The beautiful Wisconsin Theatre opened for business on Feb. 1, 1939. This photo of the south side of the 200 block of West Grand Avenue was taken in 1939. From left to right is the Uptown Tavern, another tavern, Rapids Tea, Coffee & Grocery Co., the Wisconsin Theatre, West Side Quick Lunch, Winn & Murgatroyd Insurance and Church's Drug Store. Across Third Avenue you can see the First National Bank, now U.S. Bank. Interesting note: local historian, Paul Gross used to work at the Wisconsin Theatre. He identified the car parked in front as Frank Eckardt's Chrysler. 'He always had fender skirts over the rear tires of his car,' Paul said.
My boyhood pals and I used to hop on the bus almost every Saturday and head downtown to catch a movie. When the Beatles "Help" came out, we sat through it three times, arrived home late for dinner and got grounded.
Downtown St. Paul had three nice theaters and two run-down ones. Right here in Wisconsin Rapids, there once were three nice theaters. The Rapids, the Palace and the Wisconsin.
The nicest, the Wisconsin, opened 75 years ago, Feb. 1, 1939, an event that will be featured in an upcoming DVD by local historian, Paul Gross.
Located at 235 W. Grand Ave., the Wisconsin Theatre was the brainchild of Frank and Henrietta Eckardt.
The Eckardts entered the local moving picture business in 1923 when they purchased the Palace Theatre, located in what is now the Central Wisconsin Cultural Center.
They immediately added a marquee and a large electric sign to the outside of the building. Interior improvements included a beautiful pipe organ, updated projectors, new sound system and air conditioning.
Even before the Palace, the Ideal Theatre opened around 1910 in the former R. Farrish & Bro. store building that originally was located on the northeast corner of what is now Second Street South and East Grand Avenue. To clear the lot for a new Wood County National Bank building, the Farrish building was moved around the corner so it faced Vine Street, now East Grand Avenue.
By 1913, the new Ideal Theatre was built by John T. Stark and opened across the street. In 1927, the Eckardts purchased the Ideal Theatre from John Gruell. After some necessary upgrades, they reopened as the Rapids Theatre. Rogers Cinemas currently occupies that location.
In June 1938, the Eckardts acquired the former Citizens National Bank, 235 W. Grand Ave., east of the present day Book World. They chose local architect Donn Hougen to design the latest fine theater for Wisconsin Rapids.
The April 1939 issue of "Box Office Magazine," featured the new Wisconsin Theatre.
"A towering sign in the form of a tapered pylon ablaze with colored neon and incandescent lamps, with an illuminated globe to which automatic light control lends an appearance of revolving, attracts attention from afar and invites theatre-goers to the new Wisconsin Theatre day and night."
The article described a men's smoking room and women's powder room. The "cry" room had a seating capacity of 22 and was equipped with its own sound system.
The auditorium measured 58 feet wide and 94 feet long. Three entrances from the foyer opened to three aisles that distributed patrons to four sections of seats. Twelve sets of ear phones were also provided for those patrons with impaired hearing.
The article also described the immense air conditioning unit and the modern direct and indirect lighting what was used in the foyer and auditorium.
An editorial titled "The New Theatre" in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune shortly before the grand opening included the following passage: "The opening of the Wisconsin will be more than the start of a new commercial enterprise.
"In a very real sense, a theatre is a community expression. In it people find entertainment, education and that vicarious outlet for emotions and ambitions which human beings have found they needed as an escape from the ordinary routine of their lives."
During the years, the once majestic Wisconsin Theatre began to fall into disrepair and was demolished in 1993.