Our Fair State
How Doug Levine '98, M.B.A. '04, continues to improve an Ithaca landmark.
By Robin Roger
This June, Fiona Apple will kick off her worldwide tour at the State Theatre in Ithaca. But a mere 15 years ago, the theater was nearly demolished.
Condemned by the city, the building's plaster was cracking, the roof was leaking, and the electrical wiring was a fire hazard. The building that had just been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 was under real threat of being torn apart the very next year.
But in 1998, Historic Ithaca, a nonprofit that identifies and preserves historic buildings, purchased the downtown theater and embarked on a restoration project. In spring 2009, the State Theatre of Ithaca Inc., a newly formed nonprofit, purchased the 81-year-old theater from Historic Ithaca. Doug Levine ’98, M.B.A. ’04, was named executive director that summer.
With the help of talent buyer Dan Smalls, Levine has infused the theater with new life, bringing in major acts such as Garrison Keillor, the Goo Goo Dolls, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson, and Lyle Lovett. Levine says he was surprised by how nice most of the artists are.
On a winter day when Bryan Adams was booked to play the theater, the boiler that heats the entire building was broken. Levine was trying to decide whether to cancel the show, and Adams said, “I don’t know what the big deal is. I’ve played hockey arenas colder than this.”
The theater completed 40 restoration projects in the last 36 months, including renovation of the plaster ceiling under the marquee, replacement of the floors in the restrooms, and reinstallation of the tiny light bulbs in the “atmospheric” ceiling that look like twinkling stars.
Levine is most proud of the replacement of all the plaster throughout the theater. He still has a long wish list of things he’d like to fix or update, including the seating and carpeting. He’d like to add more stalls and urinals for the restrooms, and he’d like to increase the size of the lobby and concession area.
But right now, he’s concentrating on keeping the place running. The operating costs alone are $750,000 per year, and that doesn’t include renovations. Heating costs are through the roof.
“I thought it would be hard to ask for money,” he says. “But it’s not, because I have to keep this place afloat.”
He notes that the theater is a nonprofit organization and is dependent on donations to get things done. Levine says he’s made partnerships with other alumni who have sponsored the theater through their businesses. He has also gotten local businesses to advertise in the theater’s programs. The first year the theater made $17,000 on those advertisements. The next year it made $30,000.
“People see that the theater’s growing,” he says. “It’s more stable. It’s something they want to be part of. I always compare the theater to babies, puppies, and the Beatles. There’s no one who doesn’t like the State Theatre.”
A recreation and leisure studies major at IC who returned to get his M.B.A., Levine says he was attracted to the theater because he loved listening to live music, he liked networking, and he hated to see such a beautiful historic venue disappear.
“Every so often I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he says. “But then l talk to people who grab my arm and say, ‘I watched Star Wars right there.’”
Levine plans to screen movies again someday. In the meantime, he’s chipping away at that wish list, bringing the magnificent theater back to its former glory.