The State Theatre: How it all started

By: Megan Peterson Email
By: Megan Peterson Email

It's a staple of downtown Eau Claire that's had people throughout the region singing, dancing and laughing for decades.

The history of the State Theatre is the first in our series as we look forward to its 85th birthday on January 14th.

85 years ago, the doors of the State Theatre opened. The first curtain opened.

"There were crowds that were large enough, the paper reported the next day, that at the second showing they actually broke down the doors. They were that excited to get in," Jim Radloff, who plays piano at the theatre and has researched its history, said.

"The original days of course there was no TV or movies so this is what people did on a Friday night. All 1,100 seats would be full every night," Executive Director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center which houses the State Theatre Ben Richgruber said.

It was one of four buildings of its size.

"Had a total capacity including the State here of 4,000 people at any given time and the population was 20,000. So the theatres could hold basically 20% of the population," Radloff explained.

But the State, the only one of those still around, held entertainment that couldn't be matched.

"It was a vaudeville house through the late 20's. Once The Great Depression hit it became kind of hard to do vaudeville so it became a silent movie theatre and then a talkie movie theatre when those came into being," Richgruber said.

People from all over would pack the 1,100 seats and become immersed in the arts.

"When we opened we actually got a telegram of congratulations from both Charlie Chaplain and from Douglas Fairbanks. So people in Hollywood knew about the State Theatre and they were very excited about it," Richgruber said.

Still today if you lift the floor boards in the lower level, you'll find gutters left behind from the old bowling alley, and upstairs in the lobby, the piano Jim Radloff loves to play has sat for decades.

In 1982, the movie house that the theatre had become closed its doors. Two years later it was donated by local owner Gene Grengs with one stipulation.

"He gave it to the arts council for a dollar and they had to renovate it as part of the deal as a performing arts center," Richgruber explained.

Four years later, the curtain opened again, this time newly renovated and formed into the State Theatre we know today.

"I cannot imagine Eau Claire not having a performing arts center. This has really been a cornerstone in the community and a chance for a lot of people to get out and get involved and be together," Richgruber added.

A piece of history that’s still standing and entertaining in the heart of Eau Claire.

"I think it's a real feather in Eau Claire's cap to have a venue of this nature," Radloff said.

Next Tuesday night, we’ll take you "behind the scenes" of this legendary theatre.


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