New book examines 10 grand opera houses

Turn back the clock 80 to 100 years, and a night out meant dressing up for a brush with opulence, refined entertainment – or both. Our ancestors imported crystal and marble to marvel each other on a grand scale, creating opera houses that defined and later challenged a community’s commitment to the fine arts, vaudeville and/or motion pictures.

A new book, “Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses” by Brian Leahy Doyle of New York, explains the history, challenges and survival of 10 of these structures. Almost all, at some point in their history, fell into alarming disrepair because of dramatic shifts in societal priorities.

Where are these gems, and what can you see by visiting? Here is a summary.

Temple Theatre, 116 S. Main St., Viroqua – The 1922 Masonic Temple building sports a Classical Revival style and emphasizes simplicity and practicality in its design. On the original stage curtain – typical for the times – were ads for local businesses, in support of the arts.

Two Tiffany chandeliers, for decades dulled by an accumulation of dirt and paint, recently were restored.

Upcoming: Christmas music with “Branson on the Road,” Dec. 12-13.

For more: www.temple-theatre.com, 608-637-8190.

Nearby: Edgy shops fill Main Street. Consider Ewetopia Fiber Shop (www.ewetopiafibershop.com, 608-637-3443), Gary’s Rock Shop (www.garysrockshop.net, 608-637-7700) and the Finicky Frog (608-637-7775).

Al. Ringling Theatre, 136 Fourth Ave., Baraboo – Exquisite interior design, modeled after a part of France’s Palace of Versailles, is a suitable match for the beautiful Baraboo Hills that are not far from this 1915 Neoclassic building.

It is named after one of the world’s legendary circus founders, whose hometown theater was one of the first designed to accommodate both motion pictures and stage performances.

Upcoming: Maggie Mae country music Christmas show, Dec. 5; Sha Na Na nostalgic rock, Dec. 13. Movies shown on some non-performance days.

For more: www.alringling.com, 608-356-8864.

Nearby: Circus World Museum, 550 Water St., open weekdays during the off-season (until April 17), with cut-rate admission. www.wisconsinhistory.org, 866-693-1500.

Thrasher Opera House, 506 Mill St., Green Lake – The use of wood, instead of stone or brick, busts performance hall stereotypes in this resort and farming community. Straightforward design, described as “Boomtown,” dominates.

The 1909 opera house, described in the book as “understated yet quietly elegant,” remains uncluttered and remarkable for its acoustical quality.

Upcoming: jazz singer Janet Planet, Nov. 27; pianist George Winston, Dec. 17; music duo Switchback, presenting holiday and Irish tunes, Dec. 19.

For more: www.thrasheroperahouse.com, 920-294-4279.

Nearby: cross-country skiing at the picturesque Green Lake Conference Center, W2511 Hwy. 23, whose lakefront grounds are dotted by small prayer towers, www.glcc.org, 920-294-3323.

Independence Opera House, 23688 Adams St., Independence – The cornerstone says 1902 but the multipurpose building didn’t open until 1907, because of tornado damage. The Romanesque Revival edifice of red brick also is home to City Hall and the public library.

Upcoming: Events tend to be private parties, but self-guided tours possible on weekdays, without charge.

For more: www.independencewi.org, 715-985-3055 (city clerk’s office).

Nearby: Bugle Lake, site of a well-attended ice fisheree held on the first Saturday of February since 1955.

Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main St., Stoughton – Look for the clock tower downtown, and you will have found the city’s hub for local government as well as artistic expression. This 1901 Romanesque project aimed to make room for all public services in one location.

Salmon-colored curtains and vintage shades of blue create a stunning visual impact.

Upcoming: Tom Wopat sings Broadway, holiday tunes, Dec. 11; folk musicians John Sebastian and David Grisman, Dec. 12; cowboy musician Riders in the Sky, Dec. 18.

For more: www.cityofstoughton.com, 608-877-4400.

Nearby: lefse, krumkrake and other Norwegian delights from Fosdal Home Bakery, 243 E. Main St., www.fosdalhomebakery.com, 608-873-3073.

Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee – The nation’s fourth oldest theater in continuous operation is the only Wisconsin opera house that is a National Historic Landmark. It exists because beer baron Frederick Pabst was eager to replace an 1871 theater destroyed by fire.

Among the numerous interior gems is an Austrian crystal chandelier that weighs more than two tons.

Upcoming: “A Christmas Carol,” Nov. 28-Dec. 28; comedian Jeff Gaffigan, Dec. 30-31.

For more: www.pabsttheater.org, 800-511-1552. Tours sometimes scheduled, but none at this time.

Nearby: the world’s largest hotel collection of Victorian art, at the classy Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., www.thepfisterhotel.com, 800-558-8222.

Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, 205 Main St., Menomonie – Stonemasons from Scotland helped build the Romanesque, sandstone building, which was named after a young girl who loved the arts but died at age 19.

Defining structural elements include hand-carved latticework inside, round towers with cone-shaped roofs outside. I lament, but understand, the decision to make all seats uniform in size. They used to be small to extra-large in width.

Upcoming: Fine Arts & Crafts Faire, with holiday music, Dec. 4-5; instrumental guitarist Greg Gilbertson, Dec. 11; bluegrass/gospel band Monroe Crossing, Dec. 12; Girls of the Hit Parade retro Christmas show, Dec. 19; Robert Baca Jazz Orchestra, Dec. 31.

For more: www.mabeltainter.com, 715-235-0001. Self-guided tours possible, except Sundays; $1 donation suggested.

Nearby: pure decadence at Legacy Chocolates, 632 S. Broadway St., www.legacychocolates.com, 715-231-2580.

Also on the author’s radar are three structures under restoration and temporarily closed. They are Copeland Opera House, in his hometown of Shullsburg; Mineral Point Opera House, scheduled to reopen in April 2010; and Grand Opera House, Oshkosh (but its lobby is used for gallery events and music performances).

“Encore!” costs $29.95; place book orders at www.wisconsinhistory.org (click on “WHS Press”).

Many of the featured theaters have Facebook pages, which makes it easy to follow restoration work and get acquainted with productions before buying tickets.

What else? “Encore!” lists 19 other historic theaters that vanished in the name of progress. They are the Amherst Opera House, Amherst; Juliar Theatre, Baraboo; Heffner’s Opera House, Barron; Spang Opera House, Dodgeville; Myers Opera House, Janesville; Fuller Opera House, Garrick Theater and Strand Theatre, all Madison; Alhambra Theatre, Bijou Opera House, Davidson Theatre, Egyptian Theatre, Merrill Theatre and Palace Theatre, all Milwaukee; Neenah Opera House, Neenah; Park Theatre, Waukesha; Venetian Theater, Racine; Westby Theatre, Westby; and Whitehall City Hall Theatre, Whitehall.