Temple Theatre History
The Temple, built in 1922, houses four separate entities. It is the core of the Masonic building in the center of the 100 block of Main Street in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Occupying the depth of a city block, the theatre has two businesses on either side, and the Masonic Temple on the second floor above the lobby. Decorated in the classical revival style, this elegant structure entertained the community with vaudeville shows, silent movies, musical productions, and civic events during the middle years of the twentieth century.
The Temple Theatre is a significant representative of the movie palace, a unique building type that developed in the early decades of the 20th century. The La Belle Masonic Lodge invested in this combination business and temple after fire demolished the previous Masonic Temple in 1920. The theatre was built during the era when movie palaces featured live entertainment between shows to make silent movies a more theatrical experience. The theatre represents the social history of the Viroqua community; it’s construction replaced a storefront movie theatre as well as the old Opera House, becoming the center for community gatherings until the 1950’s.
The building, designed by La Crosse architects Parkinson and Dockendorff, evokes the high-class Neo-classical facades of both vaudeville and traditional theatres that were, at the time, seen as signs of cultural quality. The original opulent interior, designed by the Oyen Interior Design Firm, mimics classic European theatre interiors as well as extravagantly ornate vaudeville ones found in larger American cities.
Oyen’s classical revival motifs are evidenced in the cornices, friezes, and moldings of the ceiling and walls of the recessed vestibule, the lobby, and the theatre house as well as around the arched stage opening and in the metal work of the organ grill. Original art-glass globes still hang in the auditorium. The original back screen, with hand-painted local advertisements, still hangs at the rear of the stage. The original screens on either side of the stage, the orchestra pit, as well as the stage machinery used in live productions and the scenery loft also still remain intact. The original Wurlitzer organ that provided accompaniment to silent films has been re-purchased by ARTT.
Nine years after opening, the Temple’s interior was modified to the Art Deco style when “talkies” came to town. The quick makeover sought to modernize the building, appealing to the movie-goers of the 1930’s. The Paramount-Publix movie theatre chain remodeled the Temple with avant-garde Art Deco styles viewed as the cutting edge of popular architecture. The decorating team added paneling and stylized columns, featuring new colors of gold, black, and red. The theatre received an impressive marquee; the most important and distinctive identifying feature of any movie theatre. Today, the theatre retains Art Deco remnants in the restored marquee and brass chandeliers that now hang in the lower lobby. The theatre house and main lobby have been restored to the original classical revival decor.
The upheaval of the depression years, in which both Paramount-Publix and La Belle Masonic Lodge suffered economic losses, saw the theatre returned to local management and control. When television impacted on the movie industry throughout the United States, the Temple Theatre, like most small movie theatres, struggled to survive. It fell into disrepair with a series of owners, opening, closing, and reopening as financial difficulties occurred. The theatre closed for good in the 1970s and was in danger of being demolished and replaced by a parking lot. A group of community leaders, headed by Fred Nelson, envisioned the theatre as once again becoming the focal point of Main Street and providing a financial asset to the community.
In the 1990s, Fred purchased the building, sold the adjoining storefronts, and donated the center theatre section to the Vernon County Historical Society to undertake the restoration. The historical society, realizing the project needed to be handled by a focused group of dedicated volunteers, deeded the theatre to the newly formed ARTT, Associates to Restore the Temple Theatre.
ARTT’s mission, to restore the theatre to its original Classical Revival interior design, to remove the remnants of the Art Deco trim, and to bring the theatre into compliance with state and federal codes for public buildings, has been reached. In 2001, ARTT’s Board of Directors voted to change ARTT’s name to Associates of the Restored Temple Theatre, reflecting the successful restoration. The Temple Theatre has now assumed its place as a regional, cultural, and civic center for our surrounding communities.
The Temple is now the site for many live shows throughout the year. ARTT produces a yearly season series of ten shows and additional performances, as well as hosts local non-profit groups. ARTT volunteers supervise, provide ushers, lighting, and sound technicians for all events held in the theatre.