Many in Madison would say that the best thing about living here is the number of concerts and live performances that come through town each year. The level of professionalism and quality in which artists possess is astounding in every performance — be it at The Sylvee or the Majestic or anywhere else.
The local music scene we enjoy here is one of the best in the nation. Even with amateur status, performance artists like comedians, dancers and musicians can display their craftwork to public on any given night, at any given venue and you can bet Madisonians will show up in great numbers.
But one thing that might not always be considered when building a new concert venue or planning a seating map is accessibility for patrons who may need assistance entering the venue or getting seated.
My mother has always dealt with difficulties such as this and takes extra care in planning where she goes for simple things like groceries, let alone where she will go to attend concerts or plays. Sad to say, it seems a great many businesses fail to keep citizens like my mom in mind.
But not everywhere, and some buildings have gone out of their way to make sure everyone and anyone has a welcoming place to see a great show.
With that in mind, I wanted to dive in and take a closer look at some of the more popular venues in town and see which ones really are best suited for a person who uses a wheelchair, walking aide or just needs a little extra assistance.
Opened in September of 2018, those living east of the Capitol now have one of the finest places to see a show not only in the city, but in the entire state.
Located on South Livingston Street off East Washington Avenue, The Sylvee is highlighted for its accessibility. A brand-new parking structure was built at the same time and is available for use to anyone. Even if you must park on a top floor, several elevators can take you safely to the ground level. From there, a short trek across the street (an area with light traffic normally) and you’re at the box office and front door.
The 2,500-person capacity establishment is largely general admission, first come-first serve standing room. The stage sits in front of a lowered pit area, which is accessible only by walking down a small flight of steps with a railing. But the rest of the first floor sits comfortably above the pit, with views wrapping all the way around on both sides practically all the way up to the stage. These are easily accessible and offer unobstructed views of the performance without having to worry about others huddling over you.
Two bars are made available to the public. One is on the first floor and the other is on the second — another thoughtfully designed level for the impressive venue. A large set of stairs and an elevator can take you up to the second floor. 158 balcony seats and general admission standing room offer fantastic over head views that are hard to beat.
With wide walkways and tall ceilings, it’s easy to maneuver a wheelchair or walking aide all throughout The Sylvee. I would highly recommend it as a place to see a show for those with physical disabilities.
Few concert venues match the mix of vintage and modern that the Majestic achieves. When the lights are down low and the music is playing, it has the feel of a grungy, yet warm and comfortable throwback. But it really is a beautiful building.
Opened back in 1906 as a vaudeville theater, it now is a well-known concert venue which also hosts social events like their popular Brew ‘N View movie screenings. Located on King Street near the east side of the Capitol, a night out downtown certainly feels complete with a show and a drink at the Majestic.
But to get there requires a little bit of work.
The closest parking garage is across a busy street and halfway up the block from the Majestic. The garage itself is not the easiest to navigate either. If you’re able to make it to the venue, unfortunately, you won’t be able to get much further.
The venue is a two-floor facility, but the second floor is not accessible due to a lack of elevator. This is a shame because the upper level houses a separate bar area with a view overlooking King Street and couches to sit down and enjoy the company you’re with away from the chaos of dancing.
The lower level is easy enough to get into. The bar on the first floor is immediately to the left once you enter. But from there, the options to see the act lay a few. A ramp to the right takes you down close to the stage but is standing room and usually packed completely wall to wall.
By the bar, there is a small platform that is higher up and offers a decent view of the stage, but the line of sight can be easily obstructed.
Long story short: while the Majestic is an incredible, intimate venue with attention to detail that is tangible and easy to see, it’s not a good place to see a show if you use any sort of wheelchair.
Opened in 1927, it was also Wisconsin’s first building with air conditioning throughout. The Orpheum was in rough shape after decades of shows and concerts took its toll. But in 2013, it was renovated and proudly stands as a beacon of Madison’s artistic cultural past.
Thousands flock to State Street for a show at the Orpheum every year to take in a wide variety of acts — from stand-up comedians to musicals.
But is everyone able to make the journey?
Finding close parking is practically impossible, as State Street is pedestrian and buses only. But there are several parking garages scattered around the Orpheum. The first floor of the theater is at ground level, making it easy for a wheelchair to make it through the front door and past security without much difficulty.
Generally, the Orpheum offers reserved seated shows, with little to no standing room. But according to their website, they do occasionally pull seats out for a general admission concert.
A balcony overhangs, offering a heightened view of the show with comfortable seating and plenty of room. Overall, the Orpheum is a reasonably accessible venue, if you have time to find parking and safely make your way up State Street to the theatre.
Madison has so many venues that we could devote an entire issue of the paper simply to evaluating them all for accessibility. But these three are some of the most often attended and most cherished gems in the city.
While time has been kind to relics like the Orpheum and the Majestic, modern innovation has made The Sylvee, in my opinion, a better venue to attend if you have difficulties getting around. A close parking garage, low traffic in the area and views that are hard to beat on both floors, it’s a comfortably warm experience.
I’d certainly suggest The Sylvee to my mother for a night out.
John Everman is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.