Staci Heimsoth’s earliest memories of the Stoughton Village Players Theatre go back to 1975.
The Stoughton resident said she remembers many “snapshots” of her childhood in that theatre, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2021.
Back in the 1970s, it was called “Badger Theatre” and showed only movies. Decades later, there are still certain moments that stick out to her. Some include taking a field trip to see “The Sound of Music” with her Yahara Elementary class, as well as holding hands on her first date.
Village Players board member Dan Prueher told the Hub he’s been collecting historical research and personal accounts like Heimsoth’s, which the Players will feature in a video during Syttende Mai.
That video will showcase how the Players, celebrating their own 50th anniversary next year, got to inhabiting the theatre. It will also include some of the history behind when the building was regarded as the Badger Theatre, particularly its first silent film in 1921.
And while digging through old news clippings and articles, Prueher said it's always been apparent how important the theatre is to Stoughton. For starters, geographically its Main Street location is in “the heart of downtown,” he said.
Beyond that, it is recognizable to multiple generations, he said. As decades passed and most businesses opened and then closed, Prueher said that the theatre has always been a constant.
And for a city like Stoughton, right outside of Madison, Prueher said that having that theatre was a source for local pride. As Madison movie theatres and chains multiplied through the 20th century, Stoughton residents could still see the latest features without having to even get in their cars.
But, Prueher said, its true connection to Stoughton lies in the personal accounts and clippings he’s been collecting.
One story Prueher heard was of a young couple looking to get married nearly 60 years ago. But being young and broke, the couple needed some extra money. So, they took to cleaning the theatre which involved an obscene amount of gum scraping thanks to the junior high kids.
It’s not just memories associated with the theatre, but those built into it. Prueher said that the bricks outside the theatre have served as a reminder for so many families about how important the theatre is to them.
Another story, describes how in March 1921, the Badger Theatre put on its first film, which was a silent movie titled, “Isobelle.”
Back then, a movie-goer would pay around five cents, choose among 700 seats (today there are 150) and enjoy a silent film accompanied by an in-house pipe organ. With no lobby and built on a sharp decline, it sounds like the original theatre would be unrecognizable.
But Prueher said that there are “hidden features” that reveal the building’s rich history. For example, “massively” thick indoor walls to protect from fire or lattice on the walls which cover up the organ’s pipes.
As entertainment and movie industry standards changed, so did the theatre. Eventually, there were “talkies,” blockbuster Disney films and serial cartoons which drew kids back to the theatre each week. In the late 1980s, the theatre was purchased by Dennis Lange, who gave it a new concept of a cinema cafe by installing a kitchen, tables and removing the angled floors.
Then in the mid-1990s, Tony Hill, an involved member of the Players, purchased the theatre, eventually passing it on and selling it to the group by the early 2000’s. The then Badger Theatre was vacant so the Players moved in, paid the bills and got to work.
It was not only to update the facilities, but to change it from a movie theatre to one suitable for the Player productions. This involved getting rid of the screens, building a stage, removing seats, knocking down concrete and hanging lights, he said.
With the help of subsequent fundraisers, the Players were able to officially buy the theatre in 2004. Being able to have a stable location but also own and have full control of the theatre isn’t common for small groups, Prueher said.
And about 15 years ago, Prueher said that the Players refurbished the theatre so it would have updated facilities and comfortable seats, yet pay homage to its former 1920s art deco style.
They made sure elements like the wall colors and marquee resembled original Badger Theatre designs -- the one from Heimsoth’s memory.
“We needed to modernize the facilities, but we really wanted it to reflect the 100 year history,” Prueher said. “Everything we do is always with an eye towards history.“