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HISTORIC TEMPLE THEATRE HISTORY

The present-day Historic Temple Theatre was originally part of a building owned and operated by the Masonic Lodge in Viroqua, WI. The building was constructed in 1921 and 1922 after a 1920 fire destroyed the previous theater. The new building's Neo-Classical Revival style was designed by architects Parkinson & Dockendorff, and Odin J. Oyen Interior Design Company was hired for the interior styling. Both companies, based in La Crosse, WI, were well-known for working on some of the most significant buildings in the Midwest. A Minneapolis firm, Anderson and Lindstrom, was hired as the general contractor.

Odin J Oyen workers pose for photo

Odin J Oyen workers take time off to pose for a photo

This new, huge building was constructed in less than one year, with a grand opening of the Theatre held on July 1, 1922. “Monster crowds" were seated in the auditorium when the opening night movie, Smilin' Through with Norma Talmadge, was accompanied by the Culver-Longworth Orchestra.

Historic Temple Theatre exterior - 1920s

The Masonic Temple building shortly after completion of construction with the original Temple Theatre awning

Odin J Oyen original interior sketch

Original Odin J Oyen interior design and color scheme

Within a few years, the La Belle Masonic Lodge began to experience severe financial hardships brought on by the Great Depression. Rental income from the Theatre and two other storefronts in the building was insufficient and led to years of foreclosure litigation. The Masonic members voted to accept the highest cash bid for the Theatre and member William Dyson, a prominent local businessman, paid $40,000 for the building on December 19, 1935. Dyson leased the Theatre for ten years to Jacob Eskin who would later own and operate the Al. Ringling Theatre from 1953 to 1958. Eskin made many renovations to the Theatre, including a new movie screen and two 350-pound speakers. Eskin also had the walls, ceiling, and floors painted, effectively obscuring the features of both the Neo-Classical Revival and Art Deco designs in preparation for the September 3, 1936, grand reopening featuring the film My American Wife with Ann Southern. In March 1936, Dyson had also sold back the entire second floor to the Masonic Lodge for $12,000.

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The Temple Theatre with the newly added marquee, 1950s

For the next fifty years, the Temple Theatre served Viroqua and the surrounding rural communities as “the” movie theater of choice. The Theatre also periodically hosted live performances such as the Colorado Hillbillies in 1937, and Bell's Hawaiian Troupe in 1941. The space also served as a meeting place for civic events and community gatherings until the 1950s. During this period, a series of local owners opened, closed, and reopened the Theatre, enduring the shifting local economy and the changing tastes of American popular entertainment. By 1992, the Temple Theatre had been shuttered for six years and faced an uncertain future. Years of neglect resulted in "deteriorating brickwork, a leaking roof, mold and mildew, standing water in the orchestra pit of the theater, water damage to the ornamental plasterwork, and peeling wall coverings that revealed earlier decoration in the auditorium.” Local sentiment favored the demolition of the building to make room for a parking lot.

 

On November 19, 1993, Fred Nelson, a prominent local businessman, purchased the Temple Theatre and the two adjoining storefronts for $32,500. Nelson legally separated the property into three separate spaces with three clear titles, selling two of them to local businesspeople. On April 19, 1994, he deeded the Temple Theatre to the Vernon County Historical Society so it could be restored to its original condition. Realizing that the Theatre's restoration needed to be handled by a very dedicated and committed group of people, the Historical Society deeded the theater to the nonprofit Associates to Restore the Temple Theatre (ARTT) on March 1, 1995. This organization was comprised of farmers, business owners (including Nelson), students, retired citizens, and Viroqua High School alumni from all over the United States.

The goal of ARTT was to repair and restore the Temple Theatre to its original Neo-Classical Revival design. ARTT immediately started raising money to focus on shoring up the building's structural integrity, installing a new roof, and tuck-pointing the exterior brickwork. During that same time, the restoration of the Art Deco marquee involved removing bird nests and repairing, rewiring, and repainting. A dedication and lighting ceremony for the refurbished marquee was held in July 1995.

 

In 2000, the Masonic Temple Building including the Masonic Lodge and the Historic Temple Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places. It also received the Best Historic Preservation Award from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce's Main Street Program, a recognition given to communities that help revitalize traditional business districts through historic preservation and economic redevelopment. More good news came just before Christmas 2001 when ARTT raised over $800,000 and received additional grants of $218,800 from the James Phillip Bigley Foundation and $125,000 from the City of Viroqua. By this time, ARTT's fund-raising efforts totaled nearly $1,600,000. 

 

In 2002, the Associates to Restore the Temple Theatre held a grand reopening celebration on July 5-7, eighty years after the Temple Theatre first opened its doors. The well-attended events included a dedication and recognition ceremony on Friday, afternoon and evening concerts on Saturday, and an ecumenical community worship service on Sunday. In December, the ARTT Board of Directors met and voted to officially change the organization's name to the Associates of the Restored Temple Theatre to reflect the Theatre's new role as a beautiful, functional, and effective civic and cultural center for the surrounding communities.

 

On July 8, 2007, ARTT celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Temple Theatre's restoration by unveiling nationally recognized muralist and Viroqua resident Ken DeWaard's commissioned paintings on the walls of the Theatre's lobby. Unable to re-create Odin Oyen's original murals of the classical muses that were painted over during the 1935 remodel, DeWaard instead created 9-foot by 5-foot murals depicting significant scenes of life in Vernon County. Inspired by the paintings of John Singer Sargent and others, DeWaard's bold and passionate murals bearing such titles as "Dairy Farming," "Fly Fishing in the Kickapoo Reserve," "Sulky Racing at the Vernon County Fair," and "Round Barn" commemorate, in DeWaard's words, the "legacy of the restoration and the Theatre's mission to serve as a cultural and civic center."

 

For the majority of its life, the Theater has hosted movies and social gatherings. Today, the Historic Temple Theater is an important community gathering place as the site of movies, lectures, plays, seminars, educational presentations, social celebrations, and host to a huge variety of concert opportunities for an audience from throughout the Midwest.

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