didn’t fight it for personal reasons. I fight only for the Orpheum,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to see the beautiful theater destroyed and then turned into an apartment building or hotel.
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Steve Sperling, general manager of the Barrymore Theatre, doesn’t see The Sylvee as a threat to his 1,000-capacity Atwood Avenue theater and its 755 seats, especially since FPC is still booking about 15 percent of Barrymore shows as well.
“They will put shows in whatever room they think is the best room to put a show in,” he said.
At Overture Center, officials are welcoming The Sylvee.
“We are excited about The Sylvee opening up,” said Lex Poppens, Overture’s vice president of marketing and sales.
“We have a longstanding relationship with Frank Productions and we are looking forward to the future with them. The type of standing facility/theater they are opening is needed in Madison,” he wrote in an email.
‘Exciting new activity’
Lee Christensen, development manager for Gebhardt Development, said the first office tenants in the Gebhardt building will occupy it starting Oct. 1.
The building is 100 percent leased, with The Sylvee in a portion of the first three stories, he said. Tangent, a restaurant and bar from the owners of Vintage Brewing Co. on Whitney Way, will occupy part of the first floor.
Strang Architects, which designed The Sylvee, will be located on the second floor. Regus co-working office space will be on the third, fourth and fifth floors. Miron Construction, the contractor for The Sylvee, will have its offices on the sixth floor, and Google will be on the seventh and eighth floors.
Sold Out LLC, a small group of investors that includes the Frank family, executives at Frank Productions and other private investors, owns The Sylvee, but not the land under it. The Sylvee operates under a ground lease with Gebhardt Development, Christensen said.
“The Sylvee will bring some very exciting new activity to the Cap East district and will help to transform this area further,” Christensen said.
Finding the right spot
The Sylvee’s been a work in progress for about five years, with finding the right location its biggest challenge, Frank said.
There was neighborhood resistance to an earlier proposed location on East Washington Avenue. Now Ald. Marsha Rummel, whose district 6 includes The Sylvee, and nearby Tenney-Lapham Ald. Ledell Zellers are both supportive.
After securing a location, Frank said his second-biggest problem was, “What are we going to call this?” It was a Frank Productions employee who came up with using Frank’s mother’s nickname, the name that was on her license plate.
Herb and Sylvia Frank moved to Madison from Chicago in 1964 and started Frank Productions the following year. The Franks promoted the majority of the shows at the Dane County Coliseum when it held frequent concerts, hosting big-name acts like Elvis and the Who. The company was also responsible for a series of stadium shows at Camp Randall in the 1990s, including concerts by the Rolling Stones and U2.
Fred and his brother, Larry, spent their careers in the family business, and Herb, at age 84, still makes daily appearances in the office. Sylvia died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer.
At first, the Franks struggled with naming the venue The Sylvee because Sylvia never sought the limelight. She was nonetheless “an important piece of the puzzle,” Frank said.
Sylvia handled much of the early bookkeeping and ticketing. “If you went to the Coliseum ticket office to buy a ticket, my mom probably waited on you and helped you find the best seats for that evening out,” Frank said.
Now, a large image of Sylvia Frank looks out from a big glass section of The Sylvee’s VIP room and onto Livingston Street.
“It’s very emotional for all of our family members,” Frank said. “And I can tell you my mom would not have liked this at all. But it really is a tribute to what a great woman she was and how much she’s missed.”