The soft, dark red chair perched in the balcony of The State Theatre in downtown Eau Claire provided an elevated, backed-off view of the performance playing out onstage below.
I sat in that chair on a spring evening 26 years ago, taking in the play “Brigadoon.” Next to me was my girlfriend at the time, Jodi, the woman who would subsequently become my wife.
I was a student at UW-Eau Claire then. I can’t recall whether I was reviewing the play for a journalism class, the school newspaper or an English course I was enrolled in.
My wife contends watching the play constituted our first official date. I can’t remember that either, but if it was, it was a precursor to many of our future “dates” that involved me carrying a pen and notebook, covering one event or another as a journalist.
Watching “Brigadoon,” I enjoyed not only the acting and singing in front of me but the the venue’s antiquated feel, right down to the red-pink lights on the walls that glowed in the surrounding dark.
Little did I know I would view so many performances in that venerable theater in future years.
Years later, in 2006, Roxanne Deinhammer shuffled slowly under the lit marquee above and through the theater’s front door, then ascended the steps to a seat in that same balcony where I had watched “Brigadoon.” She was accompanied by my wife, helping her mother navigate the steps and rows of chairs.
My mother-in-law was suffering from cancer. But neither that nor the early winter chill would prevent her from watching her granddaughter Emily dance at the State as part of a performance by the renowned Moscow Ballet’s Christmas classic “The Nutcracker.”
Emily had been part of a previous performance of that show a few years earlier, and Jodi and I beamed with pride as our daughter danced with others onstage. We were just as proud for this production, but this time was different. Our evening was tinged with concerns about Roxie and heavy with the thought there may not be many more events with her.
Roxie mustered enthusiasm for the show, her face beaming when Emily took the stage. It was among the last times I saw her smile. That event was Roxie’s final time in public. She died a short time later.
Thankfully, other performances I experienced at the State were far more upbeat. I had the pleasure of hearing so many great musicians enliven that theater with their skills and souls, from the heartfelt blues of James Solberg to the boisterous bluegrass of Trampled By Turtles to the swinging swooning of Davina and the Vagabonds to the talented sounds of many local musicians. And there were so many concerts I wish I would have attended but didn’t.
I saw plays too, using the “Brigadoon” performance as a springboard to enjoy the acting skills of subsequent shows. I especially liked viewing “The Magic School Bus” there with my older daughter Hayley.
A couple years ago I watched with pride as a panel put together by my wife that included an attorney from Boston and a representative of the U.S. Attorney’s Office discussed efforts to fight human trafficking after a showing of the movie “I am Jane Doe.”
In another family tie to the State, one of my younger brothers received an award there for his artwork. And my family watched “Star Wars” in the theater back in 1977 when the State was a movie theater.
On Tuesday my wife and I attended a celebration of the history of the State. The lobby was full of items on display depicting the theater’s past.
Theater staff members mingled with visitors, some of whom had performed at the theater. They reminisced about performances past, about memories built in the time since the structure at 316 Eau Claire St. opened as a vaudeville theater in 1926.
Jodi and I wandered through the theater one last time, through the lobby where Emily danced once again during a performance last summer, then up to the balcony, then downstairs where performers gathered before shows.
We exited the building, looking at the familiar bulb-lit marquee as we pondered the venue’s past. The ceremony felt like a funeral, folks both celebrating and lamenting the theater’s history.
Then I spied the future of Eau Claire’s performing arts, behind my view of the marquee, glimmering in the sun’s glow, the soon-to-open Pablo Center at the Confluence, a place where more memories will be made.