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Fuller Opera House

Madison Fuller Opera House Interior (1900 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-11208


The recent furor over Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s performance at the Super Bowl reminds us that local guardians of public decency have looked out for Madisonians’ welfare for more than a century and a quarter.

December 1879: Police Chief Bishop concluded “it would be just as well, and probably a little better, not to have any can-can business at the opera house on Christmas night, and Madame what’s-her-name was informed of that fact when she arrived from the north. She ‘kicked’ – but not so high as she was advertised to do. The troupe left the city in disgust.”

November 1899: the show Gay Paris played at the Fuller. The show’s manager indicated that the “opera house powers would not stand for the warmest portions of the performance” and he’d be compelled to proceed with the commonplace portion. But they’d give the warm portions in Turner Hall afterwards. “There came the commonplace things – and they were commonplace. Yesiree Bob! They were so fearfully and awfully commonplace.” The audience stayed to the end, went to the darkened Turner Hall, realized they’d been duped by the show’s promoter, then caught and surrounded the girls as they headed through the Capitol Park to their hotel. Police helped the girls escape to their rooms “where they cowered in fear while the mob outside clamored for the real warm show out of which it had been cheated.”

March 1933: the mayor’s censorship committee banned So This is Africa, a film that was to have played at the Capitol Theater. Disapproval of the picture was reported to Mayor James Law by Mrs. Reginald H. Jackson, the committee’s chair. John Sharnberg, manager of the Capitol, agreed with the decision. “‘The picture is not the type the public would wish to see,’ Mrs. Jackson told The Capital Times. ‘We did not think it was the type of picture Mr. Sharnberg would care to show in Madison. It is a very vulgar movie, and complaints on it have been made all over the country.’”

The film starred comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, a team that made 21 feature films and were RKO Studios’ biggest money makers when the RKO stable included Cary Grant, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, and Barbara Stanwyck. In the film they played a couple of broke, hungry vaudevillians hired to take their tame lions to Africa to make a jungle picture. Once there they had to fend off the amorous advances of a naturalist, a vine-swinging native girl, and a gorilla. They then ran into a fearsome Amazon tribe and an all-male tribe of Tarzans.

In place of the censored film, the Capitol showed What! No Beer?

Mark Gajewski