I love the State Theater. To paraphrase Shakespeare, I clasp it to my bosom with hopes of steel.
Many Ann Arbor moviegoers will likely snort at my affection, and not without reason. What adjectives would one apply to the State in its current condition? Rustic? Funky? Individualistic? Unconventional? Uh … grungy?
It’s not the easiest of tasks to shower bouquets upon the sixty-nine-year-old movie house at State and Liberty, an edifice now amputated to less than a third of its original size (600 seats, down from nearly 2,000 in 1942) though boasting twice its original number of screens (two, up from one). Call it tough love, given the theater’s more aggravating aspects.
Its cramped rows of seats leave almost no legroom and most aren’t wide enough, either, having been designed for patrons smaller than today’s average human. Most viewers sit at a vexingly odd angle to the screen, thanks to the original giant room having been hacked into four mini-theaters (of which two survive), thus drastically dislocating one’s eye-to-screen sightline. Then there’s the carpeting, surely the ugliest in the world–a dingy quasi-plaid leftover from the brief, tyrannical ownership of the unlamented George Kerasotes theater chain.
Many Ann Arbor filmgoers flinch in horror at the news that a sought-after indie flick is showing exclusively at the State. Better, they contend with considerable logic, to watch a no-brainer at the multiplex than risk body-contortion injury at this lopsided ex-picture palace! Yet a loyal cadre of cineastes, myself among them, adore the State as a paragon of eccentricity whose defects are actually assets. We know exactly where the good seats are. And we imagine its opening on March 17, 1942 …
Back then, a movie house opening was a very big deal, worthy of ruffles and flourishes in a war-torn world. In a congratulatory ad in the Ann Arbor News, State Street’s Campus Bootery called the State “the harbinger of Victory. The erection of the State Theater signifies faith in the future.” The campus branch of Goodyear’s department store chimed in: “Your bright and attractive building is a cheerful challenge to all of us to keep up appearances to the utmost, no matter how dark the times may seem.”
And times surely seemed grim back in mid-March of ’42. Bad news flowed in like tidal waves from the Pacific, as an aggressive Japanese military scored victory after victory over outmanned American and British forces en route to gobbling up the Far East. Three months after Pearl Harbor, the possibility of an invasion of America seemed frighteningly plausible. And the movies became not only an escape from brute reality but also became a symbol that we were still functioning and ready to fight back.
And so the State’s debut was an occasion not just for the Butterfield Theatre chain to toot its own horn (“ABLAZE WITH RADIANT BEAUTY,” shouted a full-page ad), but for the News to exude the same pride via a multitude of stories and photos of the event. “Six stores and an apartment building had to be removed to make way for the new State Theater,” noted one article, adding that “theater men have pointed out that the proportions of the new theater are very similar to those of Radio City Music Hall.”
Infused with the snazzy grandeur of architect C. Howard Crane’s art deco vision, the State’s nearly 2,000 wraparound seats faced a single giant screen beneath an awesomely high ceiling “done in green, Dubonnet silver and copper leaf,” bubbled an Ann Arbor News writer. Similarly dazzling were the sidewalls paneled “with zebra wood stripes” and “Brazilian rosewood.”
The State’s art deco look was duly noted by art critics of the time and by film theater historians in the decades to come. Back then it was smart and radiant, from its towering (and, thank heaven, surviving) neon-lit marquee (“It can be seen from Main Street at night,” marveled the News), to its curved lobby seating and ornately tiled restrooms. Dascola Barbers’ welcome ad praised the Butterfield owners “for their modernistic and progressive trends.”
Butterfield’s own ads lauded the building as a celluloid temple “for the enjoyment and comfort of the people of Ann Arbor.” Comforts included “richly upholstered Bodyform seats,” the “newest type air conditioning to give sensible temperatures at all times,” and “the finest projection and sound equipment [to] present the greater motion pictures at their very best both audibly and visibly.” A vast concession stand would offer up ninety items “not including chewing gum or popcorn.”
The opening film was The Fleet’s In, a Navy musical comedy starring Dorothy Lamour, William Holden, Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton–and, shouted the ad in capital letters, “JIMMY DORSEY AND HIS ORCHESTRA WITH BOB EBERLY AND HELEN O’CONNELL.” Also, “HILARIOUS CARTOON, ‘RHAPSODY IN RIVETS,'” plus “THE LAST MINUTE NEWS OF THE DAY”–a powerful lure in those pre-television world-in-crisis days. Admission was 25c for adults, 40c after 5 p.m. Children under twelve got in for just 11c. One continuity between the State then and now: tickets sold on a cash-only basis.
And so it began amidst an enthusiasm usually reserved for patriotic holidays. While never in a league with its neighbor the Michigan for elegance (though it had more seats), the State did its part to win the war on the home front–its menu included lots of war movies–then helped win the peace with an abundance of largely escapist fare. While the “serious” movies went to the Michigan and the “art” films went to the old Orpheum on Main Street, the State flooded its huge screen with comedy, action, horror, and science fiction, spiced with the occasional grade-B musical. Sci-fi was my thing, and I recall making youthful pilgrimages to the likes of Forbidden Planet, The War of the Worlds, and Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. (OK, it was actually Venus.)
As the ’50s gave way to the ’60s and ’70s, my loyalty toward the State remained passionate even as its celluloid menu changed. Hollywood was moving into a wondrous era in which the director was king and no topic was forbidden, and the State luxuriated in such future essentials as Bonnie & Clyde, Five Easy Pieces, Dirty Harry, The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance–a banquet of iconoclastic classics. And to see these wonderworks on a giant screen–sheer paradise.
Sadly, the days of Eden were short-lived. By the late ’70s provocative fare had drifted away from the State as movie multiplexes came into fashion and fast-food filmmaking kiboshed Tinseltown’s era of the auteur. In 1979 the theater was sawed into four sections and four screens, banishing forever its sense of epic splendor. In 1984 Butterfield sold it to the Kerasotes chain, and what was already a movie house in decline all but flatlined under the latter’s chaotic management. In early 1989 the increasingly seedy forty-seven-year-old State shut its doors, presumably for good. Its bottom level was soon jackhammered into an Urban Outfitters outlet. Only the balcony, forever divided and temporarily darkened, survived.
Yet survive it does, nurtured back into life in 1992 by suburban Detroit theater chain Aloha Entertainment, then in 1997 by its old rival, the Michigan, which took over programming with the blessings of building owner Tom Borders. Nowadays the State again shows different-drummer fare. Such meritorious films as Synecdoche, New York; The Squid and the Whale; Married Life; The Notorious Bettie Page; There Will Be Blood; The Road; and even Oscar winners American Beauty and The Hurt Locker first saw the light of day in Ann Arbor only because the State was there to screen them. For anyone who loves movies, that’s a priceless service.
So go ahead and knock the State if you must. Pan the goofy sightlines, the Kerasotes horror carpet, the gales of too-cold AC that often waft their way through the two theaters in springtime. No, it’s not what it once was and never will be in terms of gaudy, glitzy glamour. No matter. Even in emaciated form the State Theater is still oh, so relevant to Ann Arbor and to film lovers everywhere.
It’s been quite a run for sixty-nine years. If movies are still being made in 2042, I devoutly hope the State–its grandeur just a memory–will still be there to screen them. The mere act of doing so will be grand enough.