The State Theatre is a survivor. In its 75-year history, it has gone from a grand showplace to an X-rated movie house and found its way back as a cultural mecca.
But in a season filled with something for just about everyone, there is one event missing from the 1996-97 lineup--any kind of special 75th-anniversary event.
"We decided the whole season was ... a celebration of the fact that this theater has survived. It's the only one of these great old theaters left in New Brunswick," said David Fleming, president of the New Brunswick Cultural Center, which owns and operates the State Theatre. "When the State Theatre reopened eight years ago, there was some sense of trepidation. Will this be able to make it?"
The State Theatre originally opened on Christmas Day 1921, with vaudeville acts and silent movies. The first show was a silent Western film, "White Oak" starring William S. Hart, and five vaudeville acts. Later that week came "The Sheik," which made Rudolph Valentino famous. Prices ranged from 10 to 30 cents for matinees, 30 to 50 cents in the evenings and 75 cents for loge seats.
"People that we've talked to about what the State Theatre was like back then all remember this theater as a first-class place where you were treated like a king," Fleming said.
But by the 1970s, the stately building on Livingston Avenue was a venue for X-rated movies. It closed in 1979. Nine years and $3 million in renovations later, the State Theatre reopened.
"This season is to be a statement that yes, we've made it and we will continue to serve the community in a big way," Fleming said.
Although there is no anniversary gala planned, Fleming said a commemorative display project has been discussed but no final decision has been made.
The season officially begins Thursday with at concert by political satirist Bill Maher. Other highlights of the 1996-97 season include touring productions of Broadway shows like "Ain't Misbehavin" featuring Martha Reeves and the Vandellas on Nov. 23; children's performances, including a March 16 concert by the Broadway Kids; appearances by celebrities, like a March 6 appearance by Gregory Peck, and concerts by internationally renowned symphonies, including the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 15.
Also on the schedule are several special events, including the State Theatre's annual benefit gala April 26 starring Broadway veteran Betty Buckley.
"What I try to do artistically is provide a balance so there's a variety of entertainment that will appeal to a wide audience," Fleming said.
Events that will bring in big ticket sales also are a factor in determining the season. Fleming pointed out that last season was the first time since its reopening that the State Theatre earned a profit at the box office.
"Every season before that, we'd been losing money. Not enough tickets were being sold. The artists' fees were high and not enough other revenue was being brought in," Fleming said. "Over the years, we accumulated a deficit of about $613,000. Our situation was not unlike a lot of theaters around the country."
Fleming said the theater's accumulated deficit is now about $320,000, a figure he hopes to cut in half by the end of this season.
"We expect it will be eliminated, certainly by the turn of the century if not before then," Fleming said. "That means when I look at the programming, I say to myself. 'For the next couple of years, let's do programming that's going to have as one of its primary focuses generating net ticket sales. Let's look at something that's going to really drive a lot of ticket revenue through and then perhaps we can be in a position to gamble a little bit more, be a little bit more experimental.'"
Right now, Fleming said, some of the biggest revenue-producing events have proven to be the touring productions of Broadway shows and events featuring established stars like Peck, Hal Holbrook and Victor Borge.
"People want to see these legends they've heard about and maybe haven't had a chance to see before," Fleming said.
This doesn't mean that the State Theatre won't be presenting any new or experimental works, said Fleming, referring to a Nov. 17 performance of a production of "Romeo and Juliet" set in post-apartheid South Africa as an example.
"The challenge for us is to find a balance across the whole season, presenting a little bit of everything," Fleming said.
While Fleming is keeping a close watch on the financial bottom line, he's also carefully watching to see what effect the New Jersey Performing Arts Center being built in Newark may have on the State Theatre. The arts center is scheduled to open next season.
Fleming said he's concerned that corporate donations and state funding will have to be stretched to include the arts center. He said having to divide such funding even further could affect the Cultural Center's efforts to boost its fund-raising for further restoration work and future improvements to the theater.
The planned improvements include building a walkway between the State Theatre and its next-door neighbors--the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre; and restoring more of the theater to how it looked when it first opened.
"I don't foresee any significant problems with raising money," Fleming said. "I think we're headed in the right direction and I feel good about the future of this theater."
A NIGHT ON THE TOWN
By Jeff Milgram
Dinner and a show-maybe Sondheim and poached salmon, Mamet and mussels marinara, or Shakespeare with a grilled sirloin? How grown-up, how sophisticated, how positively New York.
But the combination of the New Brunswick Cultural Center-with its three theatres-and the city's vibrant dining scene makes dinner and a show quite doable without crossing the Hudson River. In fact, from a financial and logistics standpoint, it's eminently more attractive than going into New York for an early dinner and a Broadway show.
Consider, first of all, the price. Tickets for shows at the State Theatre, Crossroads Theatre and the George Street Playhouse top out at about $25. Tickets for a show in New York are twice that.
Food costs are going to be hard to quantify. You can get by for less, but, in general, expect to pay $60 for two at a decent restaurant in the Theater District, without drinks or wine. By using pre-theater packages or discounts in New Brunswick, you can pay about the same--or less. And you don't have to put up with train schedules, squeegee guys, New York cabbies, traffic, New Jersey Turnpike tolls or outrageous parking charges.
New Brunswick's restaurants are all within a five-minute walk of the Cultural Center on Livingston Avenue and they all guarantee to get you out before curtain time, providing you sit down to dinner before 6:30 p.m. Some even offer to hold dessert for you until after the final bows.
Incentives fall into two varieties, either pre-theater fixed-price packages from a shortened menu or a flat 10 percent discount off the food bill. Some restaurants offer post-theater snacks, desserts, cappuccino and music. In addition, there are a number of coffee bars downtown that stay open late and offer pastries and designer coffees.
Here is a selection of New Brunswick restaurants that offer some kind of theater and dinner deal:
Stage Left: An American Cafe, 5 Livingston Ave.; (908) 828-4444.
The name says it all. Located next door to Crossroads Theater, one of the best African-American theater troupes in the country, Stage Left is a theater groupie's dream. Mingle at its cozy wooden bar--stocked with the best beers, wines and spirits a Broadway mogul's money can buy--and you'll likely find yourself next to someone from the cultural center.
In addition to the Lambic beer on tap, and the sophisticated cocktails--they do the only authentic Sazerac in town--Stage Left offers terrific new American food using local produce, top-quality meats and seafood and artisanal cheeses.
Except for the summer, when the Cultural Center quiets down, 40 percent of Stage Left's dinner patrons are on their way to the theater, according to Mark Pascal, an owner. This year, Stage Left again will offer a three-course, fixed-price dinner for $29. The fixed-price menu hasn't been selected yet, but the offer will begin a week before the theater season starts and is available up to 6:30 p.m. the night of the performance.