Downtown Ithaca was once home to 17 theatres, including the Lyceum, the Crescent and the Strand. These theatres offered Ithacans everything from live comedians, dancers and singers to the latest cinema creations. Now there is only one left: the State Theatre on West State Street. It may have lost some of its grandeur over the years, but it has not lost its charm. A restoration plan is in the works, but the theatre’s Executive Director Dan Smalls feels the first step in bringing life back to the State doesn’t involve tools and paint; it involves a solid slate of talented performers and captivating shows to build an identity for the theatre as a reputable, viable performing arts center.
“The State represents what theatre has meant to this town, as well as what it will mean in the future,” he said.
1928: A car dealership gets a facelift
The original building was designed by local architect Henry N. Hinckley in 1915. It housed the Ithaca Security Company auto garage and dealership until the business moved out in 1927. The Berinstein family, who owned several theatres in upstate New York, purchased the former auto showroom in 1928, envisioning a place where people could have a magical entertainment experience. They hired architect Victor Rigaumont, a theatre specialist from Pittsburgh, for the job.
The influence of nearby Cornell University led Rigaumont to renovate the building in the Collegiate Gothic style, a popular design on American college campuses from 1900 through the 1930s. It emulates the buildings of Cambridge and Oxford in England. He also incorporated elements of the Moorish and Renaissance Revival styles of architecture. Inside, a cloud machine and painted constellations with twinkling lights scattered across the deep blue ceiling added to the enchantment.
The theatre opened on December 6, 1928, and has evolved with the times, presenting vaudeville acts in the beginning, then films in the early 1930s. When television and suburban movie houses gained popularity after World War II, downtown cinema halls struggled with declining audiences. The owners of the State Theatre adapted by separating the balcony from the main house and adding a second movie screen in 1976.
Financial difficulties and the need for significant repairs forced the theatre to close in the 1980s. In 1997, it was condemned by the city of Ithaca due to roof damage, failing heating and ventilation systems, falling plaster and out-of-date electrical systems. The owners considered demolishing the theatre.
Back on its feet
With support from the community, Historic Ithaca, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve historic structures, purchased the theatre in 1998. The group began Phase 1 of the State Theatre Restoration Project, which included replacing or repairing the main roof, the plaster walls, the outdated electrical systems, the fire detection system, and the heating and ventilation systems. The project was completed with funding from municipal, foundation and private donors. The theatre regained its occupancy permit and reopened on December 5, 2001.
The vertical blade sign was redone this past May and work on the marquee began in early July. Smalls feels these renovations are important because they are visual symbols of the theatre’s rebirth. “Although the restorations done in Phase 1 were necessary to regain our occupancy permit, they were primarily non-visual,” he said. “We wanted to give people something that they could actually touch and see.”
The man for the job
Smalls took on the position of executive director of the State Theatre in April. His experience in the live entertainment industry began right in Ithaca as manager of the Haunt, a nightclub that features live music. Along with local impresario John Peterson, he formed Two Just Men and Topspot Promotions, which presented many shows at the State and other regional theatres in the early 1990s. Eventually he moved to Boston, where he worked as a booking agent for local and national acts and later for Great Northeast Productions. Smalls returned to his hometown of Monticello, New York, to take over his family’s mechanical contracting business. His break from the live entertainment business didn’t last long. On a visit to Ithaca, Smalls met his future wife, and made the decision to sell the family business and return to the town in which he had started his career in the music industry. When the opportunity at the State Theatre came along, he couldn’t pass it up.
“I think my knowledge of Ithaca combined with my experience in theatre, music and promotion gives me a unique understanding of what it’s going to take to reach this market,” Smalls said.
More than a rental house
Now that the theatre is in working condition, Smalls believes the best course of action is to garner recognition for the theatre as a respectable performing arts center. Once the theatre has obtained that identity, he can begin the capital campaign for a complete overhaul.
“We need to show Ithaca and the Finger Lakes what the State Theatre is going to become before we can ask people to invest in us. That’s why our focus today is on presenting quality shows,” Smalls explained. “Once people believe in us as a performing arts center, securing the funding we need will be much easier.”
When the State reopened in 2001, it served as a space that outside promoters and local community groups could rent for acts they represented. Last year was the first season the theatre operated as a “presenting performing arts center.” “We offered a slate of talent in four different series: Family, Classic, Comedy and Broadway. We presented the shows, so we had to take care of all the details: the talent, lights, sound, tickets, catering, the whole nine yards,” Smalls explained. “We took the risk on the shows ourselves, as opposed to just renting the space to outside promoters.”
Although the season was not financially successful, it was a chance to test the waters and see what kinds of shows would work best in the Ithaca market. “Every theatre has what’s called an income gap. It’s the difference between earned income, which is the money from ticket sales and sponsorships, and unearned income, which is the money from donations and grants,” explained Smalls. “The slate of shows that the theatre presented last year was more advanced, one that a theatre in its fifth or sixth year would be able to handle. Usually by the fifth year, the donations and grants have risen to a point that they can offset the cost of producing more and bigger shows. We weren’t at that point yet, so we ended up in a tough financial situation at the end of the season.”
More of what worked, less of what didn’t
Smalls has been able to put together what he feels is a well-rounded, albeit slightly less ambitious season for 2007-2008 by focusing on the shows that were successful last year. “When I took over in April, the last director had started programming the 2007-2008 season. He left me with a stack of unsigned contracts,” Smalls said. “The beauty of coming into that situation was that I could look back at the numbers from 2006, look at the offers he had on the table and weed out the ones that I knew weren’t going to work.”
For instance, last season’s Broadway series contained three productions, but none of them broke even. One of the problems was the size of the State’s stage – it’s too small for many of the bigger, flashier Broadway productions such as “The Producers” and “Chicago.” This year the series only contains one show, and from there, it will grow slowly as Smalls discovers productions that fit well on the theatre’s stage.
Although the season will still contain big names, strong talent and award-winning shows, Smalls has chosen to scale things down overall. “We’re going to do more of what worked, less of what didn’t, and make sure that everything we do is tailored to the Ithaca and Finger Lakes markets,” he said.
This year, joining Comedy, Classics, Family and Broadway will be World Beat Music and the Grassroots Music series. World Beat Music will feature acts from around the world, including several from Africa. The Grassroots Music series was created thanks to a partnership with the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg. It will feature acts that have either headlined or played a significant role in the festival over the years.
In addition to the 23 shows that have been set for the season, Smalls plans to add others as they come through the area. “I can save a lot of money by buying a tour as it’s routed through here rather than trying to set up a whole season in advance around that date,” Smalls explained. “By adding shows as the season goes on, we’ll be able to make better buying decisions and keep ticket prices low.”
The State will continue to be available to outside groups and individuals that want to rent it for their performances. Working with community organizations like the Ithaca Ballet, Light in Winter, and Ithaca College and Cornell University groups also helps to keep ticket prices lower.
Guaranteeing the future of the State isn’t an easy job, and it certainly won’t be done in one season, but Smalls is confident that it can and should be done. From a financial standpoint, the State contributes a great deal to downtown Ithaca. On nights of theatre events, local restaurants and bars are booming and the parking garages are full. Surveys have determined that each theatre ticket sold contributes an influx to the local community of $27 from residents and over $40 from visitors to the area.
Music, theatre and the arts have always been significant aspects of downtown Ithaca, and Smalls feels the theatre is key in maintaining that. “I took this job because I truly believe in the theatre and its importance to the community. We live in a society where downtowns are disappearing as the big box stores on the outskirts of town are growing. I think the theatre is an integral piece in keeping downtown Ithaca alive and vibrant.”
story by Stacy Majewicz, photos by Jon Reis