In Madison, Wis., the King of Quirks

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

The magazines and trade associations that rank cities for one thing or another constantly mention Madison, Wis. A visitors bureau handout lists 65 accolades from recent years, including "Best Places to Live in America" (Money magazine), "Best Walking Cities" (Prevention) and "Best College Sports Town" (Sports Illustrated).

According to America's list makers, Madison is also one of the friendliest, best-designed, healthiest, most literate, best-wired little cities in the country, with the best biking, canoeing and hotel rooms under $125.

It takes Michael Feldman, who hosts the public radio show "Whad'Ya Know?" from Madison's convention center, to put the boosterism into perspective.

"If you don't factor in the weather, Madison is number one for everything," says Feldman. "If you do consider weather, it's 159th."

My thoughts on first seeing Madison on a warm spring day: It's like an idealized New England town designed in Berkeley, Calif. The University of Wisconsin campus has stately buildings with wide green spaces for student lounging, and the downtown begins with a leafy square, from which streets lined with tidy old buildings branch off. And it's not one of those fakey old downtowns. It's a real downtown, where you can buy not only presents but also everyday items, like a notebook or ball of twine.

Feldman, whose humor/quiz show is broadcast over more than 300 stations nationwide, provides a bird's-eye view of the area that creates another more vivid mental picture.

"From the air, it looks like a giant sinus cavity," he says, "with Madison as the septum."

During the tour through Madison that Feldman agrees to squire, I never get an aerial view. But any map will show you he's right.

Taking the sinus cavity perspective, the campus sprawls just above the bridge of a large nose. The lively downtown stretches down an isthmus -- a nose-shape strip with shops, restaurants and a spiffy performing arts center in the midst of a $200 million expansion.

The State Capitol is in the nostrils area. Drainage, namely Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, sit on either side of the nose.

I meet Feldman in the Capitol rotunda. Easily as impressive as the U.S. Capitol, which served as its model, the Wisconsin version looks brighter and better, probably because of the $145 million renovation project completed a few years ago.

On this day, blind people representing various organizations are spread in a circle at tables beneath the Capitol dome. I approach Ralph Barten of Ladysmith, Wis., who is representing the Wisconsin Coalition of Blind Hunters. Sure, people who are blind can hunt in Wisconsin, Barten tells me. In fact, he says, last year the state legalized the use of laser pointers on guns and bows for blind hunters.

What you do is take a sighted companion, who describes where the animal is, and you shoot it. With a laser, it's a lot easier for the sighted person to know when you've got your shot lined up right.

"Some companions just say, 'There's a deer to the right,' " says Barten. "But good companions can make it really exciting, with great descriptions of what's happening."

Barten also mounts antlers and makes stuff from them, like hat racks and toilet paper holders. He calls his Ladysmith shop Ralph's Rack Shack.

This month a referendum passed that would allow hunters to shoot stray cats. How can hunters identify which cats are fair game? "You know they're strays when they don't respond to pleasantries," says Feldman. The governor has said that if a bill passes the legislature, he'll veto it.

As we walk through the Capitol, Feldman tells me to look for fossils embedded in the walls. "Not former members, real ones." And right there, on the grand staircase, fourth step from the bottom, is a starfish fossil, estimated to be 400 million years old. Turns out that dozens of ancient ammonites are set into the massive stones used to build the Capitol.

Volunteers give tours hourly, but Feldman has arranged for us to meet Democratic Rep. Spencer Black. "He might be the last remaining liberal in the Wisconsin State House, and a really nice guy," Feldman says.

"Is he your representative?"

"Well, I thought he was and complained to him for years," answers Feldman. "Finally he found out what side of the street I live on and gave me the name of my real rep."

Black is in a closed room, fighting to open the hearings on a bill Feldman recognizes and calls a "pro-pollution bill." Black pops out long enough to tell us that the Capitol is a great place to see government in action.

"With the exception of the closed hearings," interjects Feldman, a middle-aged guy with dark, unruly hair who mentions that he used to be 5 foot 11 inches but is down a quarter-inch.

From outside the Capitol, we get a good look at the majestic statue atop the peak of the dome. It's the gold-plated figure of a woman with a "W" on her chest, an ear of corn behind each ear and a badger perched on her head.

By law, no structure can be taller than the Capitol, so the badger's butt is the highest point in Madison -- facts noted in the book "Wisconsin Curiosities," co-authored by Feldman.

I'm beginning to realize that this quirky guy comes from a quirky state. And despite all of the trendy, arty sophistication of Madison, the state's quirks shine through.

The ultimate arty side of Madison is within view of the Capitol: the Overture Center for the Arts.

Madison was already a Midwest center for arts and culture when native son W. Jerome Frautschi and his wife Pleasant Rowland, creator of the American Girl dolls, decided to donate a record-breaking $200 million to expand the downtown center.

The completed first phase includes a 2,257-seat, state-of-the-art performing arts theater with walls and panels that shift and move by computer, to maximize acoustics for various types of performances. When the second phase is finished next spring, the center will house nine resident arts groups, including an opera company, a ballet company, a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra and theater companies.

The addition, designed by architect Cesar Pelli, comes highly acclaimed. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians who performed there proclaimed it better than any hall they'd ever played.

I return to the center that evening and during a performance of Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, I hear and feel in my bones the results of world-class acoustics. The well-regarded resident companies do full seasons at the center, which features seven performance and five visual-arts spaces.

Most of the seats in the center's main hall are 19 inches wide. People of extreme girth may request the section with seats that are 22 inches wide. No extra charge -- just reveal your backside needs when reserving tickets.

After a quick tour of the center during our day together, Feldman and I stroll up State Street, which connects the Capitol and the campus.

Feldman, who grew up in Milwaukee, arrived at the Madison campus as a freshman in 1967, just in time for the last panty raid. Within months, the antiwar movement exploded. Feldman points out Bascom Hill and remembers when National Guardsmen violently clashed with student protesters.

"Today, it's where kids nap between classes," says Feldman. "We're in a period of student rest. Actually, Madison is a hotbed of student rest. There's still an occasional protest, but it's usually about beer permits."

Feldman has been here so long, he says, that he's beginning to see members of his class return for retirement. During his years here, he's driven a cab, taught at an alternative high school and did a volunteer gig on a Friday night radio call-in show for "the undateable, bedridden and geriatric" -- Feldman's description. One thing led to another until 1985, when he launched "Whad'Ya Know?" Twenty years later, he says the show is about everything he knows how to do: free-associate, use a microphone, write jokes and take phone calls.

We walk into the Rathskeller in the student union, where student agitators used to hatch their protest schemes. The walls are a sooty, nicotine brown.

"They thought the walls were stained with cigarette smoke, but they cleaned them and found out the paint was actually that color," says Feldman. "You used to be able to smoke pot here; now you can't smoke cigarettes."

We gather lunch from the student union cafeteria line and sit at brightly colored metal tables that stretch to Lake Mendota. It's one of the prettiest places in Madison -- a scene that Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss described as "a little splash of Paris set down in the American Midwest" in his book "They Marched Into Sunlight," about the division the Vietnam War brought to America.

Feldman says some student protest leaders never left Madison. Well-known organizer Paul Soglin, for example, was mayor for a while, but is now an investment adviser. Two farm boys, brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong, returned to Madison after serving years in prison for using fertilizer bombs to blow up a math research building in 1970.

"Dwight drives a cab. Karl owns a restaurant and a smoothie cart. The cart sells things like Angela Davis Banana Smoothies and Dick Gregory Mochas," says Feldman. "The kids have no idea what the names refer to."

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright is another Madison guy. The home and studio he built for himself, Taliesin, is 38 miles away and open to visitors. Two Wright houses and a church are within city limits. Additionally, Wright designed before his death the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, where Feldman holds his live show Saturday mornings. City leaders weren't always keen on Wright, and it took 60 years to get the center built along the shores of Lake Monona.

"The best view is from the water," Feldman says. "From Madison, all you see is the back of it. It's like he's mooning the city."

The next day, on my own, I take Feldman's advice to check out the university milking barns to see cows that have portholes in their stomachs so that students can study their digestive systems. Seems cruel, but the cows appear content and perfectly normal, except for the see-through stomachs. A pre-vet student says that if I wait while she returns some foals to pasture, she'll open the porthole and give me a closer look. Really, I've seen enough.

I head back downtown to the Wisconsin Historical Museum, across the street from the Capitol, and encounter a life-size rendering of a cow that is standing on nuts, bolts and rivets. A card explains that the display "is a reminder that manufacturing has been as vital to Wisconsin's economy as fields of grass filled with milk-producing Holsteins."

On the next floor, behind a glass wall, is an exhibit of a typical Wisconsin family room in the early 1990s. The next exhibit is a typical Wisconsin kitchen from the same period. Cupboards are open so you can see what kinds of things people in Wisconsin ate in the 1990s. Clearly they had a varied, high-salt diet, judging from the cans of Hormel chili, Hunt's tomato paste and Campbell's chicken noodle soup.

Feldman, when I later check back to report on my solo adventures, laughs, but can explain.

"We badgers get nostalgic very quickly."

Yet another quirk in a charming, quirky place.

Details: Madison, Wis.

GETTING THERE: Northwest will begin daily nonstops to Madison from Reagan National on June 9, with round-trip fares from about $287. American, Northwest, Midwest, Continental, United and Delta operate connecting flights starting at about $160 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Ruby Marie (524 E. Wilson St., 608-327-7829, ) is a 19th-century-style inn furnished with antiques. Weekday rates start at $72 double, $110 on weekends. For luxury, Mansion Hill Inn (424 N. Pinckney St., 800-798-9070, ) is a finely restored Victorian mansion. Some rooms have whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. Weekday rates start at $155 double, $185 on weekends.

There are numerous brand-name hotels. We were pleased with the Best Western Inn on the Park (22 S. Carroll St., 800-279-8811, ), overlooking Capitol Square in the heart of town. Doubles start at $89 per night.

WHERE TO EAT: Madison boasts two gourmet restaurants that feature organic, locally grown food prepared in French and American styles. Both offer views of the Capitol square. The more famous of the two: L'Etoile (25 N. Pinckney, 608-251-0500, ), where most entrees are about $28, and reservations are critical. At Harvest (21 N. Pinckney, 608-255-6075, ), most entrees are about $25.

It doesn't look like much from the outside, but Tornado Steak House (116 S. Hamilton St., 608-256-3570) serves prime beef, from about $20. For lunch, go on the University of Wisconsin's campus to Memorial Union (800 Langdon St., 608-265-3000, ). The cafeteria-style food isn't anything to write home about, but the view of the lake and campus is unsurpassed. Afterward, stroll to the campus's Babcock Hall Dairy Store (1605 Linden Dr., 608-262-3045, ) for ice cream, cheese and yogurt. Michael Feldman's favorite hangout is the Crystal Corner Bar (1302 Williamson St., 608-256-2953, ), which has live bands, and serves only drinks and pizza ($8 for a 12-inch pie).

"WHAD'YA KNOW?": Michael Feldman's radio show -- which is broadcast at noon Saturdays on WAMU (88.5 FM) in D.C. and at WYPR (88.1) in Baltimore -- is performed live Saturdays at 10 a.m. at the Monona Terrace Civic Center in Madison. Tickets are $10.50. Details: 608-262-2201, .

INFORMATION: Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau , 800-373-6376, . For university information, including museums and activities: 608-263-2400, .

-- Cindy Loose

© 2005 The Washington Post Company