ITHACA, N.Y. — State Theatre is one of those Ithaca staples. Like Moosewood, GreenStar or Cinemapolis, it’s quintessential Ithaca. Most of our articles covering the State (which, for the sake of disclosure, they are a Voice sponsor) have less to do with the theater itself, and more with whoever is performing – be it a comedian, a rock band, or a movie matinee. Today, we’re going to take you for a little behind the scenes look at the business side of the theater’s operations.

First, let’s clear the most obvious question. The State Theatre is on sound financial footing. Very sound, according to Executive Director Doug Levine. “We’re in the best financial footing that we’ve been in. We get better and better every single year. Our business model is working, we do a lot of fundraising and we try to improve upon that every year, we’ve had some major donors step up, and beyond general fundraising, we’ve improved our sponsorship program as well, and that alleviates the cost of shows. It’s pretty amazing how far we’ve come in eight years.”

While Levine says eight years, the theater has been around for almost a century. Currently, it’s run by the State Theatre of Ithaca Inc., which is a non-profit overseen by a board of directors. The building opened as a parking garage in 1915, and was renovated in 1928 for the first incarnation of the State Theatre, which was a for-profit enterprise. The owners were showing films as early as the 1930s, and converted it into a two-screen movie theater in the 1970s. But the rise of big movie chains, TV and video contributed to the decline of smaller, independent theaters, and the struggling State was about to fall victim as well – in the mid-1990s, the owners were ready to demolish the building.

That’s when the Ithaca community stepped in. Using seed money raised from events such as Grassroots, supporters purchased the building, tore town the wall for the second movie screen, and turned it into the Ithaca Performing Arts Center. Unfortunately, the building was in major need of repairs, and after three years, the city deemed it unsafe to occupy. Although a major setback, the IPAC demonstrated there was market for theater performances in Ithaca.

With this and the building’s historic importance in mind, Historic Ithaca picked it up in 1998, and with public and private funds and donations, was able to renovate the building. Finally, with an active community group willing to manage it, and wanting to focus on its preservation mission, Historic Ithaca sold the building to STI Inc. in Spring 2009. Levine, then with the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, was brought on-board at its inception. He had the experience, as a former band manager.

“I’m from the Philadelphia area, I went to Ithaca College, and fell in love with the area, its natural places, the music scene, the local flavor. After graduating, I wanted to stick around, and being 21, 22 years old, and being in Ithaca for the first time without schoolwork, I ended up involved with local bands, managing bands, that was how I got behind the scenes basically. It started with dear friends on my couch, then ABC Café, and one band blossomed into another band, and I managed them for close to 10 years, and we started in local venues, but also New York, Boston, even Europe a couple of times, so I got a taste of that scene.”

Levine reminisced as he thought back to the movies he had seen at the theater back when he was an Ithaca College student for the first time in the 1990s (he returned to South Hill years later for an MBA). “I’ve always had my eye on the theater, but it was struggling at the time, and the theater closed when I was a student. I’ve always had my eye on the State Theatre. When people see it from the outside, you have no idea how majestic and beautiful it is inside, even with all of its problems in the 1990s it was a beautiful place. I clearly remember a glut in the music scene with the State being shuttered. When it was getting revitalized in the 2000s, I expressed interest in getting involved with the board when Historic Ithaca owned it, and in 2009, Dan Smalls, who had {previously} worked for Historic Ithaca and was still involved, reached out and asked if I would be interested in leading it. It wasn’t an easy decision, we did assume a lot of debt but we’ve almost completely climbed out. A lot of the historic debt is virtually paid off.”

The way the business side works is something like this – although the State Theatre itself is a non-profit, they partner with a for-profit company, DSP Shows (DSP meaning “Dan Smalls Presents”), for booking many of the acts and bands. The reason for this is partially that DSP Shows is really good at what they do, and partly risk mitigation. Artists have financial guarantees, and those can be quite expensive. If a show sells a lot of tickets, that’s a lot of revenue. If a show doesn’t, that’s a burden on the bottom line. In the State Theatre’s arrangement, DSP Shows assumes the risk – if the show does well, DSP does well. If they don’t – well, they roll with the punches. But, just so it’s clear, the State does handle some of its own shows.

“We take the risk on 1-2 headliner shows, DSP the other shows, and we have a fee arrangement worked out. That model has proven to work for us. Let’s say we have a family show that doesn’t do well, we can take a loss if it doesn’t sell well, it’s a much smaller loss to swallow. We try to sell out every show, but it doesn’t always happen.”

According to Levine, the theater itself, as “State Theatre Presents”, presents about 12-13 shows a year, about half towards parents and kids, and half towards performances like acrobats. One or two of these show might be headliner quality (an example he gave was The Temptations). DSP puts on 20-30 per year, including all the other headliner shows, which are generally more expensive, more household names. Movies, mostly classics and holiday films, fill another 12-15 slots in the schedule. The theater also does community rentals at not-for-profit rates, shows with the Ithaca Ballet, and college student groups. Occasionally, outside promoters will come in and rent the theater. In total, there are anywhere from 70 to 85 events per year, and that’s in spite of the fact that the State doesn’t do much programming in the summer due to a lack of air conditioning.

Along with the A/C, The State Theatre has its share of challenges. College students have been a hard market to attract, since they tend to discover the State late in their collegiate tenures. Handicap accessibility is also a top priority at the moment. “Some of our aging rockstars draw in aging crowds,” Levine says with a laugh. “We do have a handicap lift accessible to our restrooms, and we’re talking about making better wheelchair seating and accessibility, so that we can better accommodate our aging population.”

Another recent challenge is the opening of the new casinos, Lago in Tyre, and the expansion of Tioga Downs. Levine explained that because of gaming revenue, casinos can afford to pay triple what the State can for shows. However, the State and other theaters upstate pushed for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) before the state granted any casino licenses. “[W]e have an agreement in place that says you can’t book a certain artist within 90 miles or 90 days of another theater’s show. Lago has a 2,400 seat theater, which was a lot bigger than expected, it is competition but I hope the work that we’ve done {here} gets people in. We do get some financial help from casinos, they’re going to give us a little financial support from their gaming revenues.”

But, even with these challenges, Levine is optimistic about the future. The theater not only has planned for better handicapped seating and accessibility, but also a larger lobby and concessions area – those drinks and cookies are a big profit generator for most theaters, and Levine described the current lobby and concessions area as “tiny”. They also had TAITEM Engineering complete a feasibility study on A/C installation and its costs, though with two options ranging from $800k to $1 million, Levine says A/C is not the highest priority at the moment. These efforts are on top of all the work that’s already been done in the past few years.

The biggest part to the State Theatre’s success has been the continued support of Ithacans and theater patrons everywhere. Last year, over 50,000 people came through its doors, 40% of them from outside Tompkins County. Levine also counted off some other reasons for the theater’s good fortunes.

“There are a number of things…we {STI Inc.} have a dedicated board of fifteen people, they truly care about the theater. We have an extremely dedicated staff, I can’t thank them enough for all their efforts, especially Jean Hubbell, our Director of Operations. She is the end all be all, and makes sure everything is tip-top. DSP does a good job bringing great artists here, and the staff steps up to make sure the artists are well taken care of. Also, the Ithaca community really supports the theater, not just through tickets, but through donations or raffles. I compare the State to babies, The Beatles and puppies, everyone likes or loves them, and everyone treats the State as a special place. The community steps up to help us out.”

For those interested in paying the theater a visit, the theater will be hosting their 7th Annual “Benefit My State” benefit show at 7:30 PM on Thursday the 19th, with a jazz performance courtesy of the Branford Marsalis Quartet and vocalist Kurt Elling. Tickets can be purchased here.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.