Ithaca, N.Y. — After teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and facing condemnation, the State Theatre of Ithaca has found a new strategy to secure its financial foothold: Move forward by looking back.
The theater has returned to its roots as a cinema house, featuring movies ranging from E.T. to The Big Lebowski during its 2013-2014 season and pulling diverse audiences that mark it as a “place for everyone,” according to Doug Levine, executive director of the State Theatre.
Since changing hands in 2009, the theater has moved from drawing an annual audience of 45,702 to bringing in over 60,000 in 2013-2014, with a few shows still left in the season.
It has solidified its lineup of shows, drawing major acts such as Garrison Keillor and the Goo Goo Dolls, and serving as a hub for community-sponsored performances like the Ithaca Ballet and Running to Places Theatre Company.
In 2010, the Theatre told the IRS that it had generated around $603,000 in total revenue while spending $682,000.
And in 2012? The State Theatre reported around $850,000 in both revenue and expenses, according to the most recent publicly filed documents available.
Gross revenue generated from admissions, merchandise sold, or services performed almost doubled just in two years, from $256,092 in 2010 to $515,165 in 2012.
Levine touted the theater’s trek out of its financial hole.
“For so long, this theater was on the edge of bankruptcy and people were always asking, ‘Is the State Theatre going to be here in 6 months?’” Levine said. “Now, people know that we’re going to be here for a while. It’s been a good run [since 2009].”
The numbers back up the theater’s comeback, said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, who also serves on the board of directors of the non-profit that runs the State Theatre.
Ferguson noted that the theater has eliminated a significant part of its debt.
“From a fiscal standpoint, it is as strong as it has ever been,” Ferguson said.
“If you saw it six or seven years ago, at least on paper, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it.”
Ferguson calls the theater a “significant part of Ithaca.”
“It’s the anchor for downtown,” Ferguson said. “It not only draws people to the region, but it is an attraction and destination for the community.”
Levine spoke animatedly about the recent successes of the State Theatre in an interview in the theater’s soundbooth last week. As he spoke, Production Manager Mike Garrett adjusted lights on the stage cluttered by props for an upcoming production of Doctor Dolittle Jr.
It’s one of nearly 90 shows they had for the 2012-2013 season; five years ago, the theater showcased only 70 shows.
“We’ve been increasing the number of shows that we do each year, and the number of people that come through the doors each year increases correspondingly,” Levine said.
“Everything is going in the right direction.”
New leadership brings new model
The non-profit State Theatre of Ithaca, Inc., took over leadership in the spring of 2009, headed by Mack and Carol Travis, according to Ferguson. Levine partially credits the success of the State Theatre to its business model — a combination of presenting shows themselves and renting the space to outside promoters.
“We have a unique business model in that we don’t present all the shows ourselves but we don’t rent them all out, either,” Levine said.
In other words, the theater takes on the risk of running a show, such as not selling enough tickets to break even or turn a profit, for 12 to 15 headline shows each season. Other headline acts are contracted through a talent buyer, who accepts all of the risk while the theater is guaranteed to make money on rent and concessions
According to Levine, the theater is not likely to stray far from this model in the next few years.
“We did not want to take so much financial risk our first couple of years and we’re still honoring that model,” Levine said. “The model has been helpful and it has helped stabilize us. We do take some [risks] – we had Temptations in December for our 85th birthday, but that was a good risk and we ended up making some money on that show.”
Despite his record of success, running a theatre is much harder than it looks, says Levine.
“People think that they can just rent the theater, put on a show and make thousands of dollars,” Levine said. “In reality, many people can actually end up losing those thousands of dollars.”
Safe from the wrecking ball but into the money pit
The State Theater officially opened in 1928 as a vaudeville house, and then evolved during the 1940s and 1950s into a movie theater.
The 1960s saw the Theatre’s first plummet because it suffered financially as television began to impact sales, according to Levine.
The Theatre tried to recover by adding another screen, building a wall from the base of the balcony up to the ceiling in 1976, but the theater closed in the 80s due to low finances and long deferred maintenance.
In the mid 1990s, the building was condemned by the city of Ithaca due to significant roof damage and safety hazards caused by falling plaster and outdated electrical systems.
“Historic Ithaca jumped in at the last second and saved the building from the wrecking ball,” Levine said. It spent the next three years successfully fundraising the millions of dollars needed to keep the building up to code.
Historic Ithaca, a historic preservation society serving Tompkins County, did feature some shows at the Theatre after completing much-needed restorations.
But it soon became clear that the theater was “turning into a money pit,” according to Levine.
“Historic Ithaca tried Broadway, as well as normal comedy and concert series,” Levine said. “In a nutshell, Broadway did not go well. Numbers were really low and they couldn’t make up the costs of an expensive Broadway show with sponsorships.”
‘I still see us in our infancy’
Since 2009, over $400,000 has been put toward renovating the theater. Most of these projects are behind the scenes.
They include adding additional counterweight line sets to the stage; making the building more efficient by sealing doors; and repainting and replastering to return the theater to its 1928 glory.
“Historic Ithaca did a great job getting us operational, but I still see us in our infancy,” Levine said. “I want to renovate the seating, I want more handicapped accessibility, I want better lighting, especially in the balcony. We’re getting there, but it’s going to take a lot of money and planning and effort.”
Levine also highlighted adding air-conditioning to the Theatre as a key future project.
“For the past few summers, we’ve been able to rent our theater for a reduced price to groups, but the summers have been so hot that no one has wanted to rent the theater in July and August,” Levine said. “This is definitely going to put a dent on our summer.”
Because the fee to use the stage for a rehearsal is $2,500 per day, the theater could earn an additional $10,000 in income during the summertime.
Two popular bands, including “YES,” have expressed interest in using the theater but ultimately did not because of the lack of air conditioning, according to Levine.
‘A theater for everyone’
Levine says that despite financial setbacks, the theater continues to “try out things that no one else is doing.”
“We’ve done everything from big band music and hip-hop to comedy and country music,” he said.
“We try to be a theatre for everyone. Next September we’re bringing back Menopause the Musical, next October we’re featuring Ira Glass.”
For the 2014-2015 season, expect more films.
“Next year, you’ll see a more complete movie series, instead of a piecemeal month by month,” Levine said. “During the Ithaca Festival we showed The Wizard of Oz, The Shining was our first horror film, and we’ve shown a few comedy films, so we’re really excited about bringing film series back. We try to make these movies events.”
Performances from community groups like the Ithaca Ballet are also critical to the theater’s mission, according to Levine. The State Theatre will release its 2014-2015 community series this week.
“If kids can be on our stage and performing, that’s optimal,” Levine said.
“After all, we are a community organization.”