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Madison Theater memories are coming alive again

People pack the Madison Theater during its latter heyday as a venue for rock concerts.
Jonathan Wright
People pack the Madison Theater during its latter heyday as a venue for rock concerts.

For decades, the Madison Theater was a place to make memories.

From tales of awkward first dates to stories of sneaking into Saturday matinees, this grand old building looms large in the minds of so many Peorians. But for the past 20 years, it has sat empty and unused, a shell of its former self in the heart of downtown.

Now, for the first time, there is a viable plan to restore the historic theater—and begin to create new memories within its walls.

Cody Giebelhausen is a founding board member of the nonprofit Madison Preservation Association, which is leading efforts to bring the theater back to life. Though he didn’t have the chance to experience the Madison in its prime, he is excited for what lies ahead.

“I grew up in East Peoria. I’ve known this block my whole life but I hadn’t seen inside until about four years ago,” Giebelhausen notes. “And I never really wondered what was behind the doors. It’s just always been closed.”

An entire generation has come of age since the Madison last opened its doors. Their parents may recall seeing their favorite bands play there in the nineties, while previous generations grew up watching the latest Hollywood films on the big screen.

For board member Pam Johnson, being able to share in those memories is one of the best parts of this project.

“Well, Mayor Ali had her first kiss in the balcony—I love that one,” Johnson chuckles.

“At one of the first open houses, we had a gentleman who said he was 14 and was here at the theater,” she continues. “He heard this big uproar and thought it was a thunderstorm or something. He went outside and the streets were full of people, instruments playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on the street, and he couldn’t figure out what was going on.

“It was the end of World War II,” she explains. “And, he says, it’s a memory he’ll never forget.”

Madison Preservation Association

Last summer, a series of open houses allowed the public to check out the theater for themselves. And earlier this spring, dozens of volunteers showed up for a community cleanup day—and an opportunity to explore the theater for the first time in years, if not ever.

“A lot of people come to the volunteer days,” Giebelhausen recalls. “Like when we came and painted for an hour or two… and then [people would] spend three hours moseying around the theater. And when they come out, they’re like, ‘Okay, how can we get involved?’”

The resurrection of the Madison—along with the opening of Two 25 restaurant next door—is sure to revitalize this once-bustling downtown block. It is truly a community project, with dozens of individuals and organizations involved in the effort.

“It just makes sense for so many reasons, whether it’s the downtown stakeholders that care, the historic preservationists… arts lovers,” Giebelhausen notes. “We keep finding, as the project expands and develops, that there’s more and more buckets that this block kind of keeps filling—whether it’s employment needs downtown, or youth involvement downtown, or giving an accessible place to encounter the arts.”

More than two dozen arts groups and other organizations are expected to utilize the theater when it reopens. And so far, three have signed on as charter organizations. By making a commitment now, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Ballet, and concert promoter Jay Goldberg will receive preferred pricing and representation on the Madison’s programming committee.

“I think it’s a great thing for those organizations to say they were with this [project] from the beginning,” Johnson notes. “I think there’s a huge benefit to them from just saying, ‘This is going to be a big thing for Peoria—and we want to be a part of it.’”

By having a seat at the table now, those organizations will have a say in some of the design considerations.

“If we have to make a decision that for us, all things being equal between X and Y, and Maestro Stelluto really wants the orchestra shell to look like this instead of that… It’s nice to have that input,” Giebelhausen says. “Or if it’s Jay Goldberg Events & Entertainment needing input on the sound system… those are decisions that are being made very early on.”

Bill Hendricks/Justin Miller
Madison Preservation Association

Major renovations to the theater are expected to kick off later this summer.

Those plans got a major boost from a 20-year-old report that was unearthed by the Association last year.

“In July of ‘21, we got in contact with the Coronado Theatre up in Rockford, which is the sister theater to the Madison. They underwent a historic renovation 20 years ago,” Giebelhausen recalls. “So we were put in contact with their architect Paul Seimborski. The first call we had with him, I’m like, ‘Hey we’ve got this theater in Peoria, the Madison.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I know the Madison really well. I did a 64-page study on the Madison in 2004.’”

That study, commissioned by the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation, validated the plans the Association had come up with on its own.

“Page by page, bullet point by bullet point… we had both come to the same conclusions in totally different ways,” Giebelhausen recalls. “We’re fortunate that Paul and his group are on board now as kind of our ‘super consultants.’”

“[Paul‘s] credentials are amazing,” Johnson adds. “He has spent the last 35 years of his career doing nothing but restoring old movie houses into performing arts centers.”

Community interest in restoring the Madison is deep and widespread. A Facebook group was recently created for people to share their old photos and stories—and their enthusiasm for this project has been contagious.

“We had a few pictures that we blew up for the open houses. And some of those people spent hours looking at those pictures!” Johnson notes.

The Madison Theater in 1938.
Peoria Public Library Local History Collection
Madison Preservation Association
The Madison Theater in 1938.

“We get a lot of people who have worked here in the past,” Giebelhausen adds. “It was a guy who worked here, probably in the late nineties, who told me where all the marquee letters were… because he probably was the one that put them down there. And we’ve had people who worked here in the ‘70s, and they knew certain things…”

“We’ve got one guy who’s just so interested in the organ,” Johnson says. “There is no organ here anymore—it was sold to a pizza place in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s been dismantled, and it’s gone. But there are tons of theater organs sitting around that have no home right now… It’s something that none of us have really thought a lot about. But there’s obviously some enthusiasts out there who really just would love to see an organ put back in here.”

For some supporters, their love for the Madison has become a family affair. One couple brought their 14-year-old daughter with them to the recent cleanup day.

“They remember going to concerts here,” Johnson explains. “And they told the daughter all about it and she loves concerts and she could hardly wait to see [the theater]. She was so excited. And she’ll be back every day, we have another workday. She will be here volunteering every chance she gets.”

The next Community Cleanup Day is scheduled for Saturday, April 30. And the public is once again invited to roll up their sleeves and participate.

“One of the activities will be cleaning closets,” says Giebelhausen with a smile. “There are a lot of closets and rooms in the theater that have some treasures in them. We don’t know what, but it’s got decades and decades of… whether it’s playbills or whatever…

“A lot of garbage, too,” he adds. “But we’re going to lay everything out and see what we find.”

The restoration of the Madison is expected to cost $30 to $35 million, funded in part through state and federal historic tax credits. Meanwhile the adjacent restaurant will help underwrite its ongoing operations.

“We'll also have a component of an annual campaign of some sort to help maintain the theater,” Johnson notes. “I hope the community sees the value of the investment they’re going to make in this—and it will be a continual investment.”

“The intent with our capital campaign at the moment,” Giebelhausen adds, “is to have the theater open debt-free.”

That campaign is expected to kick off in the very near future, with the goal of raising $10 million. If all goes well, the renovated theater could open in 2024—a chance for a whole new generation to make their own Madison memories.

“Sometimes when we’re in our own meetings, especially early on, I’d wonder, ‘Does anyone actually care about this?’” Giebelhausen notes. “And every time I turn around it’s like, people do care.

“I think it’s because of all the memories that people have here. And then myself, who didn’t have the opportunity to make any memories here—everybody my age and younger—so let’s bring it back.”

To learn more about the Madison Preservation Association, share your memories or get involved in the project, visit themadisonpeoria.org or find them on Facebook.

Jonathan Wright is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.