Theater History

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The Wisconsin Union Theater, a premiere venue with superb acoustics, performance space and seating, has a long and interesting history.

The idea for the theater wing was conceived in the pre-1920's by University President Van Hise and members of the Memorial Union Building Committee who were working on the Memorial Union Project. They imagined a theater with ancillary workshops as an integral part of the Memorial Union, drawing the arts into the daily life of the campus.

It was the vision, dedication and persistence of one man, Porter Butts, with his organizational and fund-raising abilities, that made the theater a reality without the use of any taxpayers' dollars during the financially troubled time of the Great Depression.

The opening of the Wisconsin Union Theater in 1939 marked the realization of a dream and the solution to a long-felt need for a theater at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Statewide radio broadcasted the October 8th inaugural ceremonies, and the next three days saw four splendid performances of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, starring the leading couple of the American Theatre, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.

Countless artists over the years have echoed Alfred Lunt's opening night comment that "the acoustics are simply marvelous." The broad aisles and wide outer lobby corridors serve as an effective social center, and the complementary art galleries host changing exhibits. For more than 60 years the Wisconsin Union Theater has been a cultural center for the entire state of Wisconsin, featuring local, national and international acts.

"The whole panorama of a nation at war and peace had been reviewed there," wrote the Madison Capital Times ten years after the theater's opening, and in the years since the theater has continued to reflect a vibrant kaleidoscope of arts, politics, public discussions and ceremonial occasions.

Union Theater audiences since 1939 have seen and heard some of the most famous actors, dancers and musicians of the century in many thousands of performances; popular artists have entertained; renowned leaders; philosophers and scientists have challenged the mind. Fritz Kreisler, Ella Fitzgerald, Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Frost, Itzhak Perlman, John F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, T.S. Eliot, Jesse Jackson, Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Louis Armstrong, Martha Graham, Dave Brubeck, the Lunts-the theater's autograph book is a Who's Who of twentieth century arts and ideas. Over the years, eminent personalities have communicated from the stage with over ten million people, and their influence has rippled throughout the world. The Union Theater has constantly won their praise for its facilities and its acoustics, but mostly for its audiences, who in turn continue to be the life force of the theater.

Smoothness of operation and quality of programming, key elements in the theater's success over the years, have rested in the capable hands of many fine administrators, publicists and technicians, including Fan Taylor, Fred Buerki, Bill Dawson, Ralph Sandler and Michael Goldberg, to name just a few. Equally important have been the generations of students who today, as in the past, enjoy the opportunity to work with Union Theater staff on artist booking, contracts, box office and front-of-the-house management, backstage and technical crews, production, business operations, and publicity. They continue to serve as door people, to volunteer as ushers in exchange for seeing attractions in the theater for free, and to learn leadership and management skills while enjoying the opportunity to meet world-famous personalities.

In the 21st Century, the Union Theater continues to flourish with ideas and programs, energy and vision. That vision becomes a reality hundreds of times each year, when the Theater is reserved for use or its doors open to a lively and inquiring audience. Over and over the mission of the theater is validated by applause as an artist is acknowledged, or by a significant silence as an important idea or a profound experience is considered. The Union Theater remains warm, lively and inviting, while the magic of great performances and the ferment of ideas continue to fill it.