To most of us, it’s probably hard to believe that when the State Theatre opened in 1942, it was considered a lavish movie house, self-proclaimed as “a perfect theatre for perfect movie entertainment.” It had one huge, two-story screen that showed a single movie, and the ticket prices were as low as a quarter at the right time of the day.

Back then it was as sterling a mainstream theater as any before it, just 15 years shy of the Michigan Theater and even more modern. Things have changed, but while most of the local audience has moved to off-campus chains, we should consider the classic theater on State Street more relevant than ever.

While the Michigan Theater has enjoyed continued attention nationally, the old-school vision that led to the creation of the State has slowly crumbled. The theater, with an original design by the Detroit-based architect C. Howard Crane, was reconstructed in 1979 to include four screens, which explains the peculiar arrangements of the second-floor theaters that remain to this day. It closed briefly in 1989 when it came under new ownership, and the bottom of the original theater was completely gutted to make way for Urban Outfitters (as if you needed another reason to hate that place) before the upper level reopened for business in 1992.

By the time the Michigan Theater was contracted to book all movies there in 1997, the State Theatre’s identity as a gauche throwback theater was already established. With the help of its sister theater, it was mercifully transformed from a Hawaiian-themed dollar show in the early ’90s to a host of important independent filmmaking, but many still treat it as an ancient untouchable. The confined seating, the cumbersome screen angles, the clanking projectors you can hear above you – what’s the point?

Even if you buy that, which you shouldn’t, there’s something to be said for the theater’s vitality, and its reputation as a run-down venue misses what makes its continued existence so valuable. Until the mid-’80s, there was a similar theater across from Middle Earth on South University Avenue, and the Showcase multiplex on Carpenter Road was a massive drive-in. Each succumbed to the harsh marketplace. But while the State’s recent history has been rough, it remains open, which is a testament to its local importance.

Admittedly, even though the State’s current ownership of the theater has improved the theater’s technical aspects since it took over, it still sustains more remnants of the old theater than a typical contemporary one. That’s not a bad thing. I covered film for the Daily for three years, and there was always an apologetic air when it came time to the State, as if it was a second-string task to sit through a movie there. I still have friends who won’t go. But in my mind the downtown theaters are as important to the Ann Arbor cultural scene as the Power Center or the Mendelsohn Theatre, and even if most of you share that opinion of the Michigan Theater, you probably don’t of the State.

You should. Anyone who has attended a movie at the Showcase multiplex has experienced a theater with limitless technology and a primly modern decor but with no atmosphere and no soul. You can go to a place just like it no matter where you are. The State Theatre might insist on a Midnight Movies-style irreverence that doesn’t always befit the films it shows during the week. It might not be the most comfortable theater. But it offers a singularity of character the local multiplexes can’t hope to match. You should go to experience the venue as much as the movies it shows, and that makes it a cultural rarity we shouldn’t take for granted.

I think there’s something to be said for a theater that allows a couple hours at Ashley’s on a Saturday night to be followed by midnight movies as diverse as “Any Given Sunday” and “Yojimbo.” But whatever the source of your affinity for it, the State Theatre was the first institution that endeared me to this campus, and there’s no reason we all shouldn’t give it its due.

Jeffrey Bloomer was the Daily’s fall/winter managing editor in 2007. He can be reached at bloomerj@umich.edu.

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