The State Theatre is back.
Its iconic marquee, with its Arabian-style font, looks exactly as it does in photographs from the 1930s.
The auditorium maintains much of the luxury and pomp that the theater embodied in its heyday 60 years ago, when movie stars like John Wayne and Mae West visited to promote their films.
While the pastoral, Renaissance-inspired mural that once hung above the stage is gone, the stage is still adorned on either side by sets of classically styled columns reaching up to the vaulted ceiling.
Visitors today see a brighter, cleaner venue that retains the styles and motifs of the State Theatre when it opened in 1928, with its modern iteration of Italian Renaissance architecture and hints of the Middle East.
But the results of four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of upgrades and restoration work to this Portland entertainment landmark that reopened last October go well beyond appearance. The cachet has also returned.
Twenty-five years ago, during one of its low points, this was a place where Portland residents could catch screenings of x-rated movies. Now major acts are again taking stage, regularly entertaining packed houses of nearly 1,500 seats. The likes of Elvis Costello, Bob Weir, Lily Tomlin and Prairie Home Companion are joining the Decemberists, Neon Trees, Guster and Wilco as the venue attracts some of the biggest names in entertainment.
The theater now “is a major part of the Arts District,” said Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District. “It brought life back to an entire block.”
While its restoration may be complete, the theater’s brightness and cleanliness belie the venue’s history. Over the last three decades alone, in addition to its X-rated offerings, the theater has opened and closed several times, changed ownership and management, been cited for numerous code violations, and sat shuttered and unused for long segments of time. Its founders would surely have been surprised.
A storied history
When the developers of the proposed State Theatre in Portland set about their task in the fall of 1928, they were late to the party. At that time, the city already had four prominent theaters: The Jefferson, The Strand, The Empire and The Keith. Nor did the developers know about the coming economic depression: Black Friday occurred almost exactly a year after the city issued construction permits for the project.
The State Theatre was built into the Congress Building, on the western corner of High and Congress streets. The Congress Building — designated a national landmark since 1970 — was designed by Portland architect Herbert W. Rhodes, who also designed the Eastland Hotel. The Congress Building and the theater featured contemporary architecture incorporating Spanish, Italian and even Oriental motifs.
In permits issued in October of 1928, developers estimated the cost of the theater’s construction to be $575,000 or roughly $10 million in today's dollars. Samuel Pinanski, one of the theater’s developers and then-president of New England Theaters Operating Corporation, desired to make the State the most luxurious theater in the region, both in terms of its glamorous aesthetic and its technical amenities. In addition to its vaulted ceilings, tapestries and balconies, the venue was also outfitted with a large Wurlitzer organ, costing $25,000, as well as state-of-the-art projection equipment, the largest film screen in the city and a cutting-edge air conditioning system.
Throughout the 1930s, the theater primarily showed first-run movies. However, live shows were also performed and banquets were held in the theater on holidays and special occasions.
In 1946, Richard Tully became the State’s manager and ushered in an era of even greater vibrancy. He brought “Dr. IQ,” a radio show previously broadcast in New York and Boston, to the State Theatre, where patrons packed in weekly to be part of the program’s audience. Tully also increased the events and banquets held at the theater, and began organizing contests to increase business and attendance.
In 1949, Tully brought the Broadway cast of "Oklahoma" to the State. This began a decade of live entertainment at the State, which regularly hosted nationally renowned ballet and stage companies. And the State continued to show first-run films, and stars such as John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Mae West made appearances there to promote their films.
In 1963 Tully left the State, at which point Edith Francis, a former candy girl and office manager, took over. Elements of the theater were renovated in the 1960s, while it continued to show films and host live performances. However, after Francis’s death in 1969 when she was hit by a car, the theater fell on hard times. Competition had taken away much of its business, as had the proliferation of television. In 1969, the theater began showing pornographic films to keep from being torn down, continuing until the theater was closed in 1989.
It remained that way until it was purchased by Lola and Nick Kampf in 1993, who tried to use it for live performances. However, shortly after reopening, a chunk of plaster fell from the theater’s ceiling into the audience. The ceiling was repaired, but cracked again, this time dropping a larger chunk of plaster into the audience during a concert in 1995. In January 1996, the theater again closed.
Beginning in 2000, the theater opened, closed and reopened recurrently. Technical obstacles, like the aging sound system and a fire escape system that was not up to code for years, became financial drains on any owners trying to make a go with the theater. In a 2009 Portland Monthly Magazine interview, Wally Wentzel, the State’s sound engineer throughout that decade, noted, “The place was a whale. It needed an entirely new electrical system. I swear that it was still the same panels from the original 1929 install.”
The theater was bought by Stone Coast Properties in 2000. Maine Entertainment LLC operated the theater for Stone Coast until 2006, when Stone Coast evicted Maine Entertainment. The theater had violated numerous fire codes, with Stone Coast and Maine Entertainment each demanding the other spend the money for necessary repairs.
Stone Coast then shuttered the theater for nearly four years and invested $700,000 in renovations. It began looking for a new tenant and a partner willing to invest more money for additional renovations.
By May of 2010, Stone Coast had partnered with The Bowery Presents, a New York City-based promotion company that works in conjunction with the Bowery Ballroom and other New York venues, and with Alex Crothers of Higher Ground Presents, a Vermont-based promotion company.
“It all happened sort of naturally,” said Alex Crothers of the events that led to his co-operating the State. Crothers first visited the venue in 1994. “I was absolutely struck by the theater.”
After opening Higher Ground, a club and music venue in Burlington, in 1998, “I almost immediately had people calling saying we could use something like this in Portland,” Crothers said. However, it was not until 2006 when friends in Portland encouraged Crothers to look at the then-closed State Theatre, that he started to think about managing it.
“That,” he said, “began a four-and-a-half year conversation with the landlord. . . . We talked and came to an understanding and reopened in October (of 2010).” But not before Crothers partnered with The Bowery Presents. “They had just opened a theater in New Jersey and understood what it takes to renovate a historic building.”
In June of last year, the partners began speaking publicly about the theater’s reopening and started the final renovations, which ended in September. The theater had its grand reopening on Oct. 15, with local bands opening for a sold out show by the rock group My Morning Jacket.
A rapid resurgence
“The support we’ve been receiving is incredible,” said Lauren Wayne, the theater’s general manager and talent buyer since June of last year. The theater’s rapid resurgence surprised even her. Ticket sales since the reopening have been exceptional, a trend that continues eight months later. “To give you an idea,” said Wayne, “all of April is sold out.”
Wayne reminisced about the grueling processes of renovating the theater’s physical space as well as its brand.
“Four months of renovations (were) stressful,” she said. However, spreading the news about the theater’s reopening was less difficult. “It was a relatively easy mission," because “we generated so much interest with the initial press release.” It seemed, she recalled, that Portland residents were strongly supportive of the venue's reopening.
That local support has been longstanding. On opening night in 1993, when the theater was under the ownership of the Kampfs, the venue swelled with volunteers — so many that only three employees were required. That communal spirit still surrounds the theater, said Wayne, which is one reason for its resurgence.
Success has had a lot to do with “our location in the downtown arts district. . . . We’ve got neighbors who support us,” she added.
Crothers also credited the theater's success in part to its continued connection with the community. “It was important that the theater be local. . . . A place like the State Theatre needs and deserves a (manager) that’s part of the community. And that’s Lauren.”
Beitzer, with the Downtown District, said the entertainment is another key to the theater's success. "It’s about the local approach and the diversity of the acts,” she said. “They appeal to all different demographics and, frankly, price ranges.”
Wayne agreed. “We always judge whether (a performer) is an appropriate match for the theater.”
So far, their formula is working. Since its reopening last year, the State has presented first-rate national talent, including the likes of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, and Matisyahu.
And more to come. Between the promoters at The Bowery Presents, Crothers and Wayne herself, the theater has no shortage of connections in the entertainment industry. “They automatically know us,” said Wayne, referring to the major acts that have graced the State’s stage since reopening. That notoriety has allowed them to bring in performers like Jeff Tweedy, David Crosby and Graham Nash — who will be playing next Tuesday — and Elvis Costello, scheduled to perform July 28.
Showcasing the venue's diversity, in June alone the lineup includes Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (on the 3rd), Chris Isaak (on the 14th), The Decemberists (on the 16th) and WILCO (on the 24th).
The diversity includes non-musical offerings. Comedians (Lily Tomlin appears in November), filmmakers (John Waters visits in December) and movie screenings (last Friday the theater presented two screenings of "Grease") add to the mix.
Showing films at the State seems a fitting connection with its beginnings. And a sign that times change and nothing — even as glowing as the State's current revitalization — is guaranteed. “The theater has to be supported by the Portland community,” reminded Beitzer. "The State Theatre can’t survive unless it draws from that two-hour radius around Portland.”
But so far so good, for entertainment seekers and the city alike. “There’s a lot of optimism,” said Beitzer, noting that the State's survival “is very important to Portland.”