Stage People

In Memoriam: Local Theater Legend Bob Carr Recalled for Wisdom and Humor

Carr was director, educator, performer, and co-founder of the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild

Tom Giffey |

Bob Carr directing a Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild show. (Photos courtesy CVTG)
Bob Carr directing a Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild show. (Photos courtesy CVTG)

The Chippewa Valley theatrical community is mourning the loss of Bob Carr, a legendary director, educator, actor, and inspiration to several generations of performers.

Carr, 80, who co-founded the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild and directed and performed in countless stage productions, died over the weekend, the theater group announced on Facebook:

It is with heavy heart that we say goodbye to one of CVTG's founders, Bob Carr. He was a legend and a teacher through and through who touched countless lives. His students always felt loved and respected and seen. Bob loved the theatre but more importantly, he truly enjoyed working with people. Mentoring was his gift to the world. Our hearts go out to his family and especially his devoted and supportive husband Roger Groenewold.

Alongside Groenewold and Carole Spenser, Carr – who was also a longtime English and drama teacher at Fall Creek High School –  founded the CVTG in 1981. Carr directed the Guild’s very first production the following year, a staging of the comic opera The Mikado at the Central Junior High auditorium. Numerous productions followed at the State Theatre, the Pablo Center, and the Guild’s own Grand Theatre.

Bob Carr spoke in a video celebrating the CVTG's 40th anniversary in 1981.
Bob Carr spoke in a video celebrating the CVTG's 40th anniversary in 1981.

“We wanted it to be a welcoming, warm place,” Carr reminisced about the trio’s goals for the CVTG in a video celebrating the group’s anniversary in 2021. “We wanted it to be a place with education. We wanted the actors in our productions to enjoy themselves. … We wanted nurturing. And that consequently has built the family situation we have in this organization. … We do very fine theater, but practically everybody who’s involved with us has the sense of family.”

In the same video, Carr poked fun at his own problems memorizing lines, which led him to hide them around theatrical sets and eventually to become the “King of Cameos” in the troupe’s productions, performing as everything from a dancing can of Spam to a sheik on a camel.

Carr costumed for a cameo in
Carr costumed for a cameo in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

And while Carr’s sense of humor was notorious, he also spoke seriously about the challenges he faced as a gay man in the Chippewa Valley. In February at UW-Eau Claire’s Fire Ball drag show, Carr stepped up to the stage and gave an impromptu speech:

“Tonight, when I saw the kids saying what they loved about being queer, I was reminded (how) in my time, ‘queer’ was an insult. It was sprayed on my house. It was scratched on my car. It was late-night threatening phone calls about, ‘you f***ing queer f*****s,’ and ‘we’re going to get you,’ ” he said. “Things have changed; are changing.”

After learning of his passing, friends flooded Facebook over the weekend with memories of Carr’s good humor and devotion to the theater.

“What a gift he has been to my life,” wrote local director and actor Jake Lindgren. “I mourn the loss of the love, the wit, the snark, the brilliance, the support, and I celebrate everything I learned from him that I will take with me going forward.”

“I’m not sure that I can put into words how I’m feeling. I am heartbroken to hear this news, and heartbroken for his wonderful husband Roger,” wrote Sarah Hammes-Murray. “The world will not be the same without Bob Carr. He truly was one-of-a-kind. The number of lives that he touched is truly immeasurable, and I count myself lucky to be one of them.”

“If ANYONE can rightly be called a legend of community theatre in the Chippewa Valley, it’s Bob Carr,” posted Nathan Libby. “And when I say 'legend,' I don’t just mean famous, I mean the central character in actual myths and legends passed down from actor to actor starting today. My whole life is built around a passion for the local theatre scene that all started with Bob and an infrastructure of NOTHING. Everything I am, I owe to the man who started it all.”

Amber Dernbach, a local theater educator, shared how Carr created an online stage makeup class for her students during the initial stage of the COVID-19 pandemic: 

One evening a week they’d log on to work with Bob. They had been online all day, and they were feeling exhausted and isolated, but this was a different kind of online class. Bob told them stories about growing up in Wabasha. He told them about conversations with his dear mother. He made them laugh. Then he’d walk them through the weekly lesson and have them try out the makeup themselves ( horror, fantasy, wounds, etc). Then, equally important, after he gave each of them meaningful feedback, he gave homework for the following week. He knew the students needed a sense of purpose and play.

To this day those students tell me “Bob is the Grandpa I never had” or “Bob is the Grandpa I wish I had.” None of them knew that Bob and Roger bought them their stage makeup kits - they only know how his guidance transformed their pandemic experience.

“The Chippewa Valley has lost another theater icon.” wrote Michael Cook. “First, Bob Sessions a few weeks ago, and now, Bob Carr. In such a very short time, we've lost the clown prince of CVTG, and now the King. Bob was an actor, director, mentor, friend, a patron of the arts, and teacher – none of which do him justice, or even begin to describe his impact on theater in the area. ... For my family and me, this is a sad day indeed. Personally, I will miss the impact Bob had on my theatrical career. He was always quick with a compliment and a criticism if necessary. And it was always necessary. 🙂 God rest ye, Robert. You will be missed but never forgotten.”

The love directed at Bob from the Valley’s theater community was certainly mutual.

“This place is my lifeblood,” Carr said in the 2021 video. “This has been the most important thing in 40 years for me. … Roger and I stayed with it because it’s our baby. We take it so personally, and we do as much as we can to keep this organization going.”

We will share information on a memorial service for Bob Carr when information is available.