Remake, Remodel: The State Theatre rises once again
The March 17, 1942, edition of The Ann Arbor News was mental about the State. The paper’s entire second section was dedicated to the first movie theater to open in Ann Arbor since the Michigan Theater flung open its doors Jan. 5, 1928. “ABLAZE WITH RADIANT BEAUTY” trumpeted the all-caps headline above a glowing black-and-white photo of the State Theatre’s gorgeous marquee. At least 18 stories were published about the State (“New Local Theater Most Modern Found in Michigan”), its owners (“Butterfield Theaters, Inc. Now Operating 114 Houses”), and other film-related tales, including “Opening Of New Theater Revives Memories Here Of Student Riot In 1908,” which destroyed Ann Arbor’s original movie house, The Star. And the section was filled with congratulatory advertising, including one headlined “The New Pride of Ann Arbor,” purchased by the George W. Auch Co., the State Theatre’s general contractor, though 35 different firms worked on the build. That edition of the newspaper was a full-on love letter to the State Theatre, and The Michigan Daily was similarly smitten, dedicating six pages to movie-house-related stories. There’s akin ardor in today’s digital-media realm about the venerated movie house’s latest reinvention, which opens its doors to members on Friday, Dec. 8 and to the public on Saturday, Dec. 9.
There have been remodels before: 1953’s installation of a wrap-around movie screen; 1979’s chopping up of the space into a four-screen venue; 1989’s razing of the two street-level screens to make way for retail after Thomas Borders bought the building; and 1992’s salvaging of the two upstairs screening rooms by new owners Aloha Entertainment. But with highly successful nonprofit Michigan Theater Foundation behind the latest rebirth, there’s a lot more confidence that this renovation was done right and will be the one that sticks.
Powered by an $8.5 million fundraising effort, which includes cash earmarked for new seats at the Michigan Theater in summer 2018, the State has undergone a huge remake that gives it four screens (seating 133, 100, 78, and 49 people, respectively) outfitted with high-end projection and sound systems; new heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical, and safety systems; and the entire venue is ADA compliant, including a full-sized elevator. But even with all the modern touches, the goal was always a “historically sensitive renovation,” according to Russ Collins, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater Foundation since 1982. “The Michigan was a restoration that we did in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for historic preservation. But the State Theatre had been turned into a retail store, so the ability to restore it wasn’t even a possibility,” Collins said. “We were very careful in restoring the facade and the marquee and that kind of thing. We did that in association with the Historic District Commission. (They) like us because we have a historic preservation mindset. We’re taking it back more to how it appeared in the ‘40s in the areas that it is possible to do that on the exterior than I think a commercial renovation of the property would have done.” Even with all the changes to the State over its 75-history, there was enough information about its original look to help guide this update. "The mezzanine lounge area, we’re doing a lot of work that is restoring elements that were there when the building opened," Collins said, including modern versions of Bodiform seats, which were described in 1942 as being “the most scientifically designed seats known.” Collins also said they've moved "the concession stand behind the wall so that the original space of the mezzanine lounge -- which was an Art Deco lounge -- the character of that space is the character it had in the 1940s. “The auditoria, however, are completely modern theaters,” he continued. “They have modern theater seats; they’re not recliners, but they’re articulated so you can move the seat to adjust it to your comfort viewing angle to the screen. They’re wide, high-backed, extremely comfortable seats. The aisles are really wide between the seats, which was a huge problem at the State Theatre, and all of the seats are aligned perfectly to the screen. And there are four screens instead of two screens as there was when the theater closed (on Sept. 10, 2016).”
They’ve even tried to match the originals colors that decorated the State Theatre’s interior -- hues so lovely they inspired two articles: one in The Ann Arbor News (“Bright Colors In Modern Design Feature New Theater”) and another in The Michigan Daily (“New Theatre Has Luxurious Color Scheme”). “That is part of the historically sensitive restoration, to use as best we could the original color palette, including re-creating the original carpeting, which is this very cool, spacey, Art Deco design,” Collins said. “That’s kind of a miracle story.” The original carpet from 1942 was torn out, Collins said, after the Butterfield company sold the theater to the George S. Kerasotes chain of movie houses in 1984. “None of it was left in the theater, but a citizen, Susan Weinberg, was passing by the theater (during Kerasotes’ minor remodel) -- and she’s a historical preservation enthusiast -- and she asked them if she could have a little piece of the carpeting. So she had about a 12x18-inch piece of carpeting.” The carpet's original repeating pattern was 5 feet by 3 feet but by combining the sample, photos, and computer modeling, Collins’ crew was able to “precisely calculate the exact scale of the pattern and the color scheme. So, we were very, very lucky,” he said. “You can design it in a computer and just export that file to a carpet printer, which prints a piece of white nylon carpeting with dye injection so it’s the exact duplicate at a relatively cost-effective custom-carpet (rate).” The rest of the restoration wasn’t quite so simple or streamlined, and the State will be tweaking things into the new year, such as finishing up the escalator, adding Michigan-themed snacks to the concession stand, and implementing a full-service cocktail bar. But all things considered, the project was without significant setbacks and took just 15 months of construction to make the State Theatre be “ablaze with radiant beauty” once more.
Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.
Visit statetheatrea2.org for the full list of films scheduled so far, behind-the-scenes photos of the renovation, and to find out more about becoming a member of Michigan and State Theatre Foundation.