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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Old State Theater to play new role

The 1927 historic theater will be a key downtown revitalization.
Renee Wilde
The 1927 historic theater will be a key downtown revitalization.

The influx of huge multiplex cinemas in the 80’s and 90’s marked the end for many struggling, independent movie theaters. Now the tide is turning. As industry behemoths AMC and Cineworld contemplate drastic measures to stay afloat, small town theaters in the Miami Valley are experiencing a renaissance.

Growing up in Springfield Rod Hatfield always knew what was playing at The State Theater. “Maybe in Junior High, I was really smitten with Erich von Daniken and Chariots of the Gods, and they showed that here,” Hatfield recalled.

“It was a Saturday afternoon matinee and I was so excited," he said "My parents dropped me off, and my cousin's friend, who was in High School, worked the door and back then they all wore jackets, and it was the 70’s and he had long, curly hair. He was so cool. And, I really feel like this was a watershed moment, because he just opened the red rope for me and said, ‘Hatfield, come on in.’ "

“It was only $2 bucks to get in, but I didn’t have to pay, and I just felt so special,” Hatfield added laughing.

Hatfield is now the co-owner and operator of this historic 1927 theater, which he is working to bring back to life. “Springfield enjoyed nine operational theaters, and many of them came out of the Theater vaudeville circuit,” Hatfield explained. “This was the first to be built as a cinematic palace purely for the enjoyment of film.”

The windows are boarded up now, but as Hatfield walks me into the theater it still retains that original opulence. Eight huge chandeliers dominate the marble foyer.

“This part in particular has been magnificently preserved - just the marble and all the ornate features and the columns,” Hatfield said looking around. “These were built for the community's enjoyment, the common person who didn’t live in a mansion. This was a democratic place to come and lose yourself into the molecular magic of cinema, but also to inhabit, and experience, and appreciate this kind of magnificence.”

The windows are boarded up but inside The State still retains its original ambience.
Renee Wilde
The windows are boarded up but inside The State still retains its original ambience.

“It is a palace, a cinematic palace,” he added. “ It was for everyone’s enjoyment and it was extremely popular for decades.”

Hatfield’s journey to revitalize The State began 17 years ago when he moved back to his hometown and approached the previous owners about transforming the old theater.

And the idea at that time was to use the space, very similar to our plan today, as a multi-use space concentrated with some state of the art technology, streaming technology, video technology, and put in a bar, put in a cafe, and show repertoire films,” he said. “But primarily inspire and mentor students who would be interested in media and cinema and communications.”

Unfortunately, it was an idea at the time that was a little ahead of the market. Now with the help of SpringForward, a group of community partners which provides financial support to help lower risk and attract investors to revitalize downtown Springfield, Hatfield is back on track to seeing his idea come to life.

The State is the latest historic theater in the Miami Valley to undergo a reniaansinance, joining others like The Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, The Neon in Dayton, The Plaza in Miamisburg and The Holland Theater in Bellefontaine.

Chris Westcoff was the Managing Director at the Holland Theatre for 7 years. “The Holland Theater was built in 1931,” Westocoff recounts. “And in the 1970’s it was multiplexed, and so the architectural integrity of the room, and the uniqueness of the atmospheric Dutch facade, was all compromised by this dividing up of the spaces into a five cinema multiplex. And then that was left empty and abandoned in the mid-90’s.”

In the early 2000’s a community group got together to restore and save The Holland Theatre. Westcoff was hired to bring programming to the newly renovated space and with the right programming in place the theater took off.

The Holland Theatre now plays a keystone role in the revitalization of Bellefontaine’s downtown area.” People are coming from 150 mile radius to see shows here because we’re bringing in compelling stuff,” said Westcoff. .

The Holland’s success story serves as an inspiration to Rod Hatfield’s work transforming The State Theater in Springfield.

“Yeah, you know it’s really interesting because this [theater] has occupied this space in the downtown core block for 95 years, but for the last 5 or 10 years it’s been essentially invisible, right, because it’s been boarded up, it's been vacant,” Hatfield said. “You see the marquee, but it’s always dark, and it is potentially - if not the crown jewel - a sparkling jewel in this downtown core, and we want to help create, essentially, the community's living room”

Keep your eyes on the marquee for what's coming next.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community and Ohio Arts Council.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.