A Brief History of the
Wagner Performing Arts Center
Coming to America
The Wagner Performing Arts Center owes its name to George Wagner, who was born in Germany on May 30, 1852. As a young man, Wagner immigrated to America and lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years, where he married and had a son, Charles. The records are unclear about what became of his first wife, but we know that George was later married to Anna Mabel Wagner. The couple had two more children, Frank and Rose.
Monroe and the Mill Years
In 1905, the Wagner family moved west to settle in Monroe. In partnership with with brothers Harry and Ed Wilson, George and his eldest son Charles purchased the town’s sizable milling operation. The two Wagners, father and son, took the reins as the working partners of the Wagner and Wilson Mill.
The mill thrived, employing hundreds of workers over the next three decades. George built a stately family home which still stands just west of the Wagner Auditorium on Main Street. His eldest son, Charles, later moved to Oregon to raise his family, but Frank and Rose remained in Monroe for the rest of their lives.
In 1931, George Wagner passed away. The operation of the mill continued under Frank’s management until it was closed in 1936.
Monroe was now a rapidly growing community. In 1937, a special election was held to seek approval for the building of new a junior high school. The measure passed, and federal and state funds were allocated. But the state funds, although substantial, were insufficient to cover all of the construction cost.
The remainder was covered by Frank Wagner’s generous gift of $30,000. To appreciate the magnitude of this donation, consider that in 1937 this was equivalent to over $500,000 in today’s dollars! Frank made this donation in his father George’s name, specifically toward the construction of the auditorium. The building now bears the Wagner name as a memorial to George Wagner’s contribution to the early growth of the Monroe community.
Monroe Honors Frank Wagner
Frank Wagner passed away in March of 1957. Fittingly, his funeral service was held in the auditorium bearing his family name. In honor of his countless contributions to the community, businesses downtown closed for an hour during the service, the Monroe School District lowered the flag to half-mast, and students observed a moment of silence.
Today, the nearby Frank Wagner Elementary school commemorates Frank’s own legacy, alongside that of his father.
The Auditorium: Decline and Restoration
For decades, the Art Deco style auditorium with its distinctive white columns served as a cherished center for community events in Monroe. But over the years, the grand old building began to deteriorate. School district budgetary constraints, age, weather, earthquakes, and rodents took their toll. As last it was reduced to an almost unusable condition.
This is where the Monroe Arts Council comes into the story. They had been seeking, without success, a suitable facility to showcase their music and theater performances. The neglected Wagner presented both an opportunity and a challenge. The school board couldn’t afford to care for the building, and the M.A.C. needed a venue. In late 2012, the Monroe Arts Council entered into an agreement with the Monroe School District to lease the building for $1 a year in exchange for the M.A.C. taking care of the building. That work is in progress today, and thanks to the hard work of community volunteers and sponsors, the auditorium is usable once again.
However, much remains to be done.
The M.A.C. hopes to preserve the gift the Wagner family bestowed upon our community by restoring the auditorium, now known as the Wagner Performing Arts Center, to its former beauty, and by returning it to its position as a center for community events and entertainment in Monroe, the town that the Wagners helped to build.