Historic Theater Tour

From Wisconsin's northernmost county to its southern border cities, the state offers an incredible variety of nationally and internationally acclaimed performing arts, including original musical theater, touring Broadway productions, opera, symphony, Shakespeare and African dance. In addition, as a part of a growing trend of urban renewal, many historic theaters are finding new life as performing arts centers, made possible by the dedicated efforts of the community. Our Historic Theater Tour is a three-day journey where you can discover many of these architectural and cultural treasures.

Day One: Stoughton, Milwaukee and Genessee Depot

Your historic theater journey starts outside of Madison in the town of Stoughton, where the Opera House, dating from the days of Vaudeville, remains one of the few operating upper floor theaters in the United States. Be sure to check out the beautifully restored tin ceiling, as well as the curtain still advertising 1920s businesses.

With a wide array of venues and theater companies, Milwaukee is rich in the performing arts. The Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee is a 100-year-old landmark that has raised its golden curtain on 25,000 performances. A National Historic Landmark, it is the fourth-oldest continuously operating theater in the United States, having hosted luminaries of every discipline from Lunt and Fontanne to Hepburn and Bernhardt to Lucinda Williams and Jeff Tweedy, as well as U.S. presidents and foreign statesmen such as Sir Winston Churchill. Built in 1895 by brewing magnate Captain Frederick Pabst from a plan by architect Otto Strack, the theater continues the tradition of the great European opera houses, with an opulent Baroque interior that includes an Austrian crystal chandelier, a staircase crafted from white Italian Carrera marble, and a proscenium arch -- highlighted in gold leaf -- framing the stage. The theater was extensively renovated in 1928, then restored to its original style in 1976, making it one of the most beautiful theaters in the United States. A one-hour public tour is offered every Saturday at noon, show schedule permitting. Tickets may be purchased in advance or 1/2 hour before the tour at the theater box office.

A 30-minute drive to the country sets the stage for a visit to Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot . Here, a unique private haven that was the former estate of Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne has been transformed into a public treasure. The Ten Chimneys Foundation now manages the 60-acre estate, which is filled with historic furnishings, hand-painted murals and theatrical memorabilia, including notes from Laurence Olivier, photos of the Lunts with the Queen Mother and Charlie Chaplin, and mementos from Noel Coward and Helen Hayes. Docent-led tours of the meticulously restored estate are available by reservation.

Consider boarding a dinner train on the East Troy Electric Railroad to end your stay.

Day Two: Manitowoc and Oshkosh

Head north to Manitowoc to view the Capitol Civic Centre. Often referred to as the "Jewel of the Lakeshore," the Capitol Civic Centre is a stunning example of an opulent 1920s vaudeville and movie house, exquisitely renovated and grandly reopened in 1987. Now showcasing live stage productions by professional traveling artists and local performing groups, the theater presents a Lively Arts Series geared to appeal to mainstream audiences with a sampling of various forms of performing arts.

Enjoy a scenic drive around Lake Winnebago before heading west to Oshkosh, where a tour of The Grand Opera House awaits. Designed by William Waters and built in 1883, The Grand reflects the architecture and opulence of the Victorian era. As with many facilities of this era, its features include historic ladies' and men's warming rooms and Victorian oil paintings around the auditorium chandelier, over the proscenium and in the coves. Throughout the theater, fine woodwork beams, wainscotting and moldings reflect Oshkosh's lumber history. Scheduled shows include performances from classical and jazz concerts to musical theater, appealing to a wide range of audiences and age groups.

Day Three: Wausau and Menomonie

Day Three has theater fans heading west on Highway 29 towards Wausau, an 1800s lumbering town located on the Wisconsin River. A restored 10-square-block historic district preserves a sense of the city's past and hosts a burgeoning regional arts center called ArtsBlock. At the heart of Wausau's ArtsBlock is the Grand Theater. Since its construction in 1927, the Grand Theater has evolved from a vaudeville silent-movie house to a motion picture theater to a performing arts venue. Today it hosts a year-round schedule of theatrical and musical performances. The Grand Theater also houses one of Wisconsin's largest collections of historic theater paraphernalia -- projection equipment, architectural pieces, theater seats, popcorn and candy containers, and other equipment common to theaters. An exhibit area located on the mezzanine is open to the public.

Farther west on Highway 29 is Menomonie, another former lumber town that is home to the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, a premier example of a lavish "crown jewel" Victorian theater. Constructed in 1889 by lumber baron Andrew Tainter and his wife, memorializing their daughter who died in 1886, the Mabel Tainter is now ranked among America's top 10 theaters. Audiences can take a step back in time at this restored Victorian arts palace, which features intricate hand-stenciling, hand carved white pine archways, rich walnut, mahogany, and oak woodwork, gleaming brass fixtures, leaded glass windows, and a rare working Steere and Turner tracker pipe organ with 1,597 pipes. In addition to hosting a full performing arts season consisting of wide range of touring musical artists, theater and dance companies, the Mabel Tainter offers daily tours, an art gallery, a reading room and a gift shop.

The Menomonie area boasts a variety of historic attractions, dining experiences, lodging choices, and recreation areas. The area is also a stop on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, which runs from Pepin to DeSmet, South Dakota.

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