Long before television, radio or movies, community “opera houses” were the center of arts, culture and entertainment throughout rural America. They are still treasured performance spaces for people like Wisconsin’s own Michael Perry.
“Whenever I’m part of a performance in one of these venues, I love the idea of how every preceding gathering still echoes, and how—no matter the century—our better natures are nourished when we join each other in a common space for common purpose and communication,” says Perry, a New York Times best-selling author and front man for “The Long Beds.” “On a more fundamental level, I find myself deeply grateful to the volunteers and people of vision who preserve these places.” In Wisconsin, a number of such venues have been preserved and are ripe for discovery.
Capitol Civic Centre
With its start in 1921 as a vaudeville house, the Capitol Civic Centre is another splendid example of the power of preservation. Today, it is seven distinct buildings topped by 14 roofs. Located in Manitowoc, it now hosts nationally-touring shows along with regional orchestras and musical acts. Add even more culture to your trip with a visit to the Rahr-West Art Museum.
The Grand Opera House
Opened in August 1883 in Oshkosh, this lavish Victorian building could seat over 1,200 theatergoers, with jump seats folding out from the wall when the crowds got really big. Reflecting the opulence of the era, its stage curtains were hand-painted. Today it seats 550 and is used for local, regional and some nationally touring acts. The Grand Lounge on the second floor is open one hour before the curtain rises, and offers an extensive selection of spirits, wine and beer.
The Grand Theater
The Grand Theater in Wausau is a winning combination of preservation and new construction. Efforts to save and enhance it have not diminished the history of this fabled venue.The original opera house was razed in 1927.Seven months later, a new 1,470-seat theater opened. Restoration and expansions in 1987 and again in 2002 have made this a cultural hub of Central Wisconsin. The rural Willow Springs Garden is also worth a visit if you’re in Wausau. It features an old town hall, from the rural hamlet of nearby Maine, an 1895 round barn, cheese tours, corn mazes and winter sleigh rides.
The Mabel Tainter
Built as a tribute to Mabel Tainter in 1889, a 19-year-old woman who died in 1886, this glorious Victorian-era masterpiece spared no expense. Located in Menomonie, this 261-seat crown jewel theater boasts marble staircases and walls and an original Steere & Turner tracker pipe organ. The nearby Cottage Winery is another way to enhance your visit to this spectacular area.
Mineral Point Opera House
Since 1915, the Mineral Point Opera House has billed itself as “a theatre for all the people.”Taking to the maple-slat stage here were the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy walked across this stage as well. Today, the stage is still in active use much of the year for book readings, plays and live music. Located in the Driftless hills of Southwest Wisconsin, there’s plenty to do nearby. Round out your trip with a tour of Orchard Lawn, a historic 19th-century Italianate mansion with opulent grounds.
Stoughton Opera House
Originally dubbed the City Auditorium, this theater first opened in 1901. Roof leaks and ice damage forced its closure in the 1950s. Locals rallied in the 1980s to bring the storied building back to life. Now, it serves as a venue for a number of annual festivals and nationally touring artists. Learn more about the settlement of the Stoughton area and the Norwegian pioneer experience at the highly interactive Livsreise, a Norwegian cultural center.
Thrasher Opera House
Charlie Thrasher built the Thrasher Opera House in 1910 in Green Lake. Originally, its seating was comprised of wooden kitchen chairs, clustered in fives. Jimmy Webb, dubbed America’s songwriter and best-known for hits like “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and “MacArthur Park,” calls the Thrasher Opera House “such a genuine music hall, a real antique, a real vintage gem.” Live like a local after a show by spending time on the historic Green Lake town square, and take a yoga, cooking or art class.
CALENDAR OF EVENTS
MINERAL POINT OPERA HOUSE
Oct. 31-Nov. 3 | 10th Annual Driftless Film Festival
STOUGHTON OPERA HOUSE
Nov. 1 | Suzy Bogguss
THRASHER OPERA HOUSE
Dec. 6 | The Barefoot Movement “Holiday”
THE MABEL TAINTER
Dec. 16 | “Christmas on the Prairie” by
“A Prairie Home Companion” performers
THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE
Jan. 28-29 | ABBA Mania
THE GRAND THEATER
Feb. 11 | The Russian National Ballet Presents “The Sleeping Beauty”
THE STOUGHTON OPERA HOUSE
Feb. 27 | “Michael Perry Presents: Half a Star”
CAPITOL CIVIC CENTRE
April 18 | Manitowoc Symphony Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Paris”
Photo: Stoughton Opera House, by Tim Erickson Photography
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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