Hub City History: State Theatre

This week's Hub City History post takes a look at the history of one of New Brunswick's prominent performing arts houses, the State Theatre.

After 91 years of life, anybody would have a myriad of stories to tell about the things they have seen. And while it cannot speak, New Brunswick's own State Theatre, at nearly 91 years of age, is littered with hints of its past lives in the building architecture and photos of performers past.

The theater will celebrate its 91st anniversary in December of this year, a somewhat historical spot in New Brunswick that has changed hands several times over its life and moonlighted as a movie theater, an RKO theater and a vaudeville theater.

In 2012, the theatre hosted a total of 216 events for a total audience of 215,980 people, according to the theater's 2012 fiscal year report.

Early Years

The State Theatre opened its doors on Dec. 26, 1921. Then-manager Walter Reade placed the following announcement in the "Daily Home News" on Dec. 20th, 1921.

"On Monday afternoon at two-thirty I will have both the honor and
pleasure of presenting to the citizens of the City of New Brunswick and
surrounding territory what I consider the finest theatre in the State.”

According to information provided by the theater, the first person to purchase a ticket there was a nine-year-old New Brunswick boy, for admission to the silent film "White Oak."

The film was accompanied by a live orchestra rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a newsreel, three vaudeville acts and a nature film.

A few years after its opening, chain of vaudeville theaters took over the State Theatre's management, and booked vaudeville acts there until movies evolved into "talkies."

Silent films went quickly out of style and the B.F. Keith theater chain yielded management to Radio-Keith Orpheum (RKO), according to the theater.

Famous performers made the RKO theater a regular performance spot, including  Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Minnie Pearl, Gary Cooper, Bela Lugosi, Harry Houdini, Helen Traubel, Blackstone the Magician, and Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, according to the theater.

"A lot of our actual history of the 40's, 50's and 60's is actually lost because the State Theatre changed hands so many times," said Kelly Blithe, spokesperson for the State Theatre.

RKO sold the theater in the 1960's and it became a rental facility and a site for occasional adult movie showings, according to the theater. It also fell into decay due to neglect of the building.

Theater to Performing Arts Center

The New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) purchased the State Theatre in 1979 and part of a redevelopment project of the downtown area and retained ownership of the theater until the New Brunswick Cultural Center took control in 1986, according to the theater.

The Cultural Center commissioned a renovation of the theater and reopened it on April 24, 1988 with a new look as a performing arts center.

The Last 10 Years

In 2003, a $3 million grant was awarded to the theater by the Middlesex County Open Space Recreation and Farmland Historic Preservation Trust Fund with the intention of returning the theater back to its original appearance from decades before, according to the theater.

"Artists from Conrad Schmitt of Milwaukee, a century-old firm specializing in historic restorations, painstakingly researched and unveiled several areas of the theater’s interior to determine the original paint colors, decorative trim style and other signature details of a Charles Lamb theater," according to information provided by the theater. "In some places, up to 20 layers of paint were stripped away to determine the original color scheme."

The exterior of the theater was redone by Farewell, Mills, Gatsch Architects LLC, of Princeton, and on the inside, plaster was repaired, new sound and lighting systems were installed, and the lobbies were done over in historically accurate themes.

In 2004, the theater unveiled its new look to the public, which remains today.

Quick Facts

  • The theatre can seat 1,827 people
  • A full-time crew of three people run shows at the theater, assisted by a rotating crew and the respective crews of acts that come to perform. They are head carpenter Mike Sivetz, head technician Richard Stanek and master electrician and lighting designer Craig Werner.
  • The theater has attracted a number of high profile performers over the years, including Aretha Franklin, the New York Philharmonic, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Lupone, Carol Burnett and Jay Leno. 
  • The theater was originally designed by famed architecture Thomas W. Lamb, who designed a series of theaters, many of which no longer exist. 
  • The theater can be rented for private events, such as parties, wedding receptions and performances by outside groups.
  • The theater offers a myriad of educational programs for children, and an artist residency program. For more information, click here.

For more information on the State Theatre, including a schedule of performers, visit www.statetheatrenj.org.

Editor's Note: Hub City History is a periodic feature in which we profile historical things of note around New Brunswick. If you have a suggestion for a historical building, performance group or long-term community group you would like to see profiled, please email New Brunswick editor Jennifer Bradshaw at Jennifer.Bradshaw@Patch.com.

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