1926 SD theater, dark since '90s, nears reopening

Associated Press Published: November 23, 2012
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Downtown Sioux Falls in its heyday was home to seven movie theaters, but filmgoers since the early 1990s have been heading to the malls to sit in front of a big screen.

Those longing for the old days will get their chance to go retro next year with the long-awaited reopening of the State Theatre, a circa-1926 vaudeville and silent movie house that for the past decade has been undergoing a slow but steady multimillion-dollar renovation.

"It's a landmark," said 91-year-old Sylvia Henkin, whose family donated $500,000 to the project. "Every kid that had a dime would go down there and see a cartoon or a movie, and they brought first-class, first-run shows there."

Crews are working to transform the newly renamed Sylvia R. Henkin State Theatre into a "historically preserved theater with all the modern amenities," said executive director Stephen Williamson.

While visitors will be sitting in an auditorium restored to the crimson-and-gold Beaux-Arts look from 1926, they'll be looking at a high-definition, digital projection surrounded by thundering high-fidelity sound.

The facade's facelift is complete, the marquee illuminates South Phillips Avenue each evening and the reconstructed lobby is ready for concessionaires. Crews have upgraded the heating, air conditioning and plumbing throughout the three-story concrete and steel building, which is as structurally sound as a bomb shelter.

The theater will return in 2013 with just the main level open, seating about 400 people. The 350-seat balcony will likely open sometime in 2014, and there's no target date for reconstruction of the theater's original Mighty Wurlitzer organ, Williamson said.

A complete restoration of the detailed stenciling that adorns the walls and ornamentation around the towering organ pipe chambers will take more time. Much of the stenciling was either covered with paint or drilled out to attach aesthetically displeasing acoustic tile, but artists will have original photos from which to work.

"The stencil work alone will take years to redo," Williamson said.

The State will screen first-run films during the summer and holiday seasons, when blockbusters are typically released, but focus on art house and indie films the rest of the year while hosting an occasional small-venue concert.

Williams said the State has a relatively small stage, so it will leave plays to Sioux Falls' other arts venues — the Orpheum Theatre on the north end of Phillips Avenue and the city's main performing arts center, the Washington Pavilion.

Such a historical centerpiece can anchor a small Midwestern city's downtown, said Emily Beck, executive director of North Dakota's Fargo Theatre, a sister cinema that opened in 1926 just 13 days after the State.

"I think it's incredibly important for the artistic identity of a community to have a theater like this that they can call their own — that isn't just some sort of big-box, corporate theater showing the next 'Twilight' film," Beck said.

Though the Fargo Theatre sports an Art Deco style that harkens back to how it looked in 1937, it and the State share much in common. Both were designed by St. Paul, Minn., architects Buechner and Orth for the firm of Finkelstein and Ruben, which operated nearly 90 theaters in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

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