Film Venues grow, adapt and change throughout Madison’s history

by Sam Marz

The screen blinks to life before the audience. The smell of salty popcorn fills the air as the lights dim, the crowd falls silent and the film begins to play.

Movie-going experiences like this are abundant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For generations, students, staff and community members have enjoyed “big screen” entertainment. These venues have changed, remodeled and adjusted along with the campus and city, and while some places no longer exist, new ones emerged to create Madison’s film landscape.

One of the most notable changes occurred with the construction of Lucky Apartments, replacing the university theater that once stood in the same place.

“That was probably the primary place where we went,” Aaron Granat, a lecturer in the Communication Arts Department and a UW-Madison alum, said.

Orpheum Theater

At the time, this venue screened new releases. Its location on University Avenue offered a convenient spot on campus to catch the latest flicks.

Granat also went to the Orpheum Theater on State Street.

“The Orpheum Theater back then had an active cinema and would bring in independent films,” Granat said. Today, the Orpheum is primarily known as a concert venue.

Students must now make off-campus trips to nearby theaters if they want to see new films.

“Sometimes I will go to Sundance or the Marcus Point [Cinema], but pretty rare, I would say, because I don’t have a car,” Violet Wang, an undergraduate double-majoring in Communication Arts and Journalism, said. “It’s kinda hard.”

Marquee Cinema at Union South

Wang primarily goes to the Marquee Cinema in Union South, run by the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee, which screens mainly contemporary movies for free.

As its signature title card reminds viewers whenever they see a film in the Marquee, WUD Film began in 1940. Before Union South opened its doors in 2011, WUD Film hosted their programming at the Fredric March Play Circle Theater in Memorial Union.

According to the Campus and Visitor Relations site, the Play Circle seats 182, compared to the Marquee’s 330-seat theater, making the latter a more ideal venue for these screenings.

According to Granat, another consistent venue is the Cinematheque, located on the fourth floor of Vilas Communication Hall.

“The Cinematheque is huge,” Granat said. “It’s probably the greatest resource for cinephilic culture in Madison.”

Like the Marquee, the Cinematheque offers free admission. According to Cinematheque’s webpage, the venue aims to bring unique, lesser-known films to campus.

According to Erik Gunneson, a Madison alum and the head of the Instructional Media Center in Vilas Hall, Cinematheque and WUD Film’s programming have thrived over time.

“The Cinematheque has grown in the time that I’ve been here, and I think the number of days that WUD film is screening have gone up as well,” Gunneson said.

According to Gunneson, the film culture has changed since he was a student.

“I think there are fewer places that are showing films. There were many, many more screenings every day,” he said.

Overture Center

Gunneson said he used to go to the Madison Art Center, which has now become the Overture Center, on State Street. The Overture is now home to the Capitol Theater, which features a silent film series called the Duck Soup Cinema Series, opened by vaudeville-style acts.

“I’m a big fan of the Duck Soup Cinema,” Gunneson said, “I think that’s really a great experience to go and see a silent film.”

Gunneson also attended screenings hosted by a film group called the Madison Filmmaker’s Collaborative.

“They were based over on Willy Street, and they were in this little printmaking studio,” Gunneson said, “It was really a kind of cool spot.”

Although the film venues on campus have changed over time, Madison remains a valuable, rich city for moviegoers.

“[Madison] provides more resources than I can even consume, so in that way, I think it’s very successful,” Granat said. “We have many venues that bring films that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.”