Historic State Theatre’s grand reopening features both new blockbusters and old classics

Sunday, December 10, 2017 - 6:45pm

Hours before the State Theatre opened Friday afternoon after a year-long renovation, construction workers made last minute adjustments to the double door entryway and cut holes into red sheet metal beneath the neon marquee on State Street.

The Michigan Theater Foundation — a nonprofit that oversees the operation of both the Michigan Theater and State Theatre — managed the transformation renovation effort, which included the addition of two new screens, an elevator, modern seating with increased leg room, new movie projectors and new sound systems.

Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater Foundation, said the new State Theatre offers “all of the bells and whistles of a great movie experience.”

“The State Theatre has gone from a kind of quirky, fun but problematic place to watch a movie to what we think may be the best place in town to watch a movie,” Collins said. “The decorative flourishes that pay tribute to the original art deco design and the modern technology that goes into the reproduction of the movies.”

The $8.5 million project to restore the 75-year-old venue began after the Michigan Theater Foundation purchased the State Theatre in 2014. Prior to the renovation, the venue had narrow seating and curved screens in two auditoriums, the result of partitioning a single, larger screen. It also lacked accommodations for people with disabilities.

“It was uncomfortable. You kind of sat sideways to the screen,” Collins said. “We got a lot of complaints. The people in wheelchairs, you just couldn’t service them. Only the most able bodied were able to go to the movies.”

Despite “unforeseen circumstances” that delayed the ribbon cutting ceremony, the State Theatre was still able to open members of the Michigan Theater Foundation Friday and the general public Saturday, according to Diana York, who oversees marketing for the restoration campaign. York said the ribbon ceremony will be rescheduled, most likely to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the cinema.

At its construction, the State Theatre was the “only theatre actually designed for the sole use of showing motion picture,” according to a 1942 Daily article. It stands just down the street from the Michigan Theater, which opened in 1928 to show silent films. C. Howard Crane, a prolific architect who designed numerous theaters around the country including the Fox Theatre and the Fillmore, both in Detroit, also designed the State Theatre.

Henry Aldridge, a former professor of film at Eastern Michigan University and volunteer organist for the Michigan Theater, said the State was bigger than the Michigan Theater by 200 seats when it first opened.

“It was considered very modern at the time when it opened,” Aldridge said. “It was fully air conditioned, which was very unusual in the 1940’s. It had seats that popped up when you got up. You didn’t have to flip your seat up, they came up by themselves — little things like that.”

Aldridge formed the Michigan Theater Foundation in the 1970s to stop plans to turn the venue into a food court. For more than a decade, the Michigan Theater has overseen the film scheduling at the State Theatre. Aldridge said the four new screens in the State Theatre, in addition to the three in the Michigan, provide great opportunities for dynamic programming. 

“There are not many cities that have two historic theaters within a half a block of each other, both of which are going to be fully operational,” Aldridge said. “What makes the State special is that it’s been saved, or at least a part of it has, and that it will be a state-of-the-art screening facility for the University community, for the citizens of Ann Arbor and the region.”

With its four screens, the State now offers 360 seats in total.

Shows on Friday were cancelled temporarily in one auditorium due to projection issues. The problem was resolved shortly thereafter, allowing for the rest of the weekend’s scheduled programming to resume.

LSA senior Andrea Sahouri saw the “The Disaster Artist” starring James Franco at the State Theatre Saturday night.

“I thought the theater was amazing,” Sahouri said. “I like how they kept it looking how it did before. They didn’t change too much, which keeps its character. They didn’t change it visually too much. I can’t imagine the work that was put into it, but it’s really great.”

In addition to new releases like "Lady Bird," starring Saoirse Ronan, the opening weekend movie lineup included "The Big Lebowski” and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

LSA sophomore Phoenix Vavzincak played Janet in the shadow cast of the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Michigan Theater in late October. She said the State Theatre’s screening of the 1975 cult classic is better suited to “die-hards” rather than casual viewers.

“I think the difference between the State and the Michigan Theater is when you go to the State Theatre to see something like ‘Rocky Horror,’ then you get the real die-hards, you get the feeling of what Rocky Horror was originally about,” she said. “It’s a small scale, and you get to watch the movie and relate to it. At the Michigan Theater, I feel like that’s when it can become the big event that it is when we did the shadow cast and everyone came.”

Vavzincak said she’d prefer to continue putting on the shadow cast at the Michigan Theater, where the Halloween showing of “Rocky Horror” sold out the 1,700 seat auditorium.

“You couldn’t expect to be doing that type of a show when they play it at the State Theatre, because the State Theatre is a more personal feel and I think the Michigan Theater makes more of a spectacle with it,” Vavzincak said.

Collins, an Ann Arbor resident, remembers going to “Fantasia” and “Jaws” as a kid at the State Theatre, he said movies play a key role in the way people tell stories.

“I don’t know whether it’s because it resonates with that primordial sense of sitting around a campfire, hearing a shaman tell a great tribal story about your culture, about your time, about life’s transitions and that kind of thing that goes back to prehistory, or because with a movie, it’s brilliant storytellers telling a story with flickering light,” he said.

Regardless of why people go to the movies, Collins said, he is optimistic about the future of the theaters like the State and Michigan.

“Even though people can watch movies at home, they still like to get out in a crowd and do it,” he said. “That’s why movies aren’t going away. It’s a legacy art form that resonates deeply with the human psyche. That’s why we invested all of this time, money, energy and enthusiasm in preserving a movie exhibition piece.”

Ishi Mori also contributed to reporting.