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Movies, Music, And Community: The Rise And Return Of The State Theatre

On East College Avenue, in the heart of downtown State College, there sits a theatre.

Hundreds of students, faculty, and community members pass by this stone building, with its slatted roof and a single round window overlooking the street below, every day. At night, old-fashioned yellow lights cast a warm glow onto the sidewalk and promotional posters below.

While some students enter for Theatre 100 or other arts classes, many are unfamiliar with the long history of The State Theatre.

John Hamilton Henszey built the original structure in 1938 on behalf of Warner Brothers Studios. The goal of the theatre was to utilize the State College community as a test audience for new films.

Although the $70,000 cost of construction would equate to more than $1.2 million in 2019, the theatre was built in less than four months and opened on October 15, 1938. A plaque on its walls reveals the first movie featured there was “The Sisters,” starring Errol Flynn and Bette Davis.

Karen Gregg, the current executive director of the State Theatre, said the movie house was extremely successful in its prime.

At the height of its popularity, the State Theatre showed four different films per week for less than 40 cents. But as the decades wore on, the appeal of going to a stately auditorium to view a simple moving picture waned in appeal. The theatre instead became a “multiplex,” which hosted current films on two separate screens.

(from Daily Collegian archives, July 21, 1944)

By the end of the 20th century, not even hit films could stop the decline in patronage. The theatre couldn’t afford to screen movies on the digital projectors used by its competitors, and rental companies like Blockbuster posed another financial threat. The State Theatre ceased operation as a movie theater in 2001, having been closed by Carmike Cinemas. It appeared as though the theatre would remain empty for years to come.

Then-State Theatre board president Mike Negra, along with a contingent of avid community arts supporters, had other ideas. Gregg said Negra envisioned a place where artistic groups could rehearse and perform on a professional stage, rather than scrounging to find an empty high school auditorium or church basement.

Nengra imagined a fully-renovated and operational live performance center, an open space for artists of all kinds. At the time, no other facility in the State College community served such a purpose. Negra enlisted owners Helen and Sidney Friedman to aid in his efforts to revitalize the old movie theater.

The Friedmans funded a large renovation project after the theater’s closure, and donated the entire building to the new operators under the condition that it become the hub of community arts they desired. Rather than a simple movie theater, the State Theatre would instead become the center of arts and performance in Centre County.

(Courtesy of Karen Gregg)

The only problem was the small space was not originally intended to be a full performance venue. A basement and backstage area were added to the building, and the stage was expanded to accommodate larger groups.

(Courtesy of Karen Gregg)

A box office and concession stand were built as extensions to the theatre, and other amenities and decor details were installed, including larger restrooms, an elevator, removable seats, and a chandelier in the lobby.

(Courtesy of Karen Gregg)

The project was funded by not only the Friedmans, but from hefty donations from producers. Many of these producers, friends of the State Theatre, and retired staff members are immortalized with personalized pavers in the sidewalk outside along College Ave. Others are remembered through smaller plaques located on the chairs inside of the auditorium.

The new and improved State Theatre officially reopened on December 14, 2006, and began its performance career by hosting Grammy Award-winning musician Mike Reid. Since that night, the theatre has served as a multipurpose performance space.

The cover of The State Theatre’s grand reopening program (Penn State Archives)

Newspapers and news stations ran with the story of the State Theatre’s rebranding, and Negra himself marketed the revamped theatre to groups and artists who might be able to use the new venue. Today, the theatre is known for much more than screening the newest flick.

The theatre now welcomes popular acts from across the country, including bands, solo musicians, and dance groups, as well as live theatre performances from troupes and children’s camps across Centre County. Country artists in particular have found a home at The State Theatre, including George Thorogood, Wynonna Judd, David Crosby, and Graham Nash.

Gregg said the State Theatre is always striving to expand programming, and hopes to feature authors and speaker from different genres as part of upcoming seasons. Non-profits and other groups are also able to rent the auditorium or smaller attic space for events and fundraisers.

Staying true to its roots in cinema, the State Theatre also continues to screen independent films and live performances from venues like the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre.

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About the Author

Allison Rambler

Allison Rambler is a junior majoring in Photojournalism and minoring in Theatre, which means she has a camera attached to her hip and is pretty much always bursting out into showtunes. She is originally from York, Pennsylvania, a city famous for the "Way to go, Paul!" vine. When not trying to get her life together, she can be found acting, directing, making videos, and attempting to get celebrities to notice her on Twitter (@allison_rambler). She pronounces "Oreo" incorrectly, so please ask her about that. She loves to talk about it.

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