Historic Theatre to Open for SXSW
By Matt Largey
It’s been nearly five years since a downtown water main broke, flooding Austin’s historic State Theatre. While it initially appeared the theatre would close for weeks that soon stretched to months – and then years. Tonight, the State Theatre will celebrate a grand re-opening, of sorts, before it becomes a South by Southwest Film venue later this month.
It was the middle of a June night in 2006, a water main burst just outside the State Theatre.
Ken Stein is the executive director of the Austin Theatre Alliance, which owns the State Theatre, along with the Paramount.
“We’re a full floor below street level and the water main was about six feet above where we’re standing and the water was slowly filling up,” Stein said.
By the next morning, the water was knee-deep or higher in some places. Crews set to work cleaning up the mess. Almost five years and $300,000 later, the State Theatre is back…mostly.
“Well, what I learned with floods is that the damage is usually what you can’t see. The whole stuff soaked with water is nothing compared to sort of the infrastructure things that have to happen to repair from a flood. And then in addition to that in repairing those items, it exposed other issues with the building that we’ve realized in working with the city that we were going to have to address and those items had to deal with sort of life safety issues,” Stein said. “So at that point, we knew that it was a significant amount of money and a significant amount of time to do that, and so we closed the theatre. Took it dark, and have been working over the last four years raising the funds and addressing those issues.”
Stein showed walked through the rehabilitated theatre last week and pointed out what has changed over the last five years.
“Unfortunately, with projects like this it’s the sort of non-sexy infrastructure stuff. We’ve expanded all of our fire suppression systems – and that was the largest portion of the money we’ve spent so far. We built out. This building had some acoustical issues so we rebuilt out the sound booth to get the equipment needed to overcome the acoustical issues,” Stein said. “All of the seats have been refurbished and cleaned, especially the ones that went underwater. The stage was rebuilt as a sprung stage, so dance performances can happen here. We remodeled the lobby and refurbished the marquee out front.”
Stein said frequenters of the theatre will definitely notice the details in the theatre’s new upgrades.
“I think they’ll notice the lobby. We’ve already had people tell us they’re very excited to see the marquee relit,” Stein said. “I think as far as everything else, it will be a better facility for productions, but visually, you won’t have known that we did all of this work in the background.”
The theatre hosted comedian Christopher Titus last month as sort of a test run. Even Tuesday night’s event is more of a soft opening.
When media toured the site last week, work was continuing and probably will for some time. Stein says there’s still more than $250,000 worth of work to be done on the State, including new dressing rooms, an upgrade to the sound system and heating and air conditioning work.
Stein says repairing a building as old as the State is always complicated but the theatre’s unusual design further complicates things.
“Well, in 1928, this was going to be the site of, at that time, Austin’s tallest skyscraper, it was going to be about 12 stories tall. And the building got one story out of the ground before they ran out of money, and they just capped it off so all of the original foundation and columns and everything for that building are in place,” Stein said. “Seven years later, in 1935, they literally just built the State Theatre in the middle of the original infrastructure of half that building. So we’re sort of connected at the hip with the building next to us. So everything we do affects that building and everything they do affects us.”
When the theatre flooded, the show that was running at the time was canceled. Eight month later, Stein announced the theatre was going dark until at least 2008. But with needed projects at the Paramount, repairing the State was put on hold.
“If you think about what’s been happening over the last couple of years with the downturn in the economy, for an arts organization to take a half a million dollars to sink into a facility was pretty amazing for us to do. And the reason we did that was because the demand was there,” Stein said. “We had so many organizations – including, most recently, South by Southwest – telling us, ‘We really need that space. It’s a valuable space.’ And when I would ask them, ‘What is it about this space?’ It’s the Congress Avenue location and the size of this venue. It was a missing piece of the art scene that we needed to get back open.”
Later this month, for the first time, the State Theatre will be used as a venue for South by Southwest films. After that, the Theatre will close again to finish up the rest of the projects over the next few months. Stein expects to start booking full-fledged productions in the State by this summer – or the fall at the latest.