Venerable Modesto theater celebrates its 75th birthday

May 8, 2009


It was Christmas Day 1934 when the State Theatre opened its doors for the first time.

Modesto residents lined up to see “Flirtation Walk,” starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, and also experience the wonders of the theater’s art deco design, complete with gold-leaf murals. The State was a true “movie palace.”

Still, how many who attended that opening day – held in the midst of the Great Depression — could have imagined that the State Theatre one day would be listed on the National Register of Historic Places; especially after the vaunted film house fell into disrepair.

Today, the State has been restored to its former glory. Once again, those gold-leaf murals stir the souls of those who enter the intimate, 580-seat venue that features live shows and concerts as well as films.

“We are, literally, the community’s theater,” said Sue Richardson, the State’s general manager. “We are very accessible to everyone; all ages, all walks of life. We’re the only remaining movie palace. Everything else is gone.”

The State is marking its 75th anniversary with a year-long celebration featuring a number of special events and movie presentations.

Later this month, the State will feature a special program, “The Golden Age of American Theater Architecture.” The program is part of the American Institute of Architects Film Festival.

The evening event is dedicated to the architecture of historic movie palaces such as the State, which was designed by S. Charles Lee.

A champagne and dessert reception will begin at 6 p.m. on May 14. Patrons are encouraged to come in period dress. An organ concert will follow the reception with a presentation at 7 p.m. by historian Gary Parks, western regional director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, and author of the new book, “Theatres of San Jose.”

Parks, whose book will be released this summer by Arcadia Publishing, will discuss the architects and the styles of movie theaters built in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. A short film also will be shown on the importance of restoration and preservation of America’s remaining movie palaces.

Two days later, on Saturday, May 16, the State is throwing its own birthday party. The event, which is free, will feature an organ concert and the premiere of a documentary film on the venerable movie palace, “The Show Starts on the Sidewalk,” by Wes Parker.

Also on the bill are classic cartoons; movie serials from the 1950s. There also will be free balloons, birthday cake, root beer floats and bags of the State’s famous “movie house” popcorn.

Finally, on Saturday, May 30, the State will show “American Graffiti,” the George Lucas classic film that depicts what life was like for teens living in Modesto and the Central Valley in 1962.

Other special events will be offered throughout the remainder of the year.

Restoration of the State began in earnest in the 1990s. After decades as only a film house, the State was converted into a community arts center and concert hall. In June 2005, a non-profit agency — State Theatre of Modesto Inc. — was created to operate the theater.

Restoration of the theater’s gold-leaf murals, featuring greyhounds and gazelles, was a key component of the renovation project.

Other work included a complete refurbishing of the seating and stage areas; updating the backstage dressing rooms and lounge used by guest artists; and a dramatic recreation of the theater’s art deco lobby, featuring a newly designed lounge and sweeping coved ceilings.

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