Since the opening of the Barrymore Theatre in December 1929, the music venue has served different arts-related functions in the Madison community. Its significance for the Madison entertainment scene cannot be underestimated after renowned performances at the theater, including Phish, Green Day and Dave Matthews.
Steve Sperling, the theater’s general manager of 16 years, can recount the number of transformations the Barrymore has seen since its inception. The Barrymore began as a movie theater, originally called the Eastwood Theatre, and was Madison’s first venue built for talkies.
“If you grew up in Madison in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, it was your neighborhood movie theater,” Sperling said.
The theater occasionally offered vaudeville as well until the 1970s, when the Barrymore had its first transformation. It became a cinema theater showing pornography, second-run films and children’s movies.
This stage lasted until 1987, when Barrymore Theatre’s founders, Richard Flone and Tom Petersen, began to convert the theater into a live-music venue. The theater was reopened in July 1987, officially as the Barrymore Theatre visitors know today.
“Since then it’s been primarily a live-music venue, although we do quite a bit of comedy and we do some theater,” Sperling said. “We still show some films, but we don’t show first- or second-run films; we show films as part of events, and we do other kinds of outdoor films for festivals.”
Over the course of these transitions, the Madison community did not backlash, but rather embraced the changes. Sperling explained the Barrymore had two focuses. First, the theater sought to provide entertainment, but secondly, it strived to help reinvent what was previously a run-down surrounding neighborhood area.
“The fact that we are a cool neighborhood is a reflection on the fact that the Barrymore has been here for 25 years,” Sperling said. “There’s this whole corridor of restaurants and bars and entertainment that runs all the way from Blair Street all the way down Willy Street down Atwood Avenue [the current location of the Barrymore].”
Today, the Barrymore still remains a live music venue. It programs shows as well as operating as a rental venue. Prior to his performance at Summerfest one year, Bob Dylan secretly rehearsed at the theater for three days. For Sperling, the occasion was a memorable one for the Barrymore.
“The history of our theater is an amazing one; almost every major band coming up played here,” Sperling said. “It’s really an incredible list of a different variety of acts.”
Unfortunately, due to a large music scene in Madison, there is great competition between all the different music venues to not only get a variety of musical acts but also audiences to attend their shows.
“There are certain nights where there are so many events going on, you don’t know which one to go to first,” Sperling said. “There are some nights when there is nothing going on, and some nights where you might have to choose between three or four different events you might want to go to.”
In an attempt to compete, the Barrymore Theatre has a number of distinguishing characteristics, most notably its size and capacity for a large audience. Sperling said he believes it creates an appealing atmosphere for music that draws people to attend the shows, simply calling the Barrymore a “cool room.”
When it comes to programming, the theater looks to create a variety of events that would attract potential customers. Instead of seeking to program one event over another, Sperling explained the theater is open to anything.
“The more we can expand the kinds of things that we do, the better,” Sperling said.
Sperling insisted the Barrymore does not “manufacture” shows, but rather programs an event it believes people would want to attend. The theater averages around 80- to-90 shows a year, many of which occur outside the summer season. Looking into the future, the theater has booked a number of quality music events, including Stephen Lynch, Lindsey Buckingham and Lotus.
The Barrymore Theatre operates to provide a number of different functions. In addition to providing entertainment and re-inventing the surrounding area, it has become a venue for artists to seize the opportunity to play in Madison. The theater also strives to create a welcoming atmosphere for people to listen and dance to simply great music.
“We’re looking to get as many people in here as possible, but as many different kinds of people as possible,” Sperling said. “And then we are looking to create a good experience for them when they’re here.”