Dennis Miller knows firsthand about the traumatic impact on local families when Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. closed its Eau Claire plant in June 1992.
Miller, an electrician at the plant for 15 years, was one of about 250 workers who chose to transfer to another Uniroyal Goodrich plant rather than lose his benefits and be thrust into unemployment. He ended up working at the company’s tire factory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for seven years until he reached age 55, qualified for his pension and moved back to the Chippewa Valley.
Nearly 1,400 employees lost their livelihoods in the shutdown. The upheaval had such a dramatic effect on Miller and his fellow rubber workers that he wrote “America’s Heartbeat,” a book about the experience, five years after the closing. Miller, an insightful observer of the world around him, wrote in novel form because he wanted to get across the anguish of an event that brought about divorces, domestic abuse and suicides without identifying the people involved.
A central character in the novel was a 52-year-old Uniroyal worker named Brian Chandler. Ever since the book’s release, Miller said local residents have approached him with questions about the identity and fate of Brian.
That curiosity sparked a new writing project for the prolific Miller, now 75 and the author of 12 books and producer of seven films, including “Voices of the Past,” a documentary detailing the history of the Eau Claire tire plant.
His latest work — appropriately titled “What Happened to Brian?” — seeks to answer the main question inspired by his novel about the Uniroyal closing.
Stage and screen versions
Readers theater productions of the story will be performed at 5 and 7 p.m. Monday at the State Theatre. As an intimate backstage production, audience members will be seated on the stage near performers from the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild and Miller, who will deliver introductory and closing statements. A film version of the performance, including added special effects and video clips, will premiere Feb. 10 at Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls.
Dori Pulse, one of five performers in the “What Happened to Brian?” cast, said being part of the production has been eye-opening, giving her a greater appreciation for how the closing affected the lives of those who worked at what had been the city’s signature workplace for 75 years.
She called the performance “a wonderful and powerful way to transmit an emotional upheaval in the community through the words of Dennis.”
“When I read through it the first time, I was totally moved and became very emotional,” Pulse said. “What this did is just reaffirm to me the extreme importance of history and understanding what happened and why and how it influences today.”
Promoting a tire museum
Miller said he hopes the presentation will serve as a call to build a tire museum to ensure people never forget the giant factory that for decades was one of the city’s largest private employers, providing jobs to an estimated 20,000 people over the years. A museum could preserve the history of the plant that made Eau Claire known worldwide, he added.
“I know I’m biased, but what the tire plant contributed to this city warrants more than we’ve given it,” Miller said. “It’s already been 25 years since the plant closed, and the fact is in another 25 years it will all be forgotten.”
Admirably, even at an age when many retirees are content to let younger folks lead the charge for their causes, Miller is determined not to let that happen. He vows to devote any proceeds from “What Happened to Brian?” to conducting video interviews of aging former Uniroyal employees to preserve their stories for the potential tire museum that is his dream. I, for one, will be rooting for that dream to come true.
Miller is motivated by such experiences as having a young office worker once ask him “What’s Uniroyal?” while standing in a hallway at Banbury Place, the multi-use facility created in the buildings that comprised the 1.9 million-square-foot tire factory complex, and what he called the “sad reality” that a new generation of workers doesn’t even recognize fringe benefits after the decline of labor unions.
“We are forgetting the past, and I believe that is a mistake,” Miller said. “Even with the faults that are there, we can still learn something from the past.”
Contact: 715-833-9209, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ealscoop on Twitter
If You Go
What: “What Happened to Brian?” a readers theater production by Dennis Miller of Eau Claire about a worker who lost his job in the 1992 closing of the city’s Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant.
Live performances: 5 and 7 p.m. Monday, backstage at The State Theatre, 316 Eau Claire St.
Premiere film showing: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at Heyde Center for the Arts, 3 S. High St., Chippewa Falls, following a presentation by Miller titled “Why to Write.”
• Anyone interested in helping Dennis Miller’s effort to start a tire museum in Eau Claire is encouraged to email him at email@example.com.