This story is the first in a weekly series of features introducing you to Madison’s music venues.
Nestled comfortably on King Street in the shadow of the Wisconsin State Capitol lies the Majestic Theater. From the exterior, the Majestic could be any concert venue. A simple, unobtrusive marquee greets passersby, and for the ignorant folks unfamiliar with the goings-on inside, the only attention-grabber is the building’s pair of large, well-lit signs, boldly proclaiming the word “MAJESTIC.” This simple adjective is entirely sufficient in describing the interior; step into the lobby of the 106-year old theater, and the significance of its name becomes obvious.
The Majestic — large enough to house 600 energetic concertgoers but small enough to feel intimate and welcoming — is, in a word, beautiful. The sleek, black surfaces of the modernist bar area complement the extravagant, antiquated architecture that frames the beautiful, century-old stage. The Majestic’s balcony, with noteworthy stadium seating, overlooks the large, well-polished dance floor that juts out from the stage. Maroon walls provide a beautiful contrast to the neon blue lights which cut across the theater. This is the stuff concertgoers’ dreams are made of.
The Majestic opened at the turn of the century as a vaudeville theater, showcasing silent films and magic acts, Harry Houdini included. Over the century, the theater underwent myriad transformations, as it turned into a movie theater, then a porno movie theater (ah, the seventies) and finally a hip hop club — “Club Majestic.” The club ran into some issues with its liquor license, and the city eventually shut it down, leaving the Majestic vacant and owner-less.
Enter the master concert-planning duo of Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie. After college, the two Midwesterners found themselves living in Los Angeles, Leslie working as a musician, Gerding as a booking agent. Through mutual friends, the two met, ended up living together and began attending concerts regularly.
“After attending so many shows, finally it was like, we have a very unique skill set for two people,” Leslie recalled, “and this was the experience of knowing what artists want on the road and what agents are looking for in offers.”
Gerding and Leslie realized live music could be turned into a career. The duo discovered promise in the then-vacant Majestic, fell in love with Madison and decided to put their skill set into action. One thing led to another, and, in 2007, the Majestic opened as a full-fledged live music venue.
Initially, the challenge of opening a theater for popular music was exactly that: challenging. “It took a while to start getting the artists that we wanted,” Gerding said. “The music industry, like a lot of industries, is a relationship game. We had some key relationships that helped us get started,” he said. “It took a while to build up our reputation. It’s definitely been a process.”
For the “new” Majestic’s grand opening on Sept. 29, 2007, singer-songwriter Mandy Moore performed. “It was great and everything went smooth,” Gerding said, “but, you know, I’d be lying if I said she was number one on our list for our grand opening.”
Fast-forward half a decade, and for the Majestic’s five-year anniversary, Gerding and Leslie have convinced the Hold Steady to play a celebration concert on King Street — for free. In just five years, the Majestic Theater has established itself as the premier live music venue of Madison. Bassnectar, Sufjan Stevens, Dropkick Murphys and The Bouncing Souls are among hundreds of bands that have graced the Majestic stage, and the venue’s fall calendar promises more great nights of music to usher in the winter season. (The Dirty Projectors, Dinosaur Jr., G. Love & Special Sauce and Sleigh Bells are all scheduled to perform this autumn.)
Inevitably, the theater’s 600-person capacity puts some restrictions on which bands can play. “Coldplay or Bruce Springsteen are never going to come here,” Leslie conceded. Instead, the Majestic focuses on exposing up-and-coming bands. Last year, the Majestic sold 6,000 tickets for the Bassnectar show at Exhibition Hall, three years after he played for a crowd of 250 in the Majestic. “We’ve been able to grow with those artists,” Gerding said. “That’s kind of the goal, moving forward.”
And this is precisely what the Majestic Theater strives for: to introduce people to new artists, and in doing so, make people happy. “Something we’ve tried to instill in Madisonians is to come down and take a chance on artists sometimes,” Gerding said. “Take five minutes to go to our website and listen to an artist’s music. You might hear something that you like,” he said. “We always try to persuade people to discover and experience new music.”
Speaking from the experience of a college graduate, Leslie said, “The nights you spent at the Majestic drinking with your friends, seeing a band on stage, are the nights you’re going to remember. You’re not going to remember, you know,’x’ night on State Street, where you went to this or that bar. You’re going to remember seeing this or that show, and those are going to be the memories you have from college.”
“We’re lucky enough that our job involves making people happy. People come here because a band that they love is playing onstage. When your job involves making people happy, it tends to make you a little bit happier as a person, too.”
The Majestic will celebrate its five-year anniversary this weekend with performances from The Dirty Projectors, Hannibal Buress and The Hold Steady. For information on showtimes and ticket cost, visit majesticmadison.com.