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The Sound of Innovation: 86 Years of Shannon Hall History

Posted: 03/20/24

The Sound of Innovation: 86 Years of Shannon Hall History

By Amanda Stezenski

More than 86 years ago, the Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT) opened its doors to the public with an illustrious performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of The Shrew,” starring Broadway leads Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.Wisconsin Union Theater opening show:The Taming of the Shrew, 1939

Wisconsin Union Theater opening show: The Taming of the Shrew, 1939

The following year, the Art Deco Theater was named “one of the 25 most distinguished buildings in the world” in an architectural competition at the 1940 San Francisco World’s Fair. Since then, WUT has seen many improvements while maintaining its historic and significant style.

 Architect's plan for the Wisconsin Union Theater, 1937Union Theater Interior

Union Theater Interior, ca. 1948Mid-year Graduation at the Union Theater

Mid-year Graduation at the Union Theater, 1958 

To learn more about the history of the Shannon Hall space, we consulted one of the Theater’s long-time employees, Technical Director Jeff Macheel.

In 2012, the generous UW-Madison alumni Michael and Mary Sue Shannon donated funds to restore and remodel the theater, as well as to add the Shannon Sunset Lounge. The “Union Theater” temporarily closed its curtain for two years to embark on a major remodeling project and reopened in 2014 with its new name, “Shannon Hall.” The objective was to enhance the audience experience while preserving as much of the historic feel as possible. WUT collaborated with its next-door neighbors at the Wisconsin Historical Society throughout the planning process to ensure that the venue’s cultural significance was respected. The remodel included:

  • New seats
  • A new stage floor
  • New carpet
  • Accessible entrances and seating
  • Sound insulation
  • Control booth construction
  • New lighting equipment
  • New sound equipment
Acoustic Excellence

From the very front row all the way to the back corners of the balcony, there are various elements in Shannon Hall that contribute to a vibrant, balanced sound.

Notably, Shannon Hall is known for the iconic “scallop” shells that envelop the audience. The original rounded edges maximize the surface area of the space for sound reflection. During the renovation, every other shell was replaced with perforated metal to enhance dynamic contrast through improved sound absorption. Additionally, complementing the Art Deco house scallops, the stage was fitted with an elegant orchestra shell. This moveable canopy is strategically placed behind the performers during an acoustic performance to enhance sound projection.

Shannon Hall received its first electronic sound system in 1980. Despite implementing an improved system in 2014, the 105-year-old classical series still utilizes Shannon Hall’s “marvelous” acoustics (Alfred Lunt) with minimal microphone use.

Example of performance by Blue Note Quintet with no orchestra shell

Example of performance by Blue Note Quintet with no orchestra shell, 2024.Example of performance by Manhattan Chamber Players with orchestra shell

Example of performance by Manhattan Chamber Players with orchestra shell, 2022

To further insulate the space from the rest of the bustling building and the outdoor dining and entertainment venue the Terrace, the WUT team also consulted an acoustician about soundproofing. As a result, all the doors were replaced with soundproofing material, and additional doors were added between the Fan Taylor Lobby and Shannon Hall. 

To minimize ambient noise, WUT replaced the entire HVAC system with an energy-efficient and noiseless system that runs underneath the house.

Equipment

WUT has continuously updated its equipment over the years to keep up with new technologies. Below, you can view the original theater switchboard circa 1938. 

Jeff Macheel recalls that when he was a student working in Shannon Hall, the lighting was controlled by large levers that were cumbersome to operate during long shows. In 1996, the Theater acquired one of the first computer boards ever built by Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC) founder, Fred Foster. Today, Madison’s ETC is an international leader in lighting technology. 

As part of the 2012 renovations, the WUT team purchased new, state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment that is controlled from the new control booth below the upper balcony, as well as a booth in front of the ground floor mezzanine.

 

Wisconsin Union Theater Switchboard, 1938

Wisconsin Union Theater Switchboard, 1938

Shannon Hall control booth with lighting controls, 2023Shannon Hall control booth featuring lighting controls, 2023.Wisconsin Union Theater Sound Board

Current Wisconsin Union Theater Mixer.

Since the completion of renovations in 2014, the enhanced performance space has continued its legacy as a hub for cultural vibrancy and artistic excellence. The installation of new lighting and sound equipment has enabled productions that require sophisticated lighting effects and enhanced audio-visual experiences. 

Additionally, the improved acoustics ensure that the century-old Classical Series performances offer dynamic acoustic soundscapes for both the audience and the artists. With its state-of-the-art equipment and historic relevance, Shannon Hall remains the premier performing arts center of UW-Madison.

Join us for a WUT event to experience the magic of our spaces firsthand, where immersive experiences await. Discover What’s Next Now.

 

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