You gotta have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” – Oscar Hammerstein II
There have been many dreams, hopes and plans for the historic Madison Theatre in Downtown Peoria.
In the nearly 20 years since it was shuttered, aspirations for reviving the last-standing jewel of Peoria’s classic movie houses waned.
Dreams, however, don’t die easily.
“It’s ground zero for what we see this area becoming – a thriving, walkable theater and entertainment district,” said Mark Misselhorn, an at-large board member of The Madison Preservation Association, a not-for-profit organization formed for the sole purpose of renovating, redeveloping and operating the theater.
Misselhorn, who chairs the association’s facilities committee, said the development group has a viable, $35 million renovation plan. Call it an encore of sorts for the 102-year-old theater that will offer a full range of performing arts – concerts, ballet, theater, orchestra, film and more.
Renovation plans include restoring the theater, as well as approximately 160 feet of two-story Main Street frontage. The block begins at Madison Street and continues northwest up to and including the Neon Bison, formerly the Judge’s Chamber. In addition to the 1,600-seat theater, plans call for returning the main entrance to its original location with patrons entering from Main Street, reopening the Two25 restaurant at the location, creating a second-story 600-person event center, creating a bar and lobby area inside the theater space, and bringing a corner bodega to the main floor along the Madison Street side.
Once it reopens – currently estimated to be in late 2024 – the group projects it will bring 100,000 people to Downtown each year for events, shows, movies, dining and more. It is hoped that the theater will become an integral part of a burgeoning entertainment district along with the Civic Center, Scottish Rite Theatre, Peoria Women’s Club, The Apollo, the Peoria Riverfront Museum, the city’s two largest hotels and other venues.
“This project is bigger than just a theater,” Misselhorn said. “It’s about revitalizing Downtown.”
The Madison was designed in the ornate Italian Renaissance style by Peoria architect Frederic Klein, who also designed Peoria High School, Packard Plaza and the Grandview Drive Pavilion. The 1,600-seat theater opened in 1920 as a venue for vaudeville and, later, silent films and “talkies.”
It was one of three movie palaces downtown, along with The Rialto and The Palace. The Rialto was torn down in the 1970s to make way for the Peoria Civic Center. The Palace – located where Peoria’s Twin Towers now stands – closed in 1980.
While the Madison also closed in the 1980s after a short stint as a comedy club – with headliners such as Sam Kinison and Jerry Seinfeld — it underwent a renovation and reopened in 1992 as a dinner theater. From 1996-2002 it was a concert venue under operation by Jay Goldberg Events and Entertainment. It closed in 2003. An arson fire in 2016 damaged the stage and curtain and caused smoke damage throughout the theater.
Cody Giebelhausen, a founding board member of The Madison Preservation Association who serves as secretary and spokesman, said that while the fire did a lot of damage, two decades of no heating or air conditioning and a leaky roof took a toll on the interior.
In January of this year, The Madison Preservation Association assumed ownership of the theater. A limited liability company made up of a small group of investors purchased the Madison from the Comfort family and turned ownership over to the association.
‘Failure is not an option’
The restoration is expected to cost $35 million and keep within the guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places. The majority of the costs will be covered by state and federal historic, rehabilitation and new market tax credits. About $10 million will need to be raised privately.
While the project may seem grand, Giebelhausen said a 20-year-old report the association came across during its planning has helped reinforce that the renovation plans are on the right path.
Last summer, Giebelhausen made contact with the Coronado Theatre in Rockford, which is the sister theater to the Madison. Having undergone its own historic renovation about 20 years ago, the Rockford preservationists put Giebelhausen in touch with their architect, Paul Seimborski of DLR Group.
“When I reached out to him, he said, ‘I know the Madison really well. I did a 64-page study on it in 2004,’” recalled Giebelhausen.
Commissioned by the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation, that study confirmed the plans the association had developed, said Giebelhausen.
“Line by line, bullet point by bullet point, it laid out exactly what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It was a lot of confirmation and it was coming from the foremost expert in the country on historic theater renovation.”
Seimborski and DLR Group now serve as a consultant to the association, which also has contracted with Farnsworth Group for architecture and engineering services and with Pearl Technology for audio/visual and lighting.
For operation of the theater to be successful, association members knew they needed buy-in from some of the organizations that would potentially use it.
Jeff Giebelhausen, Cody’s father, local developer, former mayor of East Peoria and a founding member of The Madison Preservation Association, said the group consulted with a former director of the State Historic Preservation Office.
“He said there was no doubt that we could bring the Madison back to life. The question was, can you program it?” recalled Jeff. “The Madison only works if existing community groups use it and it’s tied into developing Main Street. Then it starts to get some legs.
“We don’t want people to think of the Madison as just a place to see a show – we want it to be a place to go for the evening.”
So far, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Ballet and concert promoter Jay Goldberg have signed on as charter organizations. This commitment ensures at least six performances each year by each charter organization. In exchange, those organizations get preferred pricing, representation on the Madison’s programming committee, and a say in some of the design considerations.
A soft-launch of a capital campaign is underway as private showings with interested parties are available twice monthly.
“The intent is to have the theater open debt-free,” Cody Giebelhausen said.
A recent effort to generate buzz about the renovation plans included bringing in a Chicago restoration company, Daprato Rigali Studios. Workers restored four sections of the decorative plaster inside the theater to its original splendor.
“Now that we have these sections restored, we can show people that this is what it can look like – taking that visual to the next level,” Giebelhausen said.
The restored sections offer a stark and beautiful contrast to the soot-covered and faded plaster right next to them.
“I’ve had an opportunity to do some exciting things in my life,” said Jeff Giebelhausen, who as a former mayor and developer helped bring EastSide Centre and the Shoppes at Grand Prairie to central Illinois. “This one’s different.
“I’ve never done historic preservation. Maybe, in my 59th year, it’s time. This is a transformative project.”
Added Misselhorn: “This is really happening. There’s a real commitment to this. It’s symbolic of a renaissance for Peoria.
“Failure is not an option,” he said. “This is this city’s last chance to save the last great theater palace, something Peoria was known for. It’s too important for our city.
“Its time has come.”