The iconic State Theatre of Ithaca was a downtown auto garage and dealership until two Cornell alumni stepped in and transformed the building into a vaudeville theatre and, later, a cinema.
Doug Levine, executive director of the theater, showed The Sun around the building on Tuesday and explained the history and evolving business model of the attraction on West State Street.
Two Cornell alumni bought the building in 1926 for Cornell Theatres, Inc. and turned it into a theatre in about two years, Levine said. The first show was on Dec. 6, 1928 and cost 50 cents to attend.
The initial president of Cornell Theaters, Inc. was Lewis Henry 1909, who had been managing editor of The Sun, and the corporation’s first secretary was A.F. McCann 1916, who had been a Sun associate editor
“In 1928, that was before television,” Levine said. “Radio was still in its infancy, so this was the main source of entertainment for people.”
Levine said the unusual architectural features of the nearly 90-year-old building were created to supplement the music and voices of performers before more modern technology.
“Our natural acoustics here are fantastic because [the theater] was built in an era where they didn’t have electronic acoustics to benefit from,” he said.
As the entertainment industry evolved over time, Levine said, the State Theatre evolved as well.
“It was originally a vaudeville house and then it transitioned to silent films in the ’30s and ’40s,” he said. “There was an era from the early ’70s to the ’90s that it was primarily a movie house.”
In the 1990s, following decades of successful patronage, the State Theatre was in full decline, Levine said.
“This building fell into disrepair and it was about to get completely taken away by the wrecking ball,” Levine said. “Some wanted to convert this space into a parking lot.”
Instead, the theater was revived by Historic Ithaca, a non-profit which supports the preservation of local historic sites.
“Historic Ithaca swooped in and raised enough money to buy the theatre and save it,” he said. “For the next seven years, they raised over $10 million to get the theater operating again.”
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for State Theatre under Historic Ithaca’s management.
“They started booking Broadway shows and other acts, but it wasn’t as easy as they hoped it would be,” Levine said. “Once you book a show, you have to market it and you have to sell tickets. Basically over the course of four years, [Historic Ithaca] amassed an enormous amount of debt well over six figures.”
A new organization with a specialized business strategy was formed. State Theatre of Ithaca, Inc. expressed interest, in 2009, in buying the theater from Historic Ithaca and forming its own not-for-profit organization that would own and operate the building.
Under the current business model, Levine explained, the theater puts on a certain number of family and community shows.
“We take a 100 percent risk on those shows,” he said. “For a lot of the family shows with sponsorships, we are breaking [even] before we even sell one ticket, so every ticket we sell is profit. That is how we manage to keep our doors open and remain profitable.”
Levine elaborated on the company’s low-risk strategy in outsourcing talent.
“We also have a relationship with our talent buyer [Dan Smalls] who is required to put on a certain number of shows per semester,” Levine said. “We guarantee rent and concession sales from these headliner shows. This also eliminates our risk because the more shows our talent buyer does, the more money we bring in.”
Aside from shows, the theater also goes back to its roots as a cinema and shows movies, funded by sponsors.
“For the movies as well, we have sponsorships,” Levine said. “The movies are really low-risk because we don’t need to pay the studios much to show a movie.”
When asked about competition from Netflix and online media, Levine said the theater works to select programs that are not available on online streaming services.
“When we pick the classic movies, we try to pick movies that are not on TV or on Netflix,” he said. “We try to pick things which need to be seen on the big screen.”