Monday, October 15, 2018

Offbeat - Julian Emerson

State Theatre performances prompt many memories

Historic performance venue, former movie house being sold as new arts center nears

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    Patrons stream into the doors of The State Theatre to see Kris Kristofferson on March 23. The State is for sale and will close this fall, when the Confluence Arts Center under construction is scheduled to open.

    Staff file photo

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I sat in my theater seat in the large, dark room, watching the action of the science fiction thriller movie “Star Wars” play out on the big screen before me. 

The first film in that series that garnered international acclaim and spawned ongoing sequels that continue today involved whole other galaxies and planets, spaceships shooting lasers, fights involving highly trained Jedis armed with lightsabers and more characters of all sorts than my 7-year-old brain had previously thought possible. 

The movie prompted me to think about good versus bad, about new technologies and about just how big the universe might really be. But if I remember correctly, I mostly liked it because of the movie’s many colorful personalities and the high-drama battles.

I recalled that long-ago movie-watching session a few days ago after reading in this newspaper that The State Theatre in downtown Eau Claire is for sale. During my first summer as a Wisconsin resident I watched the initial “Star Wars” movie in that theater. Little did I know it was the first of so many productions I would enjoy in that space in ensuing decades. 

The list of shows I enjoyed in the four decades since is too long for me to list, or even to remember. There were musicians, bands, big-name performers and those lesser known. Plays of all varieties. World-renown dancers. Events put on by nonprofits. I even had the joy of watching and interacting with family members in the brick building built along Eau Claire Street in 1926.

Many performances

Through the years I have enjoyed many musical performances at the State. Some were famous names. Others weren’t but are quality performers nonetheless. And some were friends who happen to possess musical talent and enjoy performing. 

I recall listening to blues musician James Solberg, who grew up in the Eau Claire area, make his guitar sing with soulful sounds that filled the State. I watched from one of the back rows in March 2014 as a packed house shook and swayed along with upbeat, bluegrass-inspired Trampled By Turtles tunes. I heard the smooth, soothing sounds of the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra on multiple occasions, my appreciation for live jazz growing with each performance.

I took in plays at the State too. I remember the taut emotions I felt as I watched racial tensions play out before me during a production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Other more upbeat theater productions had me yearning to sing and dance along with the performers onstage.

Periodically I visited the Janet Carson Gallery at the State to peruse whatever art was on display and was always glad I did. 

Family ties

Not long after I met the woman who would become my wife, we watched a productionof the play “Brigadoon” from the State’s bal-cony. I was a studentat UW-Eau Claire and was writing about the production for a class. I was in no way qualified as a theater critic, but I remember enjoying the show and my then-girlfriend’s company.

Some years later my wife and I were seated in the audience of a State Theatre production again, this time with our young daughter, Hayley, to see a show based on the popular children’s public television show at that time, “The Magic School Bus.” Hayley was a big fan of the TV show and seemed to enjoy the production until the bus and its riders failed to actually shrink like they did on TV. Last spring my wife staged a public forum at the State about the dangers of human trafficking that included a panel of statewide experts and a lawyer from Boston involved in a federal court case on that topic. 

On two occasions our younger daughter, Emily, was among a group of local dancers chosen to perform in the Moscow Ballet production of the Great Russian Nutcracker when the prestigious dance troupe performed in Eau Claire. My wife and I, alongwith other family members, watched with awe at the amazing skill ofthe talented Russiandancers and with pride as Emily performed her small role as part of the show. 

The second of Emily’s performances with the Moscow Ballet, about a month before Christmas in 2006, was bittersweet. This time my mother-in-law was fighting final-stage cancer. 

Any activity was a struggle, but she was bound and determined to watch Emily, no matter how her battered body resisted. During the performance she applauded her granddaughter, a smile creasing her face. We didn’t know it at the time, but that would be her last public outing. She died a month later.

Other family members were involved with the State too. One of my younger brothers was honored during a ceremony there when he was recognized as the Chippewa Valley young artist of the year. For the past couple of years my mom worked part-time at the theater before leaving that job at the end of October. I enjoyed meeting her there and chatting amid art on display.Past, future

While I appreciate my time at The State Theatre, I also rue the countless performances I wish I would have attended but didn’t. It seems there is never enough time. 

The State will close its doors later this year, to be replaced in September by the shiny new Confluence Arts Center that has an attractive facade, modern performance areas and ample space to accommodate the larger acts not possible in the old theater. 

The State building’s future is uncertain as significant renovations seemingly would be needed for a new venture there. 

In the meantime, I will reflect on the many enjoyable arts performances I experienced in that building and anticipate upcoming performances at the new arts center I hope will expand my imagination just like that “Star Wars” movie did long ago. 

Contact: 715-830-5911, julian.emerson@ecpc.com


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