Episode 14: Rebirth of the State Theatre, featuring Lee Berry

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Episode 14: Lee Berry — “Rebirth of the State Theatre”

I’m Deborah Holdship, Editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of “Listen In, Michigan”, my guest is Lee Berry. He’s the Chief Development Officer at the Michigan Theater Foundation and a two-time Michigan grad. He works for the foundation’s CEO Executive Director Russ Collins who also is a two-time Michigan grad. Lee had been a long time music promoter. But he found his true calling in recent years working for Russ as the Chief Fundraiser for the Foundation which owns and operates both Michigan and State Theaters. The Foundation is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $8.5 million. Some funds will go toward the maintenance of the Michigan. But the majority will go toward restoring the State to the splendor its patrons first experienced when it opened in 1942. And anyone that’s been in the State in recent years knows that’s a pretty tall order. But Ann Arbor has always been a big movie town, home to several movie houses and film societies which have since gone by the wayside. So keeping these theaters alive and thriving is a true labor of love for Lee and Russ. The Michigan Theater Foundation purchased the State in 2013. Renovations are underway and it’s expected to reopen in fall maybe September or November of 2017. Now I’m sure there’s some out there who will miss the State that’s been with us since the late seventies. The cramped seats, the bad sight lines, and a floor so sticky that it could take your shoe right off your foot. But we’re guessing there are more who will welcome this change. And here’s Lee with a preview of what is to come.

Lee Berry: C. Howard Crane was a Detroit architect who built or designed the Fox and also the Orchestra Hall and Theatre which is now called the Opera House but what was called the Madison and Olympia Stadium where the Red Wings used to play. So C. Howard Crane was big time, one of the top five theater architects of the mid-century. The Michigan was actually designed by a good architect but now a celebrated architect. C. Howard Crane was in-demand and overall designed about 300 theaters around the country and some overseas. And so that’s another reason why we were actually, you know, we have a compelling case that saving the State Theatre is is vital because that’s the only theatre he designed for Ann Arbor. And it’s also one of the few of all those theaters that used to be here. It’s one of the few that’s left. And people have not generally been aware of just how beautiful the building is on the outside. It’s kinda recessed off of State Street a bit. But if you take a good look at it, it’s really got a beautiful design. It’s got an accordion brick work. And there’s this kind of stripes created by yellow and red brick going up– the alongside the marquee. And we are going to light that so that at night you won’t just see the lit marquee and then darkness behind it. We’re going to have a really nice architectural light so you’d be able to see the full beauty of his architecture.

Holdship: These places really are like, one could say a sacred space. I mean these are places that you make your memories. Maybe you did meet your husband or wife there or had your first date there. And so I do think they’re lucky to have champions to keep them alive and well.

Berry: The time now is right to do this and Russ is just carefully thought and planned and waited. And the time is here and this is his dream come true for real.

Holdship: It’s really a thrill. I mean, to bring something back to life. I mean, is that how it feels with, with the state? Like do you feel like it’s been on life support and now it’s going to be healthy?

Berry: It’s exactly like that. It’s taking something that had lots of potential but was kind of in a sustained mode for a really really long time. And now it’s going to blossom all over again. Now that we’re going to have four screens, we’re going to try to consciously have one screen at all times kind of focused on the younger audience to try to develop it more consciously because it really just has been dwindling on its own.

Holdship: Well I think too, once the seats are more comfortable and the sight lines are better, the word will get around and people will start going to the movies there. I mean, and if there are cool flicks that you can’t see anywhere else or they’re not as commercial but you want to see them. I mean, there’s still a great thing about the theater experience. It’s much more, I don’t know, fun and communal than just watching something at home.

Berry: So from a community standpoint, it may I think it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s too bad to ever destroy a historic building. But we’ve got the Michigan Theater that’s restored all the way to its 1928 original splendor. What the State Theatre is more needed for isn’t to be another historic place as much as another outlet to see contemporary film. And so it is being maintained for that and we’re proud that. The campaign is actually going very well. The goal of the campaign is $8.5 million. And we’re at $7.3 million now. It’s a long climb still. We don’t really think that we’re in the home stretch yet as much as we’re just like starting the final lap.

Holdship: That’s a hard job. What motivates you to try to raise a $8.5 million on behalf of these two buildings?

Berry: I never would have expected to see myself in this spot. Absolutely. I found that working for the community-based, mission-driven organization is so much more satisfying than operating in the private sector. I mean, I’ve just I found a whole new enthusiasm not just for my work but for life in general by doing community work. And the Michigan Theater and the State Theatre now to represent just such important, central, community values. Ann Arbor doesn’t have like a town square. So Michigan Theater is where people come and run into each other and it can be movies, it can be concerts, it could be lectures. There’s every kind of event. Weddings.

Holdship: Really?

Berry: Yes. Sure. Memorial services. We have all kinds of different things and it’s where everybody runs into each other. And so we see everybody and we serve everybody and it’s a blast.

Holdship: When you leave college and you come back sometimes things that you’re looking for are not there anymore. So to have the State and the Michigan still look the same and be where they belong is reassuring so you’re doing God’s work.

Berry: Thank you. Thank you.

Holdship: Keeping the alumni happy so they have something to cling to when they come back.

Berry: Although the State will look quite different when it reopens. So I want to emphasize that. If you look at the State Theatre now you’ll see that there’s an elevator tower that’s being added on to the south end of the building. And it will be large and capable of holding all kinds of large crowds going up and down. And then as you get out on the second floor, which is where the State Theatre mezzanine lounges is leading into the theaters, there’s a big glass window that is going to be there that will allow the public to see in for the first time which is kind of unusual for theaters but more importantly looking out from there you can see straight down Liberty Street all the way to Ashley. So that’s going to be a really great feature. And inside it’s going to– because we haven’t been able to recapture the whole building, where just renovating the second floor. So it’s not a true historic restoration at all. So we’re going to restore the mezzanine lounge as much as possible to what it looked like in 1942. But beyond that, it’s very different. The elevator, there’s gonna be a special fountain that’s going to be another focal point in the lounge with Motawi Tile has created a custom tile inspired by the State Theatre. And there’ll be a drinking fountain– two drinking fountains with this alcove done completely in Motawi Tile, red and black. It’d be very dazzling. We’re having new carpeting made that looks exactly like the 1942 carpeting. There will be Fourth Years, two where the previous two had been. But they’re going to look quite different because we’re going to have half as many seats and twice as much leg room. So we’re basically putting two rows or one row for every two that used to be there. So it’s gonna be much more comfortable. That’s all straightened out. Two small theaters are being built in the back over what was perceived as a stage. The gap between the front of the balcony and the wall, which is really just covering up the main floor, we’re reinforcing that and putting too small theaters in there. So there’ll be overall Fourth Years, one is 140 seats, one’s 100 seats, one is 80 seats, and one is 150 seats. In the seats themselves, instead of the original seats that we stick with it, the Michigan, these are going to be rather luxurious, very high back, modern theater seats that rock. They don’t recline.

Holdship: Oh yeah but they’re, like, flexible.

Berry: But they rock and they are very comfortable. And they have cup holders which is huge for people, right?

Holdship: People are going to be so happy. Yeah, I was laughing because I saw a 1972 story that describes this state as saying it has a “yummy floor, perpetually sticky, and a stale order from the ghosts of crushed popcorn boxes splashed with butter.” Another person had said, “This theater embodies the progressive left-wing nostalgically optimistic ethos of the University of Michigan of yesteryear. And I love them for it.” And then another person said, “I’ve come to prefer attending films here over the nearby Michigan Theater for the fact that the State seems to have greater character and off-beat charm. So even if your legs are cramped and your knees are bumping into the bag of someone, it still has a certain je ne sais quoi I guess.

Berry: Imagine if it had that stickiness to the floor in 1972 and the smell and eventually it is 2013 before it closes, right. So another 40 years of aromas and substances.

Holdship: Mmm. Delish. And then of course, in college land, you always have that midnight screening, I mean, how do those still fair? Those have been okay?

Berry: That’s been the most profitable piece of the State Theatre’s business for the last ten years. More than any other product, those midnight films are what kept it going. And that’s what people kind of identify as much as anything else are those midnight films. So absolutely we will keep those going. Worth noting for our alumni readers, there will be a full liquor license at the new State Theatre as well.

Holdship: Wow that’s exciting.

Berry: And it will have enhanced food offerings. Which have not been defined much further, but we expect it to be something like nicer gourmet pizzas, cheese plates, perhaps somewhat similar things. I mean there’ll be your normal Twizzlers and Juju Beans as well. And certainly, popcorn and Michigan theater popcorn is world-famous. And we will have Michigan Theater popcorn there at the State Theatre as well.

Holdship: How would you sort of describe the relationship between the Michigan and the State? Like how do you perceive them? Are they siblings? Cousins?

Berry: I think in the past, the Michigan Theater certainly had kind of a big brother position. And the State, which again we booked the movies there but the staff was employed by the people who own the building not by us, but there was a certain sense of almost you might say tolerance on their part for us. Because we are well established and well funded and we’ve got a big staff and the State–

Holdship: They were a little scrappier.

Berry: It was scrappier and definitely had a bohemian vibe. What we anticipate is that the Michigan and the State are going to be level with one another. That’s very much the case. In fact, for all these years we’ve heard so many times from our members that they wanted to see a certain movie but then they saw that it was at the State and they were like, “Oh crap it’s at the State.” And we didn’t subscribe to that position ourselves but we understood it. But in the future, we are hoping that people will look at the schedule and go, “Great. It’s at the State.” We really anticipate that’s going to happen because that’s what the interior is going to be so appealing that people are gonna love going there. With these new theaters, we are going to outreach to the community to have more groups able to come in and not only show films that they made, but to just– if they want to have an event and choose a film, we’re going to be renting those facilities. And same thing for if you have a birthday party or anniversary, it’ll be much more open because we’ll have them anymore screens to offer.

Holdship: That’s cool. Well, maybe the Cinema Guild will come back to life.

Berry: Could be. I mean there’s a lot of different things that we could do. We do foreign films. We do documentaries. We do a lot of different categories. But a lot of people wish we did more of this and more of this. But if they’d like to see more, there’s the opportunity to make other things happen now.

Holdship: So you said you saw Star Wars at the Campus Theater?

Berry: Yes.

Holdship: Do you have any of your own, like, great little memories of things? Like a night at the State or a night at the Michigan when you were an undergrad?

Berry: The Last Waltz was the time that I really remember. That was a wonderful film that it was also just a time I went with a whole bunch of friends who were all undergrads at the time and it was a special evening. And that actually reminds me that a lot of people when we talk about stories at the State Theatre, we’ve heard from a lot of people about particular activities that might happen in the back row of the State Theatre. I won’t elaborate further but I think you get my drift. So we’re doing seat sales to the State Theatre so individuals can buy a seat plaque with their name on it or if they want their mom and dad, in some cases, or their best friend from back in the day. Those are kind of a reasonable price but we’re going to withhold the back rows. And actually, we’re going to charge more for those because we’ve got some donors who’ve told us of their exploits in the back row. And so we’re gonna hold those back.

Holdship: Well that’ll be interesting to see whose names are on those seats in the back row now that we know this information. It’s so funny. I was curious. I don’t know if there’s any good tales that you’ve heard in your fundraising adventures of people telling you. Anything that we can share but maybe Iggy was swinging from the rafters at one point. Or you know, who knows.

Berry: We did come up with a photograph of Iggy walking in front of the State Theatre with the State Theatre marquee in the photo. So we’re going to try to find something cool to do with that.

Holdship: Right on. That’s cool. Speaking of the marquees, both are so iconic and people just love them.

Berry: If any alums are interested in touring the State Theatre even before it opens, much less after it opens as well. But if they want to reach out to me we were happy to arrange a tour if they’re going to be in town.

Holdship: How fun.

Berry: It’s very exciting because the whole upstairs was pretty much demolished and is now being reconstructed and it is exciting to see developed.

Holdship: So you’re looking at fall as when it’s going to open?

Berry: Yes and until recently we thought September might be it but I think it’s more likely October possibly even into November at this point just due to how construction projects work. And it’s absolutely true that the theaters here and other places have served to bring people back downtown. And so there’s the artistic and aesthetic importance of what they provide. But they also are generating economic impact which is a very compelling argument to a lot of our supporters as well. I’ve been involved in a lot of pretty cool things in my career between booking bands and bringing people in for concerts and even producing some records. But this State Theatre project, to me, is actually the most exciting thing that I’ve done because most of these other great things are pretty temporal and they’re pretty much– they’re a great time but they’re not there tomorrow. There’s memories and I’m not going to discount the value of memories but to actually work on this, you know, saving and renovating this important building and leaving it here for future generations is a whole other thing and it really makes me excited every day to go to work.

Holdship: Wow it’s so nice to hear from someone who loves their job so much. Well get ready to check your local listings this fall and we hope to see you back at the State, stretched out in your comfortable seat with a cool beverage and a tasty treat. Thanks so much to Lee Barry and we’ll see you next month. ‘Till then, Go Blue!

Now showing

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.

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.

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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  1. Karen Epstein - BS 1976, MA2013

    I went to the State Theater while in college in the early 70’s. The film I most remember seeing there is The Sting. I returned to Ann Arbor in 1989 and have gone to movies at both the State and Michigan theaters. I also volunteer at the Michigan Theater. Sadly I will be moving out of state this summer, but will see the great renovation next May when I return for my daughter’s graduation from medical school. Kudos to Russ Collins and others for their vision!


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