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Not to be forgotten: New book chronicles Summer Theater in Eau Claire

| Julie Poquette

It’s been 20 years since the final curtain call of a 34-year run for UW-Eau Claire Summer Theater — and Dr. Wil Denson wants to ensure that era is not forgotten.


Wil Denson

Denson, a UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus of theatre arts, worked in Summer Theater for most of those years. The theater was started in 1965, and Denson became involved in 1966 when he joined the university’s faculty. He led the summer program for 25 years, from the early 1970s through the final 1998 season, before his retirement from the university in 1999.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of that final season, Denson has written “Life Upon the Wicked Stage: Summer Theater in Eau Claire — Director’s Cut,” a book that details the theater’s history. The book will be the focus of a Summer Theater anniversary celebration at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Larry Heagle, Steve Turek, Jeff Rochon and Carole Spenser — all familiar names to past Summer Theater-goers and current community theater patrons alike — will read from the book, and Denson will sign copies purchased at the event.

The numbers Denson shares are impressive: In 34 years’ time, Summer Theatre staged 126 productions, with more than 500 actors and technicians presenting 1,224 performances to 300,000 audience members.

“We taught a lot of people to watch theater and to love to do theater, and I think that’s important,” Denson says.

Also impressive are the many former Summer Theater cast members and technicians who went on to professional careers in acting, directing, costuming, lighting, teaching and musical performance. A few of the UW-Eau Claire alumni in this group are actors Laila Robins, Patrick O’Brien and Barry Anderson; director Gary Griffin; and opera singer Greg Fedderly — all of whom have gone on to work nationally and some even internationally. Other Blugold graduates went on from Summer Theater to make an impact on a more local level, including Wayne Marek, founder of the Eau Claire Children’s Theater; Carole Spenser, co-founder of the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild; and Lois Hodgins, co-director of the former Fanny Hill Dinner Theater.  

“A lot of kids — who are in their 50s and 60s now — got their start here, which I’m desperately proud of,” Denson says.

In “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” Denson tells stories and lessons learned from the Summer Theater productions staged in UW-Eau Claire’s Kjer Theatre and Gantner Concert Hall. His hopes for the book, he says, are for those who participated in the productions and those who were entertained by them to recall an important time in the history of theater in Eau Claire.

“I want them to think back on ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘The Nerd’ and ‘Gypsy’ — some of the wonderful times that went on — and remember that,” Denson says. “I don’t want it to get lost.”

In addition to being available at the Feb. 9 Summer Theater anniversary celebration, “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” can be purchased for $15 from Wil Denson, P.O. Box 1828, Eau Claire WI 54702.

Top photo cutline: UW-Eau Claire students in the cast of the 1987 Summer Theater production of "Radio Cavalcade of Hits" included, from left: Renee Albert, Ray Friedeck, Bruce Linser, Jan Thorson, Guy Atkins, Michael Andrew Mechelke, Amy Kidinger and Thomas Speckard. Six of those pictured went on to careers in professional entertainment.