State Of The State (Theater)

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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Senator Tim Johnson has managed to pull a few strings and direct 200 thousand dollars from a “Save America’s Treasures” grant program towards the on-going restoration of the 84 year old State Theater. It’s a long way from the overall 5.2 million dollar estimated cost..but still.
The first movie I remember going to at the State Theater in Sioux Falls was a corny western comedy in 1962 called “4 for Texas” starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress. I don’t know why I have any recollection of the film at all because I was there with an older girl (A senior from Brookings)   who had a bit of a rep and was way out of my league.
My pal Donny Tucker was just 17 but already had a cool 1956 Mercury which I helped wash and wax on a regular basis in order to earn the privilege of riding around with him…including a double date on a Saturday night in 1962 driving all the way down to Sioux Falls to see a show.
I had managed to get this date through Don’s girlfriend and I was nervous as John Edwards on Fathers’ Day. 
The theater was beautiful inside with ornately decorated walls and ceilings. The main floor was packed so, after spending about every cent I had for tickets, popcorn and Cokes, the four of us made our way up to the balcony. By the time Frank and Dean were putting the moves on Anita and Ursula on the big screen, my friend, Don already had his girl in full lip lock.  I, on the other hand had just built up enough nerve to reach for my date’s hand which she accepted only to find it damp and salty from nervous perspiration and popcorn. Later, I could feel her looking at me and when I turned, I received an unspoken invitation to come closer. The fuzz on her angora sweater tickled my chin and the aroma of Evening in Paris cologne, Juicy Fruit gum and Aqua Net hairspray was intoxicating to a young guy wondering where this was going to lead. I didn’t have to wonder long because it lead to nowhere. The light’s came up and the curtain came down: Show’s over.
That was my first and only date with this evocative mature woman and even though I can’t for the life of me remember her last name, I’ll never forget that evening at the State Theater 48 years ago.
So you see, nobody would like to see the State restored more than I.
 But the reporter in me feels the need to ask a few tough questions about “The Show Must Go On” plan before I chip in to the renovation fund; answers that I haven’t gotten from the group’s web site or recent stories in the media on this latest financial acquisition courtesy of Tim Johnson’s magic wand.
For example: is the goal to have it be a first run movie theater, as I’ve read, or a multi use facility for live events like concerts and plays..which I’ve also read?
Can it be both?
Will film distributors be willing to provide the latest big-draw movies to a theater that doesn’t show movies full time? Does the cost of renovation include a big screen and adequate sound system to go along with the modern digital projector?  When would movies be shown?Would somebody like Jeff Logan “Logan Luxury Theaters” be in charge of scheduling, concessions and marketing? Can a theater today, no matter how exquisite inside, be a financial success with just one screen? Most operators say they don’t make any money at all on ticket sales. Their profits must come from the ridiculously high cost of concessions. Yet, the State Theater website talks about “affordable” concessions along with ushers and valet parking. I don’t know, maybe the object isn’t to make a profit..but with a brand new multi-plex theater being built on the East Side, it’s going to be tough attracting a big enough audience to the matter how nostalgic the experience may be.
The idea of people taking in a movie on a soft summer night..then strolling across the street after the show to enjoy a beverage and live music at one of the many sidewalk cafés, sounds positively marvelous. But in order to make a go of it, the State would have to be open on cold winter nights too when people would rather stay home snuggled under a blanket sipping a hot chocolate and watching their latest Netflix DVD on a 56 inch flat screen TV.
As for showing classic films; the Sioux Falls Film Society, which purchased the State in 2001 and spent a sizable sum on initial restoration and a feasability study, had to give up the project a few years later for lack of public interest and funding.
But the questions don’t end there. If the State Theater is to be used as a venue for more than concerts and plays..what would set it apart from the other two like-size performance halls, The Washington Pavilion and Orpheum Theater, just blocks away? Both have been controversial for requiring sizable and regular city subsidies to keep going.
Are the pieces in place for live stage performances like plays? Or, would curtains, lights, drops and other necessities need to be acquired?
The plan also calls for spending  a quarter of a million dollars to restore the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that’s been sitting silent in the State Theater for many decades.
When would it be played?  For silent movies? Concerts?
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to hear it!  But, boy, that seems like a big investment if it’s not going to be fired up on a regular basis.
Believe me, I’m not trying to be a nay-sayer here and I understand that preservation doesn’t always have to be practical or profitable. I also understand that it’s a little too late to turn back now. But I can’t help wonder if the lovely old State can actually live up to the expectations of those trying to breathe new life into her. I hope so.
By the way, I swiped some of the State Theater photos from my e-mail buddy, Eric Renshaw, who has a wonderful website on the history of Sioux Falls..including big old photographs of all of the former downtown movie houses.
To see it CLICK HERE.
Eric is also a big supporter of the State Theater project and I hope he and others involved understand that my queries are not meant to be obstructive.  Just a reality check.
Here’s an idea; try to find room on the State Theater’s marquee to put the name “Sanford” up there.    

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