For starters, the venerable venue at 3810 Main, which opened as a silent-movie house in 1926, won't be a House of Blues, although the chain's Lawrence-based local branch will book about five shows a month there. Nor will it be a premium-attraction concert hall like the Uptown Theater, which boasts nearly four times the Madrid's capacity (estimated at 550). However, the renovated Madrid does share several key strengths with the Uptown: antique grandeur (nearly every performer who plays the Uptown comments on its classiness; look for the Madrid, with its seven-foot fountain, intricately designed cherubs and painstakingly restored interior, to attract at least an equal number of compliments), a striking marquee (not the original but modeled in its image) and availability for private rentals on off nights.
But comparisons to the Uptown -- and to any other area venue -- end there. The Madrid (whose new caretakers have resurrected and embraced its original motto, "The Distinctive Theatre") will offer salsa and ballroom dancing on Friday nights. Hosted by Perry and Diane Gingrich of Ballroom Unlimited, these weekly affairs will take advantage of the venue's massive sixty-by-forty-foot reinforced wooden dance floor, which president/owner Kerry Duffin estimates to be one of the largest in the Midwest. As befitting a newly minted Olympic sport, the Madrid will take ballroom dancing seriously: proper dress required, and no smoking or drinking on the dance floor. (Smoking won't be allowed at all in the venue, save for a hazy designated room in which even those who have run out of cigarettes will be able to cop a secondhand buzz.)
The Madrid won't be strictly ballroom -- other regular events on tap include a Sunday soul food brunch replete with gospel music, and an occasional opera on Sunday nights. A few concerts have already been announced: Keller Williams and Karl Denson on August 25; Keb' Mo' on September 27; Ratdog on October 13. (It's a virtual certainty that Shawn Colvin won't be playing a ribbon-cutting gig on July 28 as originally rumored, though that show has yet to be rescheduled.) There's a "Marilyn M" slated to play on September 8, but premature ticket-buyers who figured this was another small-club show by the Antichrist Superstar might be disappointed to learn that the entertainer in question is esteemed vocalist Marilyn Maye.
Most of the acts booked thus far -- coffee-house folkies and hippie jammers -- play in genres that lend themselves to "An evening with ..." billing; that somewhat pretentious, somewhat endearing disclaimer lets fans know the events will be interactive, not just standstill concerts. Hard-rocking bands are notably absent from the calendar thus far, and it's unlikely they'll pop up anytime soon. After all, this is first and foremost a ballroom, and indelicate moshers tend to scuff the fancy floor.
"It's upscale entertainment," clarifies Melissa Pepper, the Madrid's marketing director. "It's for people who want to plan their evening around an event, not drinking. It's designed for the local movers and shakers, the hipsters -- people who want to have a good time and have a good time doing it."
To further ensure patrons won't have a bad time having a good time, the Madrid offers plush booths, excellent balcony-level sight-lines modeled after the original theater seating and vendors that operate out of old-school push-style carts. Or at least it will offer them eventually. It's hard to imagine the theater, still covered in sawdust that in turn covers decades-old regular dust, will transform into a luxurious hot spot in time for, say, Review's Rent party on Thursday, July 26. Still, such an established entity as House of Blues appears to have the clout to succeed in a neighborhood where so many optimistic independent club owners have failed. (Anyone remember Millennium?)
One of the struggles these other venues faced was parking, a concern that businesses surrounding the Madrid have already publicly expressed. In response, the theater has prepared a plan that indicates more than 130 spaces, including leased spots at New York Times Square Video and First Bank. The demolition of the long-abandoned Sanderson's restaurant next door, set for early August, will open up forty spots directly adjacent to the Madrid, and all parking, Pepper assures, will be well-lit and security-patrolled.
Some music lovers might be disappointed that the Madrid won't siphon Bottleneck shows to Kansas City or host concerts by the touring metal acts area fans so adore. Nonetheless, the opening of a genuinely distinctive attraction -- in an inferiority-complex-stricken metropolis that's increasingly proud of wooing chains -- marks a concrete step toward bringing those fantasies of a thriving inner-city nightlife closer to reality.