Af­ter 90- plus years, Stam­ford’s State Cin­ema to close

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - News - By Barry Lyt­ton barry. lyt­ton@ stam­for­dad­vo­cate. com; 203- 964- 2263; @ bg­lyt­ton

STAM­FORD — The sto­ried brick movie house on Hope Street was never meant to be — its his­tory a tale of rein­ven­tion and adap­ta­tion in fis­cal crises as the vil­lage around it mor­phed into a part of the city, and its clien­tele shifted from men in bowler hats to those in fe­do­ras to chil­dren sneak­ing an im­promptu mati­nee.

The State Cin­ema has screened thou­sands of movies since its pro­jec­tor first flick­ered light through ni­trate film in 1927 for a much- awaited screen­ing of “Tell it to the Marines” af­ter a failed launch as a vaude­ville the­ater. Its last film, now through a dig­i­tal pro­jec­tor, will hit screens this La­bor Day week­end, and the cin­ema will shut­ter due to an­other — this time fa­tal — dip be­low the bot­tom line.

The Freed­man fam­ily, own­ers of the cin­ema since the 1970s and op­er­a­tors since 1987, are shut­ting down the cin­ema’s two screens af­ter nearly a decade of an­nual losses. The past four years have been even deeper in the red, said Richard Freed­man, man­ager of the fam­ily’s real estate firm, Garden Homes Man­age­ment.

“It started to lose a lot of money, and not for a short pe­riod of time,” Freed­man said. “At a cer­tain point, you start to ask, ‘ How long will it be? Can we sus­tain this?’ ”

The an­swer, he said, was reached with great dif­fi­culty this spring.

Bad tim­ing

In the early days of cin­ema when the silent art form was just turn­ing to fea­ture nar­ra­tives, films were of­ten parts of vaude­ville shows, which re­mained a big night- out draw. A slow shift to longer films started tak­ing a toll on old vaude­ville, and poached its tal­ent such as Char­lie Chap­lin, around World War I.

But the shows still drew crowds, and a Springdale vaude­ville the­ater seemed a pru­dent in­vest­ment, un­til Al Jol­son, in “The Jazz Singer,” broke into song — the same year the the­ater opened its doors.

That film, the first “talkie” couldn’t have come at a worse time for the founders of the the­ater, led by lo­cal builder Ernest Kiesel, ac­cord­ing to city land records. The build­ing, with seat­ing for 1,000 and bowl­ing al­leys in the base­ment, was worth be­tween

$ 110,000 and $ 140,000 — about $ 1.7 mil­lion now, ac­cord­ing to “Springdale Re­mem­bered,” a book chron­i­cling the neigh­bor­hood’s his­tory.

“Within two years, the own­ers of the build­ing ... were in fi­nan­cial trou­ble,” au­thor Rose­mary Burns wrote. “The the­ater was or­dered to be sold in or­der to sat­isfy cred­i­tors. The busi­ness was re­or­ga­nized, and ‘ the new own­ers hoped for profit by in­stalling a new pro­jec­tor for talk­ing pictures.’ ”

Called the “Springdale” or “Ster­ling” Theatre — de­pend­ing on which his­tor­i­cal ac­count you read — the place was a hit with its mas­sive painted ceil­ing de­pict­ing a cloudy day framed by gold- leaf paint. It had a good run un­til again fall­ing prey to cred­i­tors. It was pur­chased years later, records show, and its name changed to the State Theatre.

Oddly, the the­ater build­ing’s first ten­ant was some­one the Freed­mans later learned they knew: Richard’s great- grand­fa­ther, Gil­bert.

In the 1950s, the State was closed for sev­eral years and the bowl­ing al­ley be­came an ice rink, un­til that also closed. It is un­clear what prompted the clo­sures or when the the­ater re­opened for good. In the en­su­ing decades, it bounced be­tween own­ers and op­er­a­tors, each try­ing to turn a profit to no avail.

Back to the Freed­mans

By the 1970s, the cin­ema was open but strug­gling. It was al­ways a sec­ond- run the­ater, known for lower prices than down­town’s first screen­ings, but at­ten­dance waned and the build- ing fell into dis­re­pair.

Freed­man’s fa­ther, Joel, bought the build­ing as an in­vest­ment in 1976. For the next 10 years, the cin­ema was oper­ated by a pro­jec­tion­ist, who was Joel’s ten­ant un­til 1987 when “he up and left, leav­ing us hold­ing the bag,” Freed­man said.

Joel Freed­man “was faced with tear­ing the the­ater down or dras­ti­cally up­grad­ing its fa­cil­i­ties,” ac­cord­ing to a 1988 edi­tion of the Stam­ford Ad­vo­cate.

He chose the lat­ter, sink- ing $ 300,000 into the then one- screen movie house.

“You could call it a la­bor of love, I sup­pose,” Joel Freed­man told the paper at the time. “Any­way, that’s how I wound up in the movie busi­ness.”

The busi­ness worked for the Freed­mans for the next seven years, Richard said.

“In the grand sweep of time since it opened, it had only a brief win­dow of unadul­ter­ated suc­cess, from 1988 to 1995,” Freed­man said. “That pe­riod be­gan af­ter my fa­ther’s ren­o­va­tions and ended when the Land­mark ex­panded from three screens to nine screens. ... The Ma- jes­tic, six more screens, opened in 1997. That was also a ma­jor blow.”

Again fac­ing a set­back, the fam­ily added a sec­ond screen, which was tricky be­cause nei­ther Joel nor Richard would ever split the main am­phithe­ater with its his­toric ceil­ing.

“That’s just my thing and my fa­ther’s thing,” Richard said. “We just don’t want to see the main au­di­to­rium cut up.”

The sec­ond the­ater, tucked be­hind the main screen on what was the vaude­ville stage, opened in 2004. The sec­ond screen gave the busi­ness a boost, and a year later, lengthy court fights came to fruition for Freed­man, who suc­cess­fully won the right to have a first- run the­ater.

He hoped that would turn things around.

The last picture show

But then came an­other ma­jor in­vest­ment, a switch to dig­i­tal pro­jec­tion pro­pelled by dis­trib­u­tors who didn’t want to pay for film prints.

In 2011, Freed­man con­verted the the­ater to dig­i­tal and then renovated the lobby in 2015.

But the im­prove­ments didn’t stave off the in­evitable, and 2017 marked a 25- year- low in na­tional movie at­ten­dance.

And the cin­ema, far from down­town, with lit­tle park­ing and only two screens, start­ing los­ing more money than the Freed­mans could sus­tain.

So La­bor Day week­end, the State’s main pro­jec­tor will dim for the fi­nal time af­ter a screen­ing of “Repli­cas,” a Keanu Reeves ve­hi­cle about a sci­en­tist ob­sessed with bring­ing fam­ily mem­bers back to life.

The Freed­man real- estate firm is now hear­ing pro­pos­als for the space, but one thing is non- ne­go­tiable. The fam­ily will only en­ter­tain pro­pos­als that main­tain the his­toric in­tegrity of the main au­di­to­rium, he said.

Freed­man’s firm, which deals mostly in hous­ing, will not put in apart­ments.

Freed­man would pre­fer it re­main a movie the­ater, but doubts a new owner could make it work.

If it worked, he said, “we would have done it.”

Michael Cummo / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

State Cin­ema movie the­ater will have its last screen­ing on La­bor Day week­end.

In­side the State Cin­ema movie the­ater, which will soon be clos­ing.

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