For longer than nearly all Eau Claire residents have been alive, the iconic State Theatre’s marquee has lit up downtown’s Eau Claire Street, welcoming people in to vaudeville shows, movies and, over the past three decades, live theater.
On Tuesday, the doors of the State will close to the public for the final time, at least in its current state. Eau Claire Regional Arts Council board of directors vice president William Wallo said the building is still for sale. Though they have had a number of prospective buyers, nothing yet has stuck.
It will be the first time since it was built in 1926 that the iconic structure won’t host something, said Rose Dolan-Neill, former arts council visual art director and current visual and literary arts manager for the soon-to-open Pablo Center at the Confluence down the street. After a few years of hosting vaudeville shows and traveling performers, it was a movie house for decades until the early 1980s, and in 1984 the building was donated by Eau Claire residents Gene Grengs and Warren Barber to the arts council to use as a performing arts center.
“It had really humble beginnings, but it was an amazing gift to our community,” Dolan-Neill said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have such a good building to perform in, to have gallery exhibits in. But now our community has grown, and bigger and better productions are coming.”
Again, Eau Claire community members find themselves fortunate in the Pablo Center, a state-of-the-art, $59 million project featuring three floors with two theaters, two art galleries, dressing rooms, rehearsal space and classrooms for UW-Eau Claire’s theater department. It is a big step forward, indeed, and there is plenty of excitement for what the future holds.
But first, its time to give the State a community send-off. Folks can gather to “Celebrate The State Theatre” from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the iconic venue.
‘Big, happy family’
When the building was given to the arts council, it housed a majority of local entertainment groups: Eau Claire Children’s Theatre and Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild both had office spaces there, and the Chippewa Valley’s symphony and chamber orchestras still have space there.
“It was one really big, happy family when it started,” Dolan-Neill said.
She has worked for the arts council for a little over nine years, but her first memories of the State extend much further back.
As a seventh-grader, Dolan-Neill recalled her first experience with the famous “ECRAC-ula,” a bat — or many, she never was sure — that made very famous swoops onto the stage during shows. She recalled volunteering backstage for a touring production of “Annie,” when one of the girls in the show was near tears after the bat swooped “an inch away” from her while performing. For her, it was a traumatizing moment. For Dolan-Neill and her team of volunteers, it was just another show.
“We all had our bat stories,” she said. “ECRAC-ula still is there, but at this point he was really active. I’m sure almost everybody who has been in that theater has an ECRAC-ula story.”
Dolan-Neill moved to New York City after college, but later found herself back where she started — in love with the State, this time working with the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, or ECRAC, where she has remained since.
It’s held hundreds of performances ranging from community theater productions to traveling companies, UW-Madison’s Varsity Band and a host of nationally recognized acts.
For actress Kat Taylor, who began dancing on the State’s stage in middle school, having access to such a venue was the equivalent, as a child, to being on Broadway. More than that, though, it helped her fall in love with performing, which she has done in some regard since.
“The State has done a really good job of helping children experience theater in so many ways and for them to go on pursuing theater as a career,” Taylor said. “It helped the community explore that sense of Broadway, to know what it’s like to be on a stage and to fall in love with theater.”
Or to fall in love with the State itself, which arts council office coordinator Meredith Pirazzini said many people have done over the years. She’s been working there for 15 years and has seen countless students request the venue to take senior photos, host several weddings, and return over and over again for shows.
“The very visible marquee is a signal to people, especially when it’s lit, that this is the place to come for a night out,” Pirazzini said. “It’s been visited by many, many people.”
The State opened on Jan. 20, 1926, as a “majestic ‘amusement palace,’” according to the city’s 2006 National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Confluence Commercial Historic District, which includes the theater. It cost $315,000 and was one of hundreds around the country that opened under the Finkelstein and Ruben circuit to house vaudeville acts.
The building houses what was once two separate buildings, the L-shaped theater and the Northern States Theatre Company Building — which at one point held a ballroom, offices and, until the mid-1970s, Pat Boyd’s bowling alley below street level — which Dolan-Neill said you can still see semblances of today.
She recalled her grandfather telling a story of when he used to work there as a teenage pin setter.
“He didn’t have that job for long because L.E. Phillips — the L.E. Phillips — broke my grandfather’s leg with a bowling ball,” she said with a laugh. “He apparently had a wicked curveball.”
On a tour of the basement, she pointed out you can still see the original tiles, and the floor is all subfloor over the original wood lanes.
“I’m sure this looked a little more grand back in the day,” she said.
Above the bowling alley is a new addition facing Eau Claire Street that used to be a parking lot. She said it was added in the late 1980s to give some more backstage space for theater companies. Still, it wasn’t enough, and some shows still use the theater’s back alley to hold scenery.
Other original items still inside the building include film canister storage — how workers would keep track of changing the reels for a movie — inside the theater’s old projection booth from its movie theater days.
“It was actually assembled in the little rooms, and we cannot get it out without destroying it,” Dolan-Neill said.
There are tiny bathrooms on the second floor that are no longer in use, doors leading to nowhere, tiny passageways above the theater that are used to change light bulbs and lamps from the Minnesota Civic Auditorium, which, when it was demolished, gave many items to the State.
“It’s kind of like a fun museum in here,” she said, adding they are working with Chippewa Valley Museum and UW-Eau Claire’s archives collection to preserve some of the items. However, anything that is bolted down will go with the sale of the building.
There are also some really beautiful parts, such as the lobby, of which the ceilings were all hand-painted by local artist Gene Leisz using photographs of the original ceiling to re-create stencil patterns, according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination.
The next chapter
With a rich history comes a lot of responsibility, and Dolan-Neill said every day there is something else to fix. Cracks in the ceiling, the original stage being brittle and leaks when it rains are just a few problems they’ve run into over the years.
In addition, Taylor said the stage that once seemed so grand now feels a bit crowded when doing shows.
“It’s quite amazing to go from years ago, thinking the stage was so big, and now looking at it and being like, ‘Oh, I’m already on the other side of the stage,’” she said. “We have a really nice space at the State, but this community has so much more potential, so I’m excited to see where that goes with the new arts center.”
That seems to be the sentiment in the arts council offices these days, Pirazzini said. She described the move — as many people associated with the State have in recent months — as bittersweet.
“I did hope to work at the State until the doors closed, and that’s proving to be true, so it’s nice to see this go through,” Pirazzini said. “When we started talking about a new arts center, none of us knew how these conversations would turn out and what would be supported.”
Though closing the building is a job in itself, she said it feels good to have that closure. She and the rest of the arts council staff’s final day in the building is Aug. 31.
At this point, the building remains for sale. Members of Eau Claire’s Landmark Commission have expressed concern about any restrictions that could be placed on the sale that could increase the possibility of demolition of the building.
Wallo, the arts council vice president, said the board wants to work with all parties to come up with the best solution for the building. The hope is to have it become something that “complements” the Pablo Center rather than competes with it.
“Our goal is to be flexible in working something out,” Wallo said. “We understand the Landmark Commission’s concerns, and I think we all share them. Everybody that has been part of the State recognizes its importance to downtown, and nobody wants it to go away. The question is how best to incorporate it into what’s going on downtown.”
There are still a lot of questions, but one thing that has never been in doubt is the significance of the building. In 92 years, its created millions of memories.
Perhaps Pirazzini put it best: “There’s an emotional attachment that comes from spending so much time here, that means so much to so many people. The age is part of its charm.”
Contact: 715-833-9214, firstname.lastname@example.org, @KatherineMacek on Twitter.
IF YOU GO
What: “Celebrate The State Theatre.”
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: The State Theatre, 316 Eau Claire St.
Admission: Free; tickets not required.
Information: eauclairearts.com, 715-832-2787.