The Arts

Out with the Old, in with the Older.

This blueprint shows the theater wing’s lab theater (today the Frederic March Play circle) as it was originally designed in the 1930s. Along with other materials from the theater’s development, the blueprint was included in a display in the 1940s, then forgotten for six decades. Those materials were rediscovered when the theater closed for renovation. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Union.

Newly discovered documents shed light on the Union Theater’s history

In June, after jazz singer Mary Stallings finished her last tune, the stage crew at Union Theater lowered the curtain on the seventy-three-year-old hall for the last time — or at least the last time in the venue’s current form. With much fanfare, the theater closed until 2014, as part of Memorial Union’s renovations and improvements.

But as staff members were clearing out in preparation for the theater’s takeover by construction crews, they made a surprising discovery: among the old props and scenery was a box containing mementos related to the theater’s construction in 1939.

The cache, which includes documents, photos, blueprints, and fabric swatches, seems to have been created for a display in 1949, as part of the UW’s centennial celebration, but records have yet to confirm that. The materials appear to tell the story of the theater’s design and construction, including the decision process behind its architecture and interior decoration.

“It’s exciting for us,” says Wendy von Below, project manager for the Memorial Union Reinvestment. “It’s very rare to find documentation of a whole, sequential design process [for a building], and we have this exhibit that we think was provided by a student group. But we had some luck and some ‘unluck’ with it. We were fortunate in that it was tucked in a corner, hidden from light and preserved. But it was unlucky in that it doesn’t record who made it or exactly why.”

The Union sent the materials to the Wisconsin Historical Society for preservation, and von Below hopes that they can be displayed when the theater reopens.

Correction: the caption as printed incorrectly identified the blueprint as belonging to the Union Theater (the larger of theater wing’s performance spaces) rather than the Play Circle.

Published in the Winter 2012 issue


  • Donald Ryan December 8, 2012

    I was very interested in your discovery of the drawings.

    During my years on the Directorate I was privileged to spend time with Porter Butts, the first Union director. The theater wing had been completed ten years before I arrived as a student, but, if I remember correctly, it was common knowledge that Porter had made copious detailed notes and sketches on all phases on its construction. I’d guess he also was probably a major contributor of ideas to its design. I’d think his notes would be particularly interesting now.

    I don’t know where you might find these documents. I think Porter spent several years, after his retirement, working on the Union archives – I’d suspect his notes would be somewhere there.

    Ted Crabb may have good ideas in this regard.

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