Menomonie Theater Guild Celebrates 60 Years as Region’s Longest-Running Community Troupe

Tom Giffey

THE SMELL OF THE GREASEPAINT, THE ROAR OF THE CROWD. The Menomonie Theater Guild has produced hundreds of shows in its 60-year history, including The Glass Menagerie (above) earlier this month and South Pacific (top) in 1976. Lucy Weidner, who starred in the latter production, will perform at the guild’s anniversary gala.
THE SMELL OF THE GREASEPAINT, THE ROAR OF THE CROWD. The Menomonie Theater Guild has produced hundreds of shows in its 60-year history, including The Glass Menagerie (above) earlier this month and South Pacific (below) in 1976. Lucy Weidner, who starred in the latter production, will perform at the guild’s anniversary gala. (IMAGE: Timothy Mather)

In 1958, hoping to provide a creative outlet for residents and to help preserve the historic Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, a group of forward-thinking Menomonie residents created the Menomonie Theater Guild. Now, 60 years later, the group is still active and strong, providing performers a place to be “the artists they knew they were,” says longtime member Marion Lang.

I love to feel a community coming together through an artistic experience. They laugh and they cry and they become restless and they absorb.” – Marion Lang, longtime Menomonie Theater Guild member

The group, which bills itself as the “oldest existing community theater organization in western Wisconsin,” will celebrate its history on May 20 with an annual meeting and anniversary gala. A highlight of the gala will be a musical revue featuring songs from shows produced by the guild during each of its six decades. Thom Flug, vice president of the group’s board of directors, says the audience should expect tunes from South Pacific, Oliver, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Brigadoon, Pippin, Spitfire Grill, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, as well as Company (which the guild staged last winter) and Carnival (the very first musical the troupe put on back in 1968). Many of the songs will be performed by the same actors and actresses who sang them in their original MTG productions, offering longtime local theater fans a trip down memory lane. Among them will be Lucy Weidner, who will perform “Honey Bun” from South Pacific, just as she did in that show’s 1976 production.

“Probably the first time I ever walked in that theater was in 1975 when I auditioned to be in the chorus of South Pacific and ended up being the lead,” Weidner recalls when asked about her favorite theater guild memories.

More than four decades later – after acting, directing, choreographing, serving as technical director, and spending two terms of the guild’s president – Weidner still feels privileged to perform in the Mabel Tainter. However, she’s also proud that more than 20 years ago the guild was able to purchase its own building for rehearsals and some performances. Before buying the building, 502 W. Second St., rehearsals were held in church basements, sets were built in people’s homes, and props were stored in four different locations, Weidner recalls.

Erika Svanoe, the current board president, believes the guild’s longevity demonstrates the community’s willingness to support artistic endeavors through volunteerism, donations, and attending shows. The support has allowed the guild to renovate its rehearsal space as well as to hold two children’s camps this summer that will culminate in productions of Charlotte’s Web and Robin Hood.

From the very beginning, dedicated volunteers acted and sang, played music, built sets, sewed costumes, and wrangled children so their parents could perform. Over the years, the guild’s season has expanded (now there are typically four shows a year, plus children’s shows in the summer) and its productions grew to encompass everything from beloved Broadway musicals to challenging, topical dramas.

For those who’ve helped build and sustain the Menomonie Theater Guild into an enduring community institution, the memories are vivid. Lang first became involved in the guild in 1969, and over the decades has acted, directed, and served on the group’s board of directors. She says the guild owes a huge debt of gratitude to its founders, including Barbara Gauvin, who was the group’s primary artistic director from 1958 to 1981 and usually directed three or four shows a year. Gauvin, who died in 2007 at age 93, embodied the dedicated attitude of the guild’s founders. She was the kind of woman who would commandeer people on the street if she needed their help, Lang recalls.

But the guild also owes a great deal to another woman – one who died long before it was founded.

“There is a shining star in every theater guild production, and her name is Mabel Tainter,” Lang says. The entire community – onstage and off – shares a pride in ownership of the 129-year-old landmark theater, with audiences sitting in its golden glow and enjoying the performances of friends and neighbors on stage.

“As a director, I love experiencing the unity that an audience feels when they come into the theater,” Lang says. “It’s across ages, interests, talents, vocations. I love to feel a community coming together through an artistic experience. They laugh and they cry and they become restless and they absorb.”

Performing in a community the size of Menomonie, Lang says, is “like an exchange of gifts that goes beyond the stage.” It’s an exchange that will continue as long as there are audiences to take their seats as the lights dim and performers to step onto stage when the curtain rises.

Menomonie Theater Guild 60th Anniversary Gala and Annual Meeting • Sunday, May 20 • 5:30pm open house, 6pm annual meeting, both at MTG Studio, 502 W. Second St., Menomonie • anniversary gala immediately follows the meeting at The Raw Deal, 603 Broadway St. • (715) 231-7529 • menomonietheaterguild.org