Local Group Seeks to Revive State Theater by hannah purdy

On March 6, 1936, the State Theater opened in downtown Kingsport, Tennessee. For 42 years, it operated as a theater and movie house, attracting citizens young and old to its 700 seats for low-cost entertainment. It showed its final film in 1978.

Today, the red brick building sits empty on the corner of Broad Street and Market Street. Broad Street is one of the busiest streets for foot traffic in downtown Kingsport. People walk past its abandoned façade every day, many of whom have likely never seen it as an operational theater.

A plaque on the side of the State Theater briefly details its history.

There are some that remember what it used to be though. Ruthie Carmichael, who has lived in Kingsport all her life, remembers going there often as a young woman.

“That was just where we went to the movies,” Carmichael said. “… If you wanted to see anybody, then that was it. That’s where you went.”

While nothing goes on inside the building right now, over a year ago something started happening under the marquee. The State of Affairs is a variety show that the State Theatre Company has been hosting for over a year, inviting performers of all sorts to share their talents. It is held at other venues around town now, but it started with a singular purpose: to call attention to this unused performance space sitting in the heart of downtown.

“That piece of property has been the subject of debate for many years and continues to be,” said Bonnie Macdonald, who works in the City of Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts and as the executive director of Engage Kingsport, a nonprofit organization associated with the office.

The State Theater is located at 155 Broad St., Kingsport, Tennessee.

Zachary Starnes, 24, and Cameron Hite, 23, officially launched their nonprofit performing arts organization in March 2016. Lifelong best friends and Kingsport natives, their ultimate goal is to restore this historic building and run it as an operational performing arts space. Two more local friends, Joshua Holley, 25, and Ashley King, 26, joined the team. Together, they comprise the State Theatre Company.

"That piece of property has been the subject of debate for many years and continues to be so."

Their efforts focus not only on breathing life back into the State Theater itself, but on improving and integrating the arts scene in Kingsport. Starnes and Hite said that having local opportunities to perform and consume art is important not only for themselves, but for the community.

“We as artists, as actors, could not start a career [in Kingsport],” Starnes said. “We had to move and go somewhere else….”

There is a deficit of professional performing arts venues in the region. Abingdon, Virginia, has Barter Theatre, Greenville has the Niswonger Performing Arts Center and ETSU has plans for its own fine arts center. This leaves little opportunity for local performance artists to stay local if they want a real career.

In 2014, Starnes and Hite, graduates of ETSU and Maryville College respectively, had moved to Nashville to begin their careers as artists when Starnes’ mother phoned him with some news. A friend of hers, John Vachon of real estate group Urban Synergy, had recently purchased the State Theater. Urban Synergy owns 23 buildings in downtown Kingsport and focuses on the revitalization of the area.

The State Theater sits empty on Broad Street.

“For various reasons, we wanted to make sure that [the State Theater] was redeveloped … for the performing arts,” Vachon said.

Starnes said that while Vachon wanted the building to become a functioning theater again, he didn’t know how to make that happen. It occurred to Starnes and Hite that they could be the people to do it. Soon enough, they packed up and moved back home to start working on this opportunity.

Their plans involve turning the State Theater into a venue for live theatre, classic and independent cinema, concerts and events. STC also wants it to be a community space, utilized by other local arts organizations like the Kingsport Ballet or the Kingsport Theatre Guild. Additionally, the company would like to have educational programs for youth and adults.

“We have plenty of things we want to do in there, but we want the whole collective community to be able to use it in their own way,” Hite said.

The journey toward this goal has been a long one, but STC is not losing steam. Money is the biggest obstacle the company faces in seeing its vision realized. STC does not possess the capital to buy and renovate the building on its own, so it has had to look elsewhere.

In the interim though, STC has been working on getting its name out there to gain traction and support within the community. The company began with State of Affairs, which it continues to host with much success. Starnes said he wanted the next idea to put STC back in touch with its theatrical routes, and Write thru the Nite began.

Write thru the Nite is a 24-hour play festival where teams of performers have just one day to write a short one-act play. They then perform it and compete for a cash prize. STC has done this event twice, once last September and once in February, and it hopes to have another this summer.

STC had its first theatrical production last November when it put on an outdoor performance of Romeo and Juliet at Allandale Mansion. It closed a run of comedic play The 39 Steps last month. Last week, STC held open auditions for their upcoming summer production of another Shakespeare classic, Twelfth Night.

The State Theater's front marquee advertises STC's performance of The 39 Steps, which closed last month.

Through all of these endeavors, STC has attracted attention from the community and the city government. Starnes is even on the board of directors for Engage Kingsport. According to Starnes and Hite, STC is closer than ever to securing the theater.

As the situation stands, the city of Kingsport is calling for Engage Kingsport to get involved with the State Theatre as its next project. Engage Kingsport is requesting city funds for an appraisal and structural analysis of the building, which will happen this month. After that information comes back, the board of directors will then vote on whether to spearhead this as its next project.

Macdonald would not corroborate these plans as Starnes and Hite gave them, stating that Engage Kingsport stands ready to help whenever the opportunity to do so arises.

If Engage Kingsport is as involved with the project as Starnes and Hite stated, then that would be a big leap forward for STC and its goals. Established as a 501-c3 nonprofit in 2011, Engage Kingsport has been involved in several community initiatives. The most notable of these is the Kingsport Carousel, which was completed in 2015.

Macdonald said that the carousel project began in 2009 and took six years, over 300 local artists, and $2.73 million to complete. Of that money, $702,395 came from the city, and private donations from the community amassed $2.03 million. If Engage Kingsport got involved with the State Theater project, it is likely that the community would follow.

"We have plenty of things we want to do in there, but we want the whole collective community to be able to use it in their own way."

STC is not the first to try to renovate the space. Since its closure as a movie theater in 1978, the building has only been used intermittently, even operating as a cheerleading studio for several years.

Doug Beatty bought the building in 2005 with plans to restore it to an operational theater. Kingsport Times-News wrote in an article on January 9, 2010, that Beatty had invested over $450,000 into restorations on the building, including replacing the marquee from the mid-1950s with a replica of the original marquee. The project had community and governmental support, but never came to fruition.

Since Vachon bought the property in 2014, Urban Synergy has done some renovation of its own. He said that a full restoration is within the realm of possibility.

“It’s a solid building,” Vachon said. “It has good bones, as we like to say.”

While STC has yet to figure out precisely where the money for that restoration will come from, it has been able to find financial backing for its other endeavors. It has a sponsorship system in place that has allowed it to produce two full-length plays with another in the works.

STC has three kinds of sponsorship for its productions. Two options are for businesses, the first of which is to buy advertising space in the production’s programs. A higher-level producing sponsorship ranges between $500 and $2000 per production, which gives the business advertising space on all STC’s platforms both print and online as well as complimentary tickets to the show.

With The 39 Steps, STC introduced Popeye’s Club as a way for individuals to contribute between $50 and $500 to productions. The name comes from the State Theater’s historic club of the same name, which brought children in on Saturday mornings for cartoons and activities. STC gives 10% of all contributions to Popeye’s Club to another local arts organization as part of its goal to foster Kingsport’s continued development in the arts.

While budgeting is difficult because STC only starts getting sponsorships after they announce a production, Hite said that it’s a puzzle he is happy to put together. Both Romeo and Juliet and The 39 Steps turned a small profit.

“It’s not cheap to do something like this, especially if one of your main goals to pay everyone that is involved,” Starnes said. “With The 39 Steps, we did.”

Broad Street is one downtown Kingsport's most heavily trafficked streets.

This is something that sets them apart from community theaters in the area. Actors and designers involved in the production all get paid for their work. For Romeo and Juliet, pay comprised $2,700 of the $4,844 in production expenses.

This is why STC leans toward classic productions that are royalty-free. Royalties for The 39 Steps were $125 per performance, which had to be paid before rehearsals even began. Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night are both public domain, so no royalties must be paid.

Starnes and Hite said they always pay themselves last, if they pay themselves at all. While the work they put in for STC is essentially a full-time job, it doesn’t pay much yet. They both work at Model City Tap House downtown, which is as much a job as it is an opportunity to network with Kingsport residents.

In addition to its artistic importance, Macdonald noted that artistic consumerism can bolster an area’s economy. Sullivan County recently participated in Arts and Economic Prosperity 5, a national survey from Americans for the Arts which studies the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry in 330 regions. STC surveyed its audiences as a part of this study along with several other Kingsport arts organizations, and the results will be released in June.

“People have recognized that the State Theater had that type of potential in our community for a long time and have desired to see it succeed,” Macdonald said.

As reported in the same Kingsport Times-News article from 2010, while Beatty still owned the property, the Kingsport Economic Development Board commissioned an economic impact study from Cinema Preservation Group. This study concluded that the State Theater had the potential to generate as much as $660,000 in annual revenue and draw 110,00 people to the downtown area.

While that study is several years old, its numbers still make a point about the impact a venue like the State Theater could have on Kingsport. It may be several years before it happens, but local citizens would like to see it. Kingsport resident Margot Seay voiced her support for the potential restoration.

“I think it would be a big asset to Kingsport,” Seay said. “... I think in this year of our hundredth anniversary, it would be very fitting to renovate that theater and bring it back to life.”

That’s just what STC wants to make happen—maybe not this year, but soon.

“It’s probably going to take a couple of years,” Starnes said. “… That is the turning point, when it becomes not just a cool and attractive venue for Kingsport, it becomes a cool and attractive venue for the Tri-Cities. … A venue like that, once it is achievable, it is unique to the region.”

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Hannah Purdy
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