Where All The Lights Should Be Bright


Mr. Prairie Roots has referred to some posts I have brewing about downtowns (especially small towns’ downtowns) and how vital they are to communities. First, though, I’ll talk about this place, the old Masonic Temple, most commonly known around town as Masons on Main (the name of the restaurant that occupied the building several years ago). I finally had the chance to see the inside a couple months ago, and despite its current state of somewhat disrepair, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a stunning building. There is no place in town to rival it. As our local newspaper editor wrote recently, it would indeed be a loss to the community to allow it to fall into further disrepair.

I have no idea what Masons’ new owner plans to do with the building, but I know the business I’d love to start there: a moviehouse. Now, Madison already has a movie theatre, the West Twin. As we understand it, the owners of the West Twin keep the theater open essentially as a public service to the town, and for that, I’m very glad. However, I think a movie theater can do much better than break even in Madison.

I also believe a great movie theater is an incredible asset to a small town. For one thing, it provides a great entertainment venue for kids and families. One of the real disadvantages of the current theater is that it’s located on the west edge of town. That’s hugely unfortunate for kids, who make up a good share of a theater’s audience. Right now, if kids want to walk or bike to a movie, they have to cross the intersection of two highways to get there, and there are no sidewalks leading to the theater. The building itself is surrounded by a huge gravel parking lot–not exactly an inviting environment.

Instead, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a theater located in the heart of town within easy (and pleasant) walking/biking distance of most residential neighborhoods? (Next door to the Dairy Queen, I might add.) The Masons building, which is essentially the gateway to downtown, is a perfect location.

Here are a few of our ideas:

  • Convert the main area into a single-screen theater (would have to remove the center staircase that was added when the building was a restaurant).
  • Build a proscenium stage, so that the theater can also be used for live events like concerts.
  • Get both digital sound and projection systems to allow for renting out the space for business meetings, playing video games on a big screen, private screenings of home movies and family slideshows, and other similar uses.
  • Convert the fabulous front rooms of the building into the concessions area. Instead of a typical theater lobby where patrons merely purchase their popcorn and Milk Duds, though, this would be a cafe stocked with locally baked goodies like brownies and muffins and furnished with tables, chairs, and comfy couches. It would be a real gathering place for the community. We’d open it before the movies started for the day and keep it open after the last movie ended (adjusting hours according to customer demand, of course).
  • House the projection room, as well as a possible additional cafe/lounge area, on the small third story. The spectacular balcony would function as additional space (also furnished cafe-style) for non-movie events.
  • Spruce up the beautiful front portico and brick patio and add tables and chairs for an awesome outdoor brownie-eating, people-watching, solving-the-world’s-problems spot, right at one of the liveliest corners in town.

It’s pretty obvious that we’d like to run a business that facilitates interaction between members of our community. We wish there were more places in town to do that. This theater would also be a concerted effort to increase the nightime activity downtown, which is currently limited to the China Moon restaurant (which we love, and are so glad is open late!) and the “four corners” bars at the south end of downtown.

I’ll get into more of the philosophy behind this type of business in upcoming posts, but I will mention now that an article in a recent issue of YES! Magazine hits on the things that draw me so much to the social commons of communities…and why I want so much for the social commons areas of my community to be better:

. . . in localities throughout the nation, there are efforts to resurrect the economy of the social commons that the corporate market has displaced. The opposition to Wal-Mart, for example, is as much about reclaiming the social productivity of traditional main streets as it is about the big box giant’s treatment of its employees. The so-called new urbanism is really the old village-ism, a rediscovery of the wisdom of traditional patterns of human settlement in which interaction is built into the flow of daily life. (emphasis mine)

And another quote:

. . . common spaces give expression to a “we” side of human nature that is both universal and deep. I have a brother-in-law in the Philippines who helped build a water system in a rural village there. He told me that the women continued to come to the common containment pool to wash clothes in the morning, even after the project was completed and the water ran to individual homes. The spontaneous social interaction was as important in its own way as the water itself, just as in community gardens the community is as important as the garden. (emphasis mine)

Fellow Madison-area residents (or former residents), what do you think?

Coming up: more thoughts plus a photo tour of downtown.

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About EMH

Thirty-something. South Dakotan. Mother to fiver-year-old K.L. Wife to Cory. Full-time stay-at-home mom. Seminary student. Future ordained ELCA Lutheran minister. Novice organic gardener. Sustainable living aspirer.
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7 Responses to Where All The Lights Should Be Bright

  1. cosy says:

    wow… i really hope you can get a group together to make this dream come true. sounds divine.

  2. Steve says:

    I think it’s a great idea. There are two local theaters here run by volunteers. Both are so much fun to visit. One is the historic downtown movie theater, with beautiful art deco interior. It’s wonderful. It’s open Fri, Sat, Sun one show each night. It’s not unusual to pack the house. They show second run movies, and make it cheap.

    A small town neary banded together to create a theater in an old building. They also use volunteers.

    We were at one show, and the manager came in beforehand to tell the tweens in attendence to stop talking or he’d take away their movie privileges. How great is that!

  3. Erin says:

    Thanks for weighing in as a former Madison resident, Steve! And as a former resident of the town where you now live, I’m glad to hear about these two movie theaters in Grand Island, NE. I found the website for one of them, the Grand Theatre. Looks like a fun place. I’ll make a point to check it out next time I’m visiting the grandparents!

    I’ve read about other theaters that are run by volunteers. It’s definitely a great thing for a town to do, but I’m personally drawn to the small business ownership aspect. Although I’m critical of capitalism on the megacorporate level, I’m a firm believer in its benefits at the smaller local level. I recognize that there are great community benefits from a theater run by volunteers, but there is a huge economic benefit from one run as a small business, since the money made by the theater owners can turn over within the community many times.

  4. Becky says:

    So, as another former Madison resident, let me chime in with my agreement. Such a cool idea!

    I live in Austin, Texas, which obviously a lot different from Madison. But, one of my favorite things about Austin is the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a concept which I think relates to Erin’s idea here.

    The Drafthouse currently has 4 locations around town – 3 show first-runs plus the downtown location which shows a random assortment of strange horror movies, cult classics, and old favorites (we saw Napoleon Dynamite there recently, with one of the actors present). The original occupies an old downtown building and was renovated pretty much (from what I know) entirely by the couple who started the place. They’re moving to renovate another old theater soon due to rising rent costs. The theater at both the original and their newer locations are set up with every-other-row of chairs removed and a small table placed instead. This gives you a place to hold your popcorn and soda (or other drinks, as the name drafthouse implies) — and because they also offer a menu of pizzas, burgers, etc., you can eat your dinner, too. Everybody in town knows the Alamo (or at least everybody vaguely in my age range) and it’s definitely a local icon.

    Something on that scale might not work in Madison, but the core idea of taking an old building, doing some remodeling, and creating a fun theater seems transferable.

    The old Masonic temple building is a nice architectural change from the other brick structures on Egan Ave. We lived just a few blocks from there during my last years in Madison. I remember it as Mason’s on Main, of course (they had good chicken picatta and nice rolls!). If I still lived in Madison and it was a theater, I’d go! It would have been nice to have something like that in town (and not just out of town, like the west twin) when I was in high school, plus summers at home in college. I imagine DSU students would appreciate it a lot.

    By the way, if any of you South Dakotans happen to be in the Black Hills area on July 31st, you can catch the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Rolling Roadshow” putting on North by Northwest at Mount Rushmore (http://www.originalalamo.com/Default.aspx?l=5)
    This is their 2nd or 3rd year of showing classic movies all over the country.

  5. Erin says:

    Becky, good to hear from you! Thanks for the details about the theater in Austin–and for giving me more ideas. The Drafthouse sounds great! And what could be better than a Princess Bride quote-along?? Their list of signature events sounds like so much fun. If we ever make it down to Austin, we’ll put this on our to-do list.

  6. Pingback: Mason’s: Plan B « Prairie Roots Blog

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