Once a shuttered movie palace, the State Theatre became a beloved arts center and a key element of Eau Claire’s artistic renaissance.

The State Theatre’s 30-year career as the home of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center ended in much the way it began, with a mixture of artistry and camaraderie that only community theater can provide. The final show on July 29 was the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and the final curtain was an apt metaphor for the fate of the theater itself. After 92 years as a beloved entertainment venue in downtown Eau Claire, the lights was once again going dark at the State, and it was unclear when – or even if – it they would shine again.

The State will close at the end of August, to be replaced by the brand-new, $60 million Pablo Center at the Confluence just down the street. Built for silent films and vaudeville shows during the 1920s, the State was reborn in the 1980s as a hub for the Chippewa Valley’s nascent cultural scene: The first show at the reborn State was a Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild production of Cinderella.

“I think that the State made people think bigger, to think about things in a more important way,” Ann Sessions, the CVTG’s executive director, said recently while reflecting on the theater’s legacy. “For years the State was the only thing people would come downtown for. Without it, who knows if you would have had this renaissance?”

The State, 316 Eau Claire St., offered sparks of vitality when the neighborhood was down on its luck. “For me, the theater is not only a place for us to produce beautiful musicals, but it’s a place for the community to come together,” Sessions added. “It felt like the State was the most important place to be when you were there.”

Volume One Video:
14 Facts About the State Theatre

1. Doc Severinson   2. Jason Isbell   3. Golden Dragon Acrobats   4. Buddy Guy


The State’s 56-year career as a 1,300-seat movie theater ended in 1982 just as the Chippewa Valley’s artistic community was searching for a shared home. In the preceding years, groups such as the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild and the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra had formed, and community leaders began to recognize the value in fostering the arts, recalled Bob Carr, a local theater veteran and co-founder of the CVTG.

“There was a great deal of interest, a great deal of excitement,” he said of the era that saw the birth of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, which was created as an umbrella for local arts groups. ECRAC was incorporated in 1982, and soon elected its first board, which was headed by LaVerne Miller. That same year, the State had been purchased by movie theater owner Gene Grengs and real estate developer Warren Barberg, who hoped to revive it as an arts center. The cost of restoring the property was estimated at between $1 million and $2 million. While arts groups had considered transforming the former Central Junior High School into an arts center, the Eau Claire Area School District’s decision to turn the old school into an administration building led ECRAC to look at the State more seriously.

In 1983, Tate & Fitzsimons, a Kentucky architectural firm, performed a feasibility and needs assessment study of turning the State into an arts center. The study said the State was an “excellent size” for touring programs, but was too big for local groups, which would be better served by a 300-400 seat flexible theater. This secondary theater was never built, but the idea persisted, and will become reality in the 400-seat Jamf Theater in the Pablo Center.

Proposed 1984 floor plan


A WEAU-TV news segment from 1986 shows Brian Larson leading a tour through the darkened State Theatre, shining a flashlight on peeling paint and dusty seats. “What really exists here is a shell that is usable,” Larson tells the tour group. Two years earlier, Larson – then an architect at Eau Claire-based Ayres Associates – had authored a proposal to transform the State into an arts center. The document outlined a three-phase plan for an arts center development that would encompass the State and several adjacent buildings.

In a recent interview, Larson recalled that the optimism of the time was tempered by the cost of building the hoped-for arts center, which would have included two theaters plus a restaurant, shops, and gallery space. “We made the best use of it that we could without spending a huge amount of money,” Larson said. “I think it was kind of a temporary thing. Everyone knew there were budget restrictions. I think we did the best we could to renew it so it could be used as an arts center.”

Eventually, in 1986, Grengs and Barberg donated the theater to ECRAC. At the same time, the City of Eau Claire gave ECRAC a $175,000 loan, which it used to buy what was then called the Wagner building, which now contains the ECRAC offices and the Janet Carson Gallery. ECRAC then kicked off an effort to raise $650,000, which would include a $150,000 grant from the L.E. Phillips Foundation.

1. Bon Iver   2. CVTG Sweeney Todd   3. Tracy Morgan   4. CVTG Wizard of Oz


Finally, the Valley’s disparate artistic community had a home. “Up until that point we were scattered all over the place,” Carr, co-founder of the CVTG, said of the area’s artists. The State Theatre gave all these creative people and their supporters a common project. “It was this old theater building with rotten curtains and warped floors,” he said with enthusiastic nostalgia. Carr fondly recalled an army of volunteers working together on their hands and knees to strip and re-cement the theater’s floor.

Because the theater hadn’t been built for modern, large-scale performances, alterations had to be made, including the addition of trapdoors and theatrical lighting. Artist Gene Leisz spent hours painstakingly restoring the intricately painted ceiling of the theater’s lobby. Schoolchildren brought in their pennies to help fund the project, and local businesses, foundations, and individuals pitched in as well. It was to be the first part of a three-phase fundraising effort, but the final two phases were never completed. Still, the State began to flourish. Over 30 years, the theater hosted hundreds of touring performers – from chart-topping musicians to nostalgic tribute acts to ballets to magic shows. Regular visitors included the likes of Lorie Line and Gaelic Storm, and legends such as George Carlin, Joan Baez, and Steve Martin wowed audiences.

The were scores of community productions as well, largely staged by the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre and the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild.

“It was newly remodeled – to a point,” longtime CVTG performer Katie Schumacher recalls of the guild’s first performance in the State: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which opened April 28 1988. The floor hadn’t yet been finished backstage and an oil tank occupied one of the dressing rooms, but the theater was still an exciting change for the troupe, which had previously performed at North High School.

The show – and the venue – earned rave reviews. “The feeling in the air was of a city re-energized, a once-slumbering creature stepping out of a cave after years of hibernation,” reporter Chris DuPre wrote in the Leader-Telegram.

While a subsequent addition to the State added badly needed offstage space, in large part the State Theatre of today is the same as it was in 1988 – and in 1926. “It’s been neat to see her in her glory,” Schumacher said. “I would have loved to see her when she was first built and to see that vaudeville.”

After being part of 33 productions at the State, six of which she directed, Schumacher has a lifetime of affectionate memories of the theater. She still laughs over backstage pranks and comic onstage mishaps, such as the time a crew member raising the curtain got his foot caught in the rope and began lifting himself off the ground.

And there were the emotional times – the transcendent moments when the magic of theater connected performers and audience members. “I’ve laughed there, I’ve cried there,” Schumacher said. “We’ve hugged each other. Jesus Christ Superstar, when we did it the first time, you heard everybody sobbing in the background because we were so moved.”

Eau Claire musician Adrian Klenz, who estimates he’s performed at the State at least 50 times – most recently as singer and emcee for the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra – said the building’s antiquated condition has been part of its charm. “People would complain how cramped it was backstage, (but) I loved it,” he said. “Being an artist of any kind is rarely easy. The beauty of art is you make it work. You have to improvise, and with the State, you had to be prepared. The roof could leak during a big storm and flood the orchestra pit, you had to deal with it!”

1. Gillian Welch   2. Haley Bonar   3. Lori Line   4. Second City


Sally Sundby, a visual artist and current ECRAC board member, recalled that her husband, Mel, joined the board during a particularly lean period. “He came home from the first meeting and said, ‘I feel like I just got on the Titanic,’” she recalls. Nonetheless, scores of volunteers – including the Sundbys – put in countless hours to keep the arts center running. Volunteers worked in the box office, hung artwork in the Janet Carson Gallery, or donated work to be auctioned at the annual Jubilee fundraiser.

Sundby has served on the ECRAC board for the past seven years. She says she’ll miss the familiarity of the old theater and its employees. “It’s like a second home,” she said. “This is ground that I know so well. I know the workings of it and all the staff so well.”

Among those staff members is Rose Dolan-Neill, whose earliest experiences at the State Theatre was as a middle-schooler in the early 1990s, when she operated a spotlight in the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre production of West Side Story. Then, as now, doing so required climbing onto the theater’s roof and down a trapdoor onto a catwalk hanging high above the audience. Soon enough, she was performing onstage, too. As a youth, she loved to explore the vast building’s nooks and crannies.

“I walk into the State Theatre in the dark and I’m at home,” Dolan-Neill said. For the past decade, the theater has been a workplace, too. Most recently, she’s served as ECRAC’s director of visual arts. From the beginning of her tenure at the arts center, Dolan-Neill said the organization has had a “growth mindset,” an attitude that its time at the aging theater was limited and that better things were on the horizon. However, that never impacted ECRAC’s focus on advocating for the arts in the Chippewa Valley, she said: “Even right now, even though we only have a month left in this building, we’re working hard.”

1. Steve Martin   2. ECCT Peter Pan   3. S Carey   4. ECCT Les Miserable   5. Tallest Man On Earth   6. Tonic Sol Fa


Over the years, the State’s shortcomings – from its leaky roof and aging heating system to its inadequacy for large-scale modern touring productions – became increasingly apparent. In 2006, it was estimated that renovating the theater would cost between $6 million and $10 million. A few years later, meetings among arts groups, community leaders, and UW-Eau Claire officials led to the genesis of the Confluence Project – a proposal to build a new, shared community-university arts center. Now, the Pablo Center at the Confluence is poised to open in September.

“Our longtime goal was to turn the State into what the Pablo has become,” Carr noted. And while the full plan for the State never came to fruition, Carr believes all those who worked to create ECRAC – many of whom have since passed away – would be proud of what has been accomplished at the State over the past 30 years.

“I have such mixed emotions about this,” Carr said, referring to the State’s closure. However, he added, he feels privileged to have experienced “the excitement of the opening of the State and the excitement of the Pablo.”

Even though he served as architect for the 1980s remodeling of the State, Larson isn’t sad to see the building end its run as an arts center. “I believe that buildings must have uses, and at some point all buildings become less useful,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an important enough building to become a monument. I think it has served the community well, but now it’s time for its replacement.”

And Sundby, the ECRAC board member, knows new memories will be created at the Pablo Center. “Everybody’s so afraid that it’s going to be torn down, and I firmly believe it’s not going to be torn down,” she said of the State. “There’s lots of things that it could be utilized for. It needs a lot of work, but it’s got good bones.”

Like many others, Dolan-Neill said the forthcoming closure of the theater and merger of ECRAC with the Pablo Center is bittersweet. “I’ll miss the old musty smell,” she said. “I’ll miss when little kids, little school groups, will come to see school matinees – that amazement they have seeing the lobby.”

As the final current falls, Dolan-Neill said, “I’m really comforted by the fact there will always be stories and always be memories out there to share.”

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The Brightest Gem

when it opened in 1926, the State Theatre embodied Hollywood glamor in a small Wisconsin city

Built by the Minnesota-based Finkelstein and Ruben theater chain at a cost of $315,000 – that’s nearly $4.5 million today – the State Theatre was hailed as a “veritable fairyland” in a special edition of the Eau Claire Leader published on Jan. 19, 1926. More than 92 years have passed, but you can almost feel the anticipation when reading about the theater’s grand opening.



blared a headline, which shared the page with photos of the theater’s interior and exterior and articles touting its $20,000 Wurlitzer organ, its fine seats and carpet, and its vaudeville lineup. “For sheer beauty and artistic appeal this playhouse will intrigue the most delicate cultural sensitiveness,” one article stated. “In the lobby alone its designers achieved art such as seldom is created in a theater of its size.” In addition to the organ, the theater had its own orchestra (“under the director of M.J. Deglman, an Eau Claire orchestra leader of well know ability”) to accompany both silent motion pictures and live vaudeville acts. An ad noted that evening performances would cost 40 cents, matinees would cost a quarter, and children would be entertained for just 10 cents.

On opening night, thousands of would-be patrons braved a winter storm to get tickets. In fact, more people bought tickets than could fit in the State’s 1,300-seats, forcing the theater’s management to publish an apologetic advertisement a few days later promising to honor the tickets at future performances. Those who were able to get seats were treated to a full evening of entertainment, which began with an orchestral overture followed by a newsreel, comedy (with organ accompaniment), a jazz revue with 18 singers and dancers titled “A Syncopated Menu,” a novelty film, and then the main feature: a silent 1925 drama, Classified, starring Corinne Griffith, one of the top stars of the day.

Ticket fiasco aside, the new theater was a success, although that success came at the expense of the competition. By June, the locally owned Eau Claire Theater Co. had shut down and leased three of its theaters – the Grand, the Unique, and the Wisconsin – to Finkelstein and Ruben. The State, it seems, had quickly become Eau Claire’s dominant theatrical venue.

The days were numbered for silent films and vaudeville performances for which the State had been constructed. By 1928, the State began showing “talking pictures” using the Vitaphone system, which played phonograph records in sync to the film. “Lights of New York” – the first all-talking feature film – was screened that December, and Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer,” a legendary early “talkie,” soon followed.

After the curtain fell on vaudeville, the State settled into its role as one of city’s dominant movie houses, welcoming several generations of Eau Claire residents for children’s matinees, big-budget features, and midnight movies. From the beginning, the State offered multiple entertainment opportunities. The basement was home to eight bowling lanes plus pool, billiard, and snooker tables. Upstairs – above what is now the Janet Carson Gallery and the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council’s offices – was a large dance hall. On the ground floor, next to the theater’s entrance, was a restaurant (originally called simply the State Cafe) and, by the 1940s, the Greyhound bus station.


Over the years, some of Hollywood’s most legendary films – including “Doctor Zhivago,” “Jaws,” and “Star Wars” – created indelible experiences for audiences. In response to a request from ECRAC, dozens of patrons submitted memories of the time they spent in the theater, from first dates and first kisses to sneaking cigarettes in the men’s room to catching two movies for the price of one because the theater wasn’t cleared out between films.

Gradually, the movie business changed, and the State began to lose its luster. Whether it was the proliferation of entertainment options, the rise of multiplexes, or the advent of home video and cable TV, audiences began to shrink. By the 1970s, the State was owned by ABC Theaters, part of the American Broadcasting Co., which later sold it to the national Plitt Theatres chain. By 1982, the Leader-Telegram reported that “single-screen theaters no longer are profitable,” and that Plitt was building multiplexes elsewhere, including in La Crosse. “We felt there was no room for us to expand anymore in (Eau Claire),” a Plitt executive told the newspaper. “There are enough screens in Eau Claire, and if we were to expand we’d just be throwing our money down the sewer.”

At the time, most of Eau Claire’s screens – including the Hollywood, the Downtown Cinema, and the Stardusk and Gemini drive-ins – were owned by Gene Grengs. The State screened its last film in 1982, and Grengs and developer Warren Barberg bought the place with big dreams about restoring the theater and turning it into a live entertainment venue. Fifty-six years into its history, the State was ready for its second act.

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for the State Theatre, the future remains uncertain

So what’s next for the 92-year-old State Theatre? In entertainment parlance, the theater’s future is TBA – but it could be up to you. The Eau Claire Regional Arts Council listed the property for sale in January with an asking price of $450,000 for the 40,000-square-foot facility, which includes the 1,098-seat theater, 4,000 square feet of offices, and an art gallery. “We’ve had a variety of people express interest,” said ECRAC President Pamela Rasmussen, although none of these “nibbles and bites” have panned out yet.

Dean C. Larsen of Acquisition Realty and Development, which has listed the theater for sale, said he showed the property to a potential buyer as recently as July. An offer on the building had been accepted in May, but the purchasing partners got into a disagreement and the deal fell through, he said. Among the curious parties have been several church groups and someone interested in leveling the theater’s floor and transforming it into a venue for weddings and other events.

While the building is relatively inexpensive for its size, Larsen noted, a buyer will need to invest roughly $350,000 in a new roof and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. “It’s an older building, and once you go and do the improvements … there’s not a lot of people who can swing it with a new venture,” he said of the potential cost.

In order to prevent the State from turning into a direct competitor of its replacement – the Pablo Center at the Confluence – ECRAC has draft restrictions on what the building’s new owners could use it for, Rasmussen said. However, she added, these restrictions are negotiable. According to the online real estate listing, “This facility is ideal for promotors/event planners looking to host large events.”

ECRAC itself will merge with the board of directors of the Confluence Council, the entity that will operate the Pablo Center. Rasmussen is herself a member of the latter board, which will help ensure a smooth transition. The organizations’ merger will occur within the next six months, Rasmussen said, and ECRAC hopes to sell the State before the deal is finalized. And while she’s optimistic the sale will be made, Rasmussen acknowledged that it might not happen as soon as ECRAC hopes. Whoever they happen to be, it will be up to the new owners to write the next chapter of the State’s history.

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Celebrate the State

Tuesday, Aug. 21, 5pm • The State Theatre, 316 Eau Claire St. eauclairearts.com

Whether you stood on stage in the spotlight or simply watched from the audience, you know the State Theatre is a special place. The Eau Claire Regional Arts Council is celebrating the theater’s upcoming closure with an open house on Aug. 21. Plans are still coming together for the event, but visitors can expect a party with music, art for sale, building tours, food trucks, and more.

Come to explore, to enjoy, and to say goodbye to the State’s 30-year history as home of ECRAC, which will merge with the Confluence Council after the Pablo Center at the Confluence opens in September. Find out more details about the celebration as they become available eauclairearts.com.