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Published: Wednesday, 10/8/2003

Venue marks 75 years of entertaining


SANDUSKY - When the Sandusky State Theatre opened the evening of Oct. 12, 1928, a crowd of 3,000 people paid 50 cents apiece to visit the grand entertainment palace.

They were treated to five vaudeville acts, a performance by actor Elliot Dexter, and a showing of the new silent movie starring Billie Dove, The Night Watch. The Metro-Goldwyn Mayer film studio sent its famous mascot, Leo the Lion, to stand on display along Columbus Avenue.

But the real star of the evening was the theater, a majestic, Spanish-style structure built for $334,000.

The first customers marveled at the State's mammoth neon-lit marquee, cavernous, stucco-walled lobby, and ornately appointed auditorium, complete with 500-pound crystal chandelier and four 20-foot high murals near the stage.

The State Theatre in Sandusky. The State Theatre in Sandusky.

In a special edition that day, the Sandusky Star-Journal was lavish in its praise for the theater.

“The Schine State Theater is undoubtedly one of the finest theaters to have been erected in Ohio during the past 25 years,” reads a yellowed, tattered copy of the newspaper's front page. “It is a theater of which Sandusky, or any other prominent city in Ohio, can well be proud.”

Three-quarters of a century later, that sentiment remains true for the theater's backers.

Some were donated by local residents, and others - such as the opening-night copy of the Star-Journal - were found in the basement of the old theater, director Terri Bergman said. Photographs from the State's early days were lent from the Charles Frohman Collection at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont.

“We wanted to pay homage to where we've been in the past 75 years,” she said. “We really did uncover some treasures.”

Dennis Martin, a public relations executive working with the theater, is producing a 44-page booklet on the theater's history that will be issued in conjunction with the anniversary gala.

“I think we're fortunate to be able to do something like this, because of the longevity of the facility,” Mr. Martin said. “That's probably the most exciting thing.”

After decades of success as a vaudeville house and movie theater, the State's fortunes began to slip in the late 1950s, as television and suburban development gained in popularity.

By the early 1980s, the State was in danger of closing, but a nonprofit agency, State Theatre, Inc., bought the building in 1987 and subsequently raised $2 million to restore the theater's grandeur.

The restoration, completed 10 years ago reversed decades of neglect.

The venue, with 1,498 seats, has played host to some of entertainment's brightest lights since its restoration, including Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Art Garfunkel. Blues legend B.B. King is scheduled to perform Nov. 7.

In keeping with its heritage as a movie mecca, the theater also shows films on weekend dates that aren't scheduled for live entertainment.

“We have the largest movie screen in Erie or Ottawa counties,” Ms. Bergman said. “We still have that old movie screen, and we think it looks great. There's something about the grandeur of the theater. It's just fabulous. The acoustics are great.”

Ms. Bergman said the theater's staff, volunteers, and patrons are looking forward to its second 75 years.

“When something was done right, when something has class, it maintains. And that's how our theater is,” she said. “I believe it'll be here 75 years from now.”

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