The Madison Reunion is a party for Madison 50 years later

April 25, 2018 GMT

Longtime Madison residents Ben and Judy Sidran are calling their wide-ranging reunion of Madisonians from all over the world as well as locals, a “party with a purpose.”

When The Madison Reunion takes place in June, the 1960s will be revived for a three-day weekend through live music performances, film, art and a separate paid conference with 32 panel discussions.

The conference, being held in four rooms at the Memorial Union, is already sold-out with 900 people registered. A waiting list has 50 names.

The event, organized by famed Madison jazz pianist Ben Sidran and his wife, Judy, is taking place June 14 to 16, and is centered at the newly renovated Union. Many of the non-conference events are free.

“The events are meant to complement what the ’60s sort of felt like,” said Ben Sidran, who’s been planning the reunion for two years. “It was a lot of art, a lot of culture, a lot of humor, of course, a lot of politics — the importance of activism and journalism — all this stuff together.

“So the idea was to try to put together something in that spirit.”

Ticketed events include Motown Night with The Temptations at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on June 14, and “Reunion Blues” with Boz Scaggs, Tracy Nelson, Ben Sidran and others June 15 in the same hall. The Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers show at Breese Stevens Field on June 16 is also tied into the reunion.

Judy Sidran came up with the idea for “a cultural Woodstock” to celebrate and reflect on the 1960s almost four years ago, but it developed over the last 20 years as the couple traveled the world with Ben Sidran on tour.

“It’s amazing,” Ben Sidran said. “If you play in Osaka, Japan, somebody in the back of the house shouts out ‘Madison!’ or something. People have such loyalty to the place. So that was her thought. I thought, it’s 50 years after the fact, it’s a reunion.”

Judy Sidran said that when they travel, especially in Europe, she meets Madison expats or travelers who come to a show and reminisce about when Ben played the Nitty Gritty or a place called the Creperie back in the day. “And I’d say, ‘Have you been back?’ ”

She’d discover that these people weren’t plugged in to modern-day Madison or getting any information about the city. When she’d ask if they’d like to come back they’d say “yes.” So now she is giving them a reason.

“I didn’t know it was going to be such a big idea,” Judy Sidran said. “It sort of built and built in my mind as something that we should do. And the fact that we stayed here and we love Madison, and we’re proud of Madison — and Paul Soglin’s mayor again,” she said.

The impetus came after Soglin won his last race for mayor — again. That’s when Judy Sidran approached Soglin with the idea. Soglin was an anti-war protester on the UW-Madison campus before first being elected mayor in 1973 at age 28. He’s served as the city’s 51st, 54th, and now 57th and current mayor.

Judy Sidran said that after some initial meetings, “it became clear that it was going to be a lot easier if Ben and I did it ourselves as opposed to having a lot of people involved in the meeting process. It slows things down.”

Ben Sidran came up with all of the panel topics, which include “The Day of DOW,” where Soglin will be one of three panelists discussing the time of the Dow protests, when Soglin was among those beaten by police inside the Commerce building.

Dow — the manufacturer of Napalm, a highly flammable substance used in the Vietnam War — was recruiting on campus and students staged a sit-in. Police in riot gear threw tear gas and started to forcibly remove students.

“The conference is all Ben,” Judy Sidran said. “He felt like there needed to be some meat to the weekend and some deeper meaning.”

Ben Sidran said the first call he made two years ago was to journalist Jeff Greenfield, a fellow UW-Madison alum and friend from the 1960s. He liked the reunion idea, and, “I thought, ‘OK, we have traction here,’ ” said Ben Sidran, who has two degrees from UW-Madison and a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

Greenfield, a former editor of The Daily Cardinal, is going to be part of a panel on the UW-Madison student newspaper with five others.

Another panel, “Civil Rights, Social Justice and the Law,” features Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Madison attorneys Lester Pines and Dean Strang. Strang received widespread attention for representing Steven Avery, whose story was turned into the 2015 Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.”

Former UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley will lead a session called “How UW Scientists Changed the World” with a focus on DNA, stem cells, Warfarin and vitamin D.

“What’s so Funny About Madison? The Comedy Connection,” will feature Andy Bergman, Jim Abrahams and Michael Feldman.

The full line-up can be found here: www.madisonreunion.com/panels-list.

The early-bird initial cost for the conference was $189 and after three months it went up to $229. Those who are registered can go to any or all of the panel discussions.

The registration fees are helping to pay for the free events that are part of the reunion. Ben Sidran also secured more than a dozen local businesses and organizations as sponsors.

Free events include 1960s-themed music at the Union Terrace each night, a dance party in the Great Hall called Motown vs. Stax, art and photo exhibits in different locations around town, a 1960s film series and an ice cream social.

Ben Sidran, 74, grew up in Racine and came to Madison as a 17-year-old high school senior when someone from Racine needed a piano player for a Madison band. He began coming to Madison every weekend, crashing in a fraternity house. “I just fell in love with Madison. I don’t know how to describe it. It felt like the right size. I felt like it had great people,” he said.

UW-Madison was the only university he applied to, and back in 1961, students from Wisconsin high schools had no trouble getting in, he said.

Judy Sidran, 70, graduated with an English degree from UW-Madison and became a weaver. She spent most of her career as a travel agent and traveled the globe, with and without her family.

The couple has a son, Leo, 41, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a composer for films and television commercials. Leo Sidran is also a recording artist and host of a podcast focusing on the “creative class.”

While there’ll be a lot of nostalgia over the weekend, the reunion will also focus on the “very difficult times” the country is in now, with the goal of motivating people in a positive way, Ben Sidran said.

His hope is make those who attend realize that just like in the 1960s, they can seize opportunities to make the world better. “Action was very important to us,” he said.

“I think people are a bit traumatized,” Ben Sidran said. “It’s sort of like mass PTSD with what’s happened in the last couple of years. I mean, we’ve never seen anything like this. ... We always had faith in the government being stable at least, and now people are scared. So maybe the conference can provide some counterbalance to that.”