The iconic neon of the storied State Theater lit South Michigan Street once again, alive with activity after years of changing ownership and disuse.
The State Theater’s history is long and varied. It was built in 1919 and in 1921 opened as the Blackstone Theater. The name changed to State Theater in 1931, and served as a movie theater and vaudeville house. In 1978 it closed, then reopened in 1994 as a movie theater that ran first run and second run movies. From 1997-2005 it was a night club/bar, and from 2006 to 2008 it was used as a Christian space. After the bank took it over, it was purchased by current owner and finally reopened in March for it’s first event, Ignite Michiana.
The process of deciding what would become of the theater this time came from the community: Downtown South Bend presented the “Pitch Your Plan” contests, in which anyone could submit a business idea for the theater. A jury chose top ideas from the selections and a few finalist moved to next round, which included access to the theater, a business mentor, and use of software to help entrepreneurship organize their ideas for presentation. 88 entries were submitted by April 2012
Drew Elegante, a Notre Dame MBA graduate who was a finalist in the contest, is the General Manager of the building and more, doing everything from online advertising to leading crowd funding to programming to working at events. Assaf Dagan, who now owns the theater and a company called Banko Capital, agreed to match the first $50,000 raised by the community to gage community interest. So far it’s been used for projects like fixing the marquee and will be used in the future to get more lighting and chairs, a sound system, better projection system
The iconic State Theater marquee was repaired and finally lit up again, proudly advertising a SXSB (South By South Bend) concert. The changing marquee and lights remind downtown South Bend that the theater is back and active after years of disuse.
General Manager Drew Elegante, whose energy and enthusiasm has played a huge role in the theater’s return, in the upstairs offices he hopes to turn into artist’s studios, overlooking South Michigan Street.
The stage was likely meant for movie theater viewings and vaudeville acts when built in 1919, reminiscent of the grand theaters of the 20s, but has since been used as a Christian space, a bar, a meeting space, and a music venue.
Another example of community involvement comes from the Notre Dame design majors: potential designs to give the theater a new identity that reflects both the old memories and new possibilities of the space.
The SXSB concert audience chats and sits down for a drink between acts. The space can hold about 380 people and serves as a black box as of now — completely flexible in seating, lighting, and sound as it does not have yet have such resources that belong to the theater.
Although Elegante is the only person employed with The State Theater, the community has had an active interest in the building and keeping it from being torn down. Such community support in cleaning and improving the building has come not only from interested volunteers, but the efforts of the Downtown South Bend Ambassador program across the street.
The DTSB Ambassador program is responsible for keeping downtown clean, safe, and hospitable for a 60 block area of the core of downtown South Bend. They work for and have services available for everyone downtown, especially the State now that it is open and active again. After a graffiti incident on the front of the building the ambassadors helped remove the tags and have also recently power washed the sidewalks outside of the theater as it has had more events. The State has also borrowed sound systems, tables, and chairs from DTSB to hold events, as the space is a black box theater (meaning it does not have a house sound, lighting, or extensive furniture access)
The first event hosted in this flexible space was in March, a well attended Ignite Michiana event, using the stage for speakers and presentations. It has also hosted a Zumbathon to Benefit Center for the Homeless, a celebration of the Hindu Holi Festival of Color, Circus of Art (visual and performance art from local talent), free yoga, Brickhouse Burlesque, and concerts part of the first South By South Bend music festival.
Notre Dame students are also getting more involved with downtown through the theater: under the supervision of Prof. Anne H Berry with the Art, Art History, and Design Department, advanced graphic design students created projects to help revitalize the theater. Through brand development, interior design, and environmental design components, they hope their contributions will help reestablish the landmark as an important park of the community. The works of Tre Carden, HyeSoo Kim, Laura Laws, Colleen MacDonald, and Elizabeth Maurath are on display on banners inside the venue.
Yet another way the Theater is turning heads downtown is the rental of the marquee. While the bright neon of the huge sign lights the night, the marquee can be rented out for only $25 dollars to anyone with a positive message to share. With the constantly changing marquee, there’s something new to notice to keep the theater in people’s minds.
Since the theater does not yet have heating and air conditioning, Elegante expects there won’t be as many events in the summer, but is already preparing for what kinds of programming to expect in the fall. He hopes to bring events that will welcome people of all ethnicities and to try to bring in the 18 and up crowd from the thousands of college students in the area who find themselves unable to attend events in 21 and up venues.
I spoke more with Drew about his many ideas for the space, how he came onto the project, what has brought the theater where it is now, and what the plans for the future of the space are.