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Rebirth of the State Theatre

By Deborah Holdship

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When the State Theatre first opened its doors on State Street and Liberty in 1942, patrons entered a magnificent Art Deco lobby en route to a screening of Hey Girls, the Fleet’s In!The movie starred Dorothy Lamour and William Holden with Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra. Adults paid 25 cents till 5 p.m.; 40 cents thereafter. Kids got in for a whopping 11 cents.

State Theatre marquee

Fear not. Even the iconic marquee will get some TLC.

In its original form, the two-story State seated 1,900 patrons (200 more than its neighbor, the Michigan). The State’s expansive balcony, alone, seated about 700. Detroit-based architect C. Howard Crane designed the majestic space, one of about 300 theaters he created nationwide. Crane is the mid-century artist behind such notable Detroit theaters as the Fox and the Opera House.

During its 75-year lifespan, the State Theatre has changed hands multiple times, narrowly escaping the wrecking ball only to get carved up into a four-screen theater in 1977. New owners converted the first floor into a retail space in 1987, with Urban Outfitters as its current resident. The two screens upstairs have since served as a standalone theater, crammed into an awkwardly shaped balcony space and evolving into a venue that was best tolerated by the midnight madness crowd.

The nonprofit Michigan Theater Foundation, which owns and operates the Michigan, began programming both cinemas in 1999. But no matter what films played, the State continued its downward spiral into disrepair. People either embraced or abhorred its funky sight lines, grungy floors, and cramped seating.

Ripe for a remake

In 2013, the owners of the State struck fear into the hearts of local moviegoers when they announced plans to demolish the theater to create office space. This meant the iconic State Theatre marquee would have to come down.

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At that point, the Michigan Theater Foundation, led by CEO/Executive Director Russ Collins, BGS ’74/MA ’81, stepped in. With the support of its board and a committed group of community leaders and activists, the foundation purchased the second floor of the building for $935,000 and entered into a condominium arrangement with the owners. They had seen the creative and financial renaissance at the Michigan Theater in the three decades since it completed its own meticulous restoration, and they had high hopes the State could reclaim some of its original glory. Plus, the foundation’s business model relied on those two screens.

Lee Berry, BA ’78/MBA ’99, chief development officer at the Michigan Theater Foundation, says the time is right for the renovation. These two theaters represent central community values, he says, creating a sort of town square.

“This is something that Russ Collins has been thinking about and wanting to do for a long, long time,” Berry says. “The time is here and this is his dream come true. For real.”

A capital campaign to raise $8.5 million is in its final stretch, having raised about $7.3 million to date, Berry says. Estimated costs for the State Theatre project total $4.475 million. Ongoing improvements to the Michigan Theater total about $1.872 million. Capital, contingency, and campaign costs comprise the rest of the budget.

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Naming opportunities abound at the State, from screens and stair risers to lighting fixtures and seats. (In a nod to some unmentionable hijinks of years gone by, the back row is a little pricey, FYI.)

While the State’s reboot is not a historically accurate restoration, efforts to emulate the building’s original glory are in full effect. In fact, the lobby will feature carpeting that replicates the 1942 original.

Berry expects the State to re-open between September-November 2017. Perhaps most important to film fans, the upgraded site will house four screens at 140, 100, 80, and 50 seats. New features will include an elevator to ensure accessibility, improved soundproofing, updated projection and sound systems, modern, high-backed seats, more legroom, and better sight lines. And while popcorn is still an option, a full liquor license and “enhanced food offerings” will take traditional concessions to a new level.

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Deborah Holdship

Deborah Holdship

DEBORAH HOLDSHIP is the editor of Michigan Today. She joined the University in 2007 as editorial manager in the marketing communications department at the Ross School of Business, where she was editor of Dividend magazine for five years. Prior to working at Michigan, Deborah was associate director of publications at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. From 1988-2001, Deborah worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, where she was a reporter and editor at Billboard magazine and an associate editor and video producer at LAUNCH media. Follow her on Twitter: @michigantoday.