Who Kidnapped the State Theatre?
By Todd M. Richard
When you follow the pointed fingers, the answer to this question may surprise you.
The specter of an empty State Theatre has been haunting Congress Street for years now. Restored and reopened to acclaim between 1994-2006 (with its gilt balconies and Moorish theme, it was like stepping into a vaulted palace in New Arabian Nights), it has remained shuttered since and shrouded in silence with no promise of reopening ever.
Its decline from grand-dame cinema status to that of a smut-film street mistress and the rocky road to its current dormancy is one of the more tragic stories rattling its chains along Congress Street. Built in 1929, it operated as a first-run movie house until the 1960s, when it became a porn theater, closing in 1989.
If the world made sense, you’d have to imagine angry Portland residents thronging the doors to demand the circumstances of the State’s current closure, especially given the good will campaign launched in the early 1990s to build support for its reopening–a triumph for downtown community volunteerism. But instead, we’ve largely been quiet, with only the sound of cars slushing past its darkened interior on their way to the Maine Mall.
It was bad enough when the theater was reduced to a desultory venue for porn flicks. Now, we’ve discovered there’s a plane of entertainment existence even lower than that, something that’s happened on ‘our’ watch as we’ve watched it die–that is, nothing. To better understand what series of events has conspired to kidnap the State Theatre from its audience, and by association, our city’s dreams from a decade ago, let’s visit the ghosts of the State Theatre’s past, present, and future to find what really happened and what the future may hold.
The Ghost of State Theatre Past: Kevin LeDuc, photographer
In the years leading to 1993, the State was in a state of being and nothingness quite similar to where it is today: shuttered, in disrepair, and struggling with the expectations of a city which had previously held high hope for this grand drawing card.
Photographer Kevin LeDuc was there from the very genesis of this renaissance. As the official photographer of the State Theatre, he worked under Kelly Graves and Steve Bailey, who were the operators of the business and producers of the exciting new events.
It may not be a surprise to learn that Nick and Lola Kampf, the owners of the wondrous new State, were perhaps in over their heads.
“Lola was a great woman to work with,” LeDuc says. “She was gracious, gregarious, really excited about the theater. But my recollection is, we never saw Nick, unless he was there to stop any one of Lola’s projects. She would work with Kelly to establish these great plans, and Nick would refuse to fund them. It was obvious there was something really wrong there.”
In spite of the apparent disconnect at the management level, the State greeted the community of Portland with open doors and arms, reclaiming its 1920s grandeur as a vital part of the city. A showing of the classic The Wizard of Oz on the State’s enormous cinema screen was no average affair; kids in full regalia walked down a Congress Street as though following the Yellow Brick Road. With cafe tables, drinks, and an artsy menu bringing the audience right up to the stage, the theater regularly held “dinner and a show” nights where featured artists often mingled with the crowds before taking to the stage.
“The night Bob Dylan came, Dylan’s people were really strange about photographs, and they had made it clear that none would be taken during the show,” LeDuc says.
But the resourceful Graves found a way to snap some shots celebrating the event in spite of the dictum. “Kelly told me to stick around. Before long, at the pre-show dinner, I was under banquet tables with my camera, shooting Dylan from customers’ laps.
“Dylan was there as a favor,” LeDuc says. “They were friends, Dylan and Kelly and Steve. They’d worked together before, and he came to play the State to help out.”
Favors poured in from everywhere, not just from on high. The groundswell of support was so massive for the reopening of the State, most of the people working were actually volunteers, allowing the State to be staffed with as few as three people sometimes. With this kind of stone soup in playºand a Rolodex containing famous friends, the State seemed poised for limitless success. To put things over the top, the owners permitted the installation of top-notch audio equipment. “We had the best sound system in New England–a huge selling point.”
But, altogether too soon, the ceiling came crashing down, literally. During a show, a huge chunk of plaster from the theater’s ceiling fell on the audience, creating an immediate fiasco and a far more troubling long-term concern. As far as observers can determine, because the ceiling had recently been rehabbed, the Kampfs refused to pay.
“In August of 1995, an argument took place about who was really to pay for these repairs, the owners or the operators, and this effectively closed the theater until an agreement was reached.”
After repairs, the theater reopened, only to be silenced more soundly a few months later when a larger piece of the ceiling dislodged and fell to the audience during a particularly raucous Barenaked Ladies show.
This nail, or its apparent lack, was the last in the coffin for the Kampfs. The State was officially shuttered in January 1996.
The Ghost of State Theatre Present: Wally Wentzel, sound engineer
In 2000, Grant Wilson, Jr., of Stone Coast Brewing took ownership control of the State Theatre building and reopened the venue with a new energy. Hoping to capitalize on the energy of the live music industry around the Northeast, he began hands-on operation to ride the wave here.
During this time, local soundman and musician Wally Wentzel was brought on board as house sound engineer. Despite a wealth of road experience managing large systems, he quickly tried to make the best of the State’s now aging sound equipment and navigate its byzantine wiring.
This challenge meant that for most of the shows, he’d have to truck in additional sound equipment at a substantial cost, diminishing their profits and budgets for necessary upgrades and repairs.
“The place was a whale. It needed an entirely new electrical system. I swear that it was still the same panels from the original 1929 install.”
Another significant repair going untended proved to be a turning point in the fate of the State. Fire escapes all over the building were broken and unsecured, and this was gaining attention.
“The State was a union shop up until that point, and then they just walked out. People refused to work because of safety conditions, saying that it was too dangerous.”
Then there was the supernatural thing. Shortly after arriving, Wentzel presented a show called “The Haunting of the State,” a multi-band showcase featuring his own fright-rock band, The Horror. It was as much an attempt at a financially solvent show as it was a chance to build some good will in the local music community.
While it got a fair amount of local press and a respectable crowd, the show seemed equally as much a muse for Horror frontman/mastermind and “Haunting” co-presenter Ricky Boy Floyd, who debuted his shock flick Attack of the 50 Foot Liar that same evening.
The period was rife with unusual behavior. “(Floyd) had me lock him in the State overnight, wanting to see if he could freak himself out. All he had on him was an old Walkman with a cassette of the soundtrack to The Shining. That might have been the most scared I’ve ever seen that guy.”
The following years, the State’s doors opened and closed in fits and starts. It was closed for a portion of 2003, but open long enough for the wildly popular rock band Guster to mount a production here in Dec-ember for the filming of a live DVD, spanning two nights of concert performances.
Why, then, was the State safe enough for Guster to play but unsafe otherwise?
Released in May of 2004, Guster on Ice: Live from Portland, Maine is a thrilling reminder of a State Theatre of the past, showing a jubilant audience on their feet and a venue seemingly free of the problems that have ruined so many years. Vividly and poignantly, it shows what we’ve been missing and what’s been so curiously held away from us.
In early 2006, Maine Entertainment, LLC, the firm that had been operating the theater under an agreement with owner Grant Wilson was officially evicted due to failure to pay rent. Since then, the State has remained closed.
Flying in the face of its current emptiness, Wentzel insists that The State is occupied. “Oh yeah, it’s totally haunted. No doubt. I’ve encountered spirits around the old projection room. So many people that have mentioned getting “grabbed” while walking upstairs, like the stairway up to the green room.”
Uncannily, this is the same stairwell where, in the State’s previous incarnation, photographer LeDuc had long since displayed a veritable night gallery of his portraits of performers past.
Future: The State Theatre, Vacant Performing Arts Building
There is a fair amount of trying to reconcile past issues. “I’d point it at the ownership,” says photographer LeDuc. “At least 90 percent. If you’re the owner, you’re obligated to fix things. That’s the bottom line.”
But what about city inspectors who appear, at least from an audience perspective, one day to permit performances, only to imply it’s not up to code the next?
No matter how sordid the past or grievous the present, there’s nothing more frightening than what faces us now: a massive, vacuous, dark building occupying a central location in downtown Portland. Worse than that, it’s beauty unseen.
While stories vary from sentimental to sour, fewer people are talking about the State Theatre. It’s more of a rant now.
Some cry out that the most obvious reason for the indefinite vacancy is the lease agreement for operators, reported to be lopsided and inequitable. Soundman Wentzel confirms, “From what I understand, they’re asking for a 25-year duration and an unreasonable monthly rent. Who can do that these days?”
Andy Verzosa, owner of Aucocisco Gallery, is a former tenant of the State Theatre block, where he ran his gallery for 10 years. “It’s a business, and they’ve got to get their money out of it. If you see the listing of available spaces (in the office building adjacent to the theater), you’ll see two and a half pages of open studios and storefronts because, like the theater, the rents are too high. The high rents are killing that neighborhood, so I moved. If you really want to see that whole place succeed, condo everything. Give all of the business owners the chance to own their own piece of real estate on that block. Then, take the money from selling these spaces and fund the renovation of the theater. You’ll have private individuals, not big absentee companies, owning property on Congress Street. You’ll revitalize not only that building, but the whole neighborhood.”
The most accurate and current picture of the State is revealed by the property management office itself. “There are no plans. Nothing is happening right now.”
Promoter Lauren Wayne, who presented countless concerts here for producer Live Nation, confidently states, “In order for the State to be successful you need to have three things: money, an astute business sense, and a working knowledge of concert promotion and marketing. If you only have one or two of those things, you’re going to fail. You need all three.”
Kevin LeDuc recognizes this but shows his skepticism. “I hate to be a pessimist, but I don’t know if it will ever open again. I don’t think we have the people anymore. You need lots of different strengths, and I am standing on shaky ground if I said there were all the right people, business-wise and music-wise.”
He finishes with something on everyone’s mind. “Ten years have gone by since its last real success. Shouldn’t something have happened by now?”
And, as members of the State’s lost audience, shouldn’t we all have cared more about what we’ve been missing and insisted upon more direct involvement from our city officers and arts leaders? In this light, haven’t we all killed the State Theatre ourselves or kidnapped the notion of what it could, or should, be?
The State Theatre and its adjoining commercial units are currently owned by Stone Coast Properties, controlled by members of the Wilson family and overseen by Ron Goglia. They are cumulatively valued at $4,127,000
“Why I think the State Theatre isn’t open…”
Hilary Bassett, Executive Director of Greater Portland Landmarks “I’m not precisely sure why it isn’t open. It was amazing when the whole volunteer group got the stage repaired–a great community effort. Lots of people are hoping to see it open again. You should call Jan Beitzer of Portland Downtown District to learn more about this.”
Deb Andrews, Historic Preservation Program Manager for the City of Portland “I really don’t know. I don’t have a strong knowledge of the circumstances there to offer something particularly germane. I’m not trying to be coy, but there are probably others who could help you. You might want to talk to Nelle Hanig or Jan Beitzer.”
Jan Beitzer, Executive Director of Portland Downtown District “Because they can’t make the building code. I’m not being flip, but…the building has public safety issues, and they have to put a lot of money into it to bring it up to code. I don’t know exactly what the codes are…Have you called Nelle Hanig?”
Nelle Hanig, Business Development Representative for the City of Portland “It’s my understanding there are a lot of code issues needed to modernize it and make it safe for events. I really don’t know the extent of what needs to be done at the building. You should call the city fire marshal.”
Frederick LaMontagne, Fire Chief for the City of Portland “I don’t know if there are any outstanding issues with the fire codes, but it would depend on the use, and outstanding violations don’t have a lot of relevance if the previous tenants are no longer there. We would love to work with anyone interested in starting up on the property and would very much like to see it occupied and a thriving part of the neighborhood up there. I suggest you talk to the economic development office.”
Jill Duson, Acting Mayor, City of Portland “It’s been a while since I’ve touched those issues, but I think there are coding and repair issues. Our staff is uniquely qualified to work in partnership to match up the kind of resources that are out there to leverage dollars, if that’s what’s needed. We stand at the ready to meet with the management team and any developers who might be involved to discuss where are we and where can we go. In terms of dollars, the city’s ability is limited in this economy, but our energy level and desire to lend assistance is high.”
Barbara Whitten, President of Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau “I don’t really know, because [the CVB] hasn’t been connected to the State Theatre in years. But I remember going to the opera there, and it was spectacular. And driving down the street, I’d see a line out the door. It’s a stunning facility, and if it had the support that Merrill Auditorium has, it would be great. But it’s uncared for by people in the community, and it’s too bad. Portland is becoming a destination for cultural events, and the State Theatre could be a jewel in that crown.”
Rob Evon, Owner/General Administrator of Port City Music Hall “It’s because of the renovations that are needed to reopen it as a music venue. And the owner doesn’t want to pony up the money. The last estimate I think was over a million dollars. The investment and recovery period for the investment would be huge, and they don’t have the interest in that. My inside track is that the Wilsons are focusing their investment money on places other than Maine. I don’t know why, but I think operating the State Theatre would be financially difficult. It was popular, but 80-90 percent of all State shows were filled to limited capacity–around 300-700 people [out of a possible 1,500]. Being beneficial for the music scene and operating a financially profitable business are two different things.”
David Marshall, Portland City Councillor, District 2 “As I understand it, Stone Coast Properties is doing some work inside the building to bring up some of the codes. They’re eliminating the bathrooms in the basement that didn’t have two means of egress and putting in new bathrooms. They’re putting in some fire escapes and are looking to lease it to a theater company, where the tenant will be responsible for keeping up with the electrical codes. I don’t know what Grant Wilson’s involvement is. I think his parents are more involved at this point. Originally, Stone Coast was trying to find a tenant that would do all the upgrades, but they’ve started to do some things to help prospective tenants out.“
Joe Gray, Portland City Manager “I have no idea why they stay closed. I know they’ve been working with our inspection staff on fire-escape and bathroom improvements that they needed to make. I don’t know whether or not there is a code problem or a market-condition problem. My understanding from the inspections is that the fire escapes and bathrooms have already been made, and there are some electrical improvements that they need to make, but nothing that’s preventing them from opening.”
Kerry Ann McQuade, Receptionist for Stone Coast Properties “I get calls about that all the time, but it’s dormant. We don’t have tenants; it needs to have a lot of money to renovate it. The building here is commercial space that we have–that’s just locked up and not being used.”
Perry Glidden, Stone Coast Properties Building Engineer “It needs a lot of renovation–bathrooms, alarm systems, life-safety systems. People don’t look at the building and see anything but the theater, but they don’t know it’s 100,000 square feet of space that needs to be worked on. Someday the State Theatre will rise again. But it has to do with the economy and the City of Portland. They don’t offer us a lot of incentive. It’s expensive. We’re not talking hundreds of dollars, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can’t give an exact amount; it all depends–do you want the Pinto version or the Cadillac version? Either way, we’re not interested in leasing anything that’s not 100 percent up to code. Money’s always an issue, but we’ll get there. “
Grant Wilson, Jr., Stone Coast Properties “I haven’t had much to do with the State since I signed my lease for the theater over to Chris Morgan in 2005. The fire department and licensing at the city level have been helpful.”