State renovation took years, millions of dollars

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By John Friedlein


By JOHN FRIEDLEIN jfriedlein@thenewsenterprise.com ELIZABETHTOWN — More than 20 years after E.T. phoned home and the screen went dim, after the seats rotted and pigeons roosted in the roof, the Historic State Theater is ready to come to life. The restoration process — which will culminate with this weekend’s grand reopening — wasn’t as quick as first thought. In a 2000 News-Enterprise article, organizers said they anticipated it would open the next year. The reason for the delay: money, said Dana Beth Lyd­dan, executive director of the Historic State Theater Complex. “Things went in over budget.” The estimate for the project in 2000 was $2.5 million, but it will end up costing about $6.5 million. The project has been paid for by funds pooled from private donors and city, state and federal governments. Also, the Elizabethtown Tourism and Convention Bureau has raised money for the project through a city restaurant tax. Lyddan said she is pleased city and tourism officials have worked to compete the renovations. The Heritage Council also was instrumental in the process. Work on the theater — which opened in 1942 and closed in the ‘80s — began with stabilizing the structure and installing a new roof to prevent further damage. Workers also had to clean up a mess of bird droppings, asbestos, lead-based paint and mold. “It was in really poor condition,” Lyddan said. Fundraising and money from the state Renaissance program helped fund this first phase. The next phase involved the restoration of areas of the building that aren’t the cinema auditorium. The First Federal Gallery and Plum Alley Theater were created from the old Downtown Athletic Club. They have served as venues for a variety of programs — from plays to GOP dinners — since 2003. Finally, crews worked on a variety of projects, such as repairing murals and installing a stage, ductwork, seating, the projector booth and the lighting and sound equipment. As with the funding, the construction work, the majority of which was overseen by Jenkins-Essex Construction in Elizabethtown, was not without its challenges. The old building had to accommodate new functions and technologies. For instance, the stage was extended for performances. And workers had to be creative in running wires. The old theater didn’t have wireless Internet or credit card services. Along with changes and updates, there will be remnants of how the theater once was. The same colors and fixtures, for instance, were used to decorate the renovated interior. Of the 650 seats in the refurbished theater, 42 are originals that have been salvaged and restored, including courting, or couples', seats. The ticket books also have been restored. It was important to keep these elements intact as much as possible, Lyddan said. “It is a tie to people’s past — the older generation likes to remember coming downtown, spending all day and going to the movies,” Lyddan said. “Younger generations will like the intimate feel of the theater.” 

All of this effort is expected to pay off. Community officials have said the renovated theater will be a cornerstone and centerpiece for downtown.  John Friedlein can be reached at 505-1746. Becca Owsley contributed to this story. She can be reached at 505-1741.