Before there was the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild, Eau Claire Children’s Theatre or even Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre in Eau Claire, there was UW-Eau Claire’s summer theater.
The program ran summers from 1965 to 1998 and covered 126 productions reaching 300,000 audience members, said UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus Wil Denson, who worked, performed and directed summer theater shows. He estimates 500-plus students, university faculty and community members were in the company throughout those 33 years.
“The Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild, the children’s theater and Fanny Hill (dinner theater) were all started by my students that came out of that program,” Denson said. “I’m very proud of it. I think we did good work.”
Denson recently decided he didn’t want that history to be forgotten. In May he started doing research on the program, delving into old newspaper articles, going through the university’s archives and connecting with his former students.
“I spent at least two months just looking at photos,” Denson said. “And once you start doing something like that, memories start to come back.”
The result? “Life Upon the Wicked Stage: Director’s Cut,” his new book that was published in January. It features everyone who participated in summer theater from actors to technicians and choreographers as well as a list of all of the productions with the dates of performances combined with Denson’s and his students’ and colleagues’ recollections.
“I wanted to tell stories that my ex-students remembered, that they lived — the good times, the parties and the standing ovations,” he said. “And for a whole lot of Chippewa Valley audience members, I would like to remind them what it was like (to attend).”
Denson and a few former summer theater buffs will hold a book reading and signing at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St. His book will be available for $15 at the reading.
The book also dives into what it was like to actually be a part of the group — including the “after-performance parties” at Rod & Gun Park, which Denson recalled used to be “the late night party place.”
He had a lot of fun recalling memories with old friends and former students, many of whom have gone on to have success of their own.
Actor Pat O’Brien (a television and film actor known for his role as Mr. Dewey in “Saved by the Bell,” among many others), Chicago-area director Gary Griffin, actor Laila Robbins (”Planes, Trains and Automobiles”), Barry Anderson (”Jersey Boys” and “Legally Blonde”), ECCT founder Wayne Marek, CVTG co-founders Carole Spenser and Robert Carr and many more.
It was those friends that convinced Denson to write the book, said current ECCT actor Steve Turek , who worked with the summer theater from 1977 to 1998.
“I had programs back to 1977 and newspaper articles from the Leader-Telegram,” said Turek, who will be speaking with Denson at the reading. “It was fun getting together with Wil (Denson), Carole (Spenser) and a few others just to retell the stories. We kept pushing him, saying ‘You need to write this down.’ “
It is thanks to summer theater Turek developed his love for the art.
He started as a chorus member for “Fiddler on the Roof” and general apprentice in 1977, learning everything from costumes to set building, performing and directing. When he became a teacher in the Elk Mound school district, those skills came in handy once more when he took on the role of director for the school theater.
“It was a true learning experience for me, and I loved getting to know all of the aspects of theater,” he said. “I think it made me a better teacher because there were a lot of dramatics I could incorporate into my classroom.”
In the summer theater’s last year, Turek made it full circle, directing “Fiddler on the Roof,” the first show he had done for the program. He also worked under Denson’s direction for the summer theater’s production of “Annie,” and as an adult, he has played Daddy Warbucks a number of times for ECCT.
He still sees audience members who ask him about his summer theater days, and said there are “a lot of memories out there” that he hopes will be recalled at the “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” reading.
Turek said he has heard many former summer theater actors are returning to the area for the reading, and he is looking forward to catching up with everyone.
“I hope people will recall good times, laugh and reminisce,” he said. “I think it really is going to be a celebration and a ‘thank you’ to Wil.”
A lot has changed since Eau Claire’s summer theater days, which Denson said he believes ended for two reasons: financial concerns and entertainment competition — namely, cable television.
“When I came to Eau Claire there was one TV station you could get and it went off the air at 11 p.m. or something,” Denson said. “The competition got so much tougher, and college costs went up. We cold no longer afford to pay our students a living wage.”
He is proud to see the community theater groups doing so well, but thinks priorities have changed for the university and doesn’t think a summer theater program could thrive again today.
That doesn’t mean he has nothing to be thankful for. On the contrary, Denson is quite proud of what has flourished from the program.
“There are two things I’m most proud of: The people who came out of that program and did well. They didn’t turn out to be Michael Jackson, but they were Pat O’Brien, Laila Robbins — people that are in the business know about these people,” Denson said. “And the influence we had on the Eau Claire public, people who had never went to theater and learned it wasn’t all Shakespeare and had a good time.”
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