For over 100 years, the land bounded by 4th and Jefferson, 5th and Scott Streets has been an arts block. It started with the 890-seat Grand Opera House built in 1899, located at the site of today’s Grand Theater. The Grand Opera House could accommodate productions large and small, making Wausau a stop on the theatrical circuit. In the first few decades of the 20th Century, acting troupes and musicians would ride the rails from performance to performance with their sets, props, costumes and instruments traveling with them. When they came to Wausau, they all played at the Grand Opera House. Just a quarter-century after opening, however, as the city grew and entertainment technology advanced, the owners of Wausau Theatres Company determined that a larger facility was needed.
The original Grand Opera House was razed on April 19, 1927. Seven months to the day, on Thanksgiving Day, the new 1470-seat Grand Theater opened with a showing of the silent film Dress Parade. The theater, with its classic revival styling, stood as a symbol of excellence for the community. Ever since the opening day in 1927, the passion of drama, the grace of dance, and the power of music have come alive within the walls of the Grand Theater.
In 1930, The Grand Theater became part of the Fox-Wisconsin movie chain, showing the biggest films of the day on the weekends. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were vaudeville acts, which featured four live performances for just fifty cents. After a brief period in the 1930s when the Great Depression closed the theater, the Eddie Cantor film Whoopee brought lines of crowds and reopened The Grand in 1933. The Grand Theater remained the focal point of entertainment in the community through the ‘40s and ‘50s, bringing in a wide range of programing, from blockbusters like Gone with the Wind, to music legends like Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, local talent nights, jitterbug contests, and more. The theater rode through the ‘60s, ‘70s, and the early ‘80s primarily as a movie house, with occasional live entertainment.
In 1972, with the state of the arts in Wausau being evaluated, the Performing Arts Foundation was established with the mission of bringing world-class performing arts to the area. Much of the 1980s were spent raising funds to transform The Grand Theater into a modern home for the performing arts while restoring it to its former glory.
In 1987, after a decade of planning, spearheaded by the board of the Grand Theater Foundation and community leaders, a $2.2 million project restored the Grand Theater’s original luster and upgraded technical systems for the big sound and bright lights required by touring shows. The community celebrated its reopening with five straight nights of music and live entertainment. Since that time the Performing Arts Foundation has managed the Grand Theater and has enlivened the stage with music, theater and dance from around the world, for family, adult and student audiences.
In 2002 the community once again came together to raise funds to expand the walls of the Grand Theater to become Artsblock, connecting The Grand to the other two historic buildings on the block with public lobbies, galleries, and meeting spaces, and enhancing The Grand with backstage space, loading docks, and dressing rooms. The generosity of 1,150 donors in the community made the $13.2 million project possible, rededicating the facility to the glory of performance and energized not just the city of Wausau, but also, the entire region.
More improvements to The Grand Theater and the adjacent buildings were made between 2013 and 2016. Community support made improvements to the stage floor, the Great Hall floor, The Grand’s sound system and stage curtains, and a new display for the marquee, as well as renovations to the Center for Visual Arts possible.
Today, The Grand Theater is a cornerstone of downtown, and a true community gathering place. With over 300 events per year, and serving a 52-county region, The Grand is the home for the best in the arts in North Central Wisconsin.