More than a decade after the old movie theater in Ely went dark, its towering marquee is lit and soon, cinema and the performing arts will take center stage.
“Having films back in a small town in the north, where the winters are long, will be a big boost to the quality of life for the families that live in Ely,” said Tanner Ott, the project manager for the renovation that began on the historic State Theater five years ago.
The theater, which was built in 1936 and is on the Register of Historic Places, was at one time one of two movie houses in Ely. But like many cinemas from that era, the State couldn’t survive competition from multiplex theaters and financial hard times. It ran its last film and closed its doors during the winter of 2007-2008, Ott said.
Walking into the shuttered building on Sheridan Street seven years later, Ott found a rundown theater with puddles of water inside, fallen ceiling tiles and insulation scattered about and tires and an old mattress tossed on the floor.
But Ott saw possibilities. He and his family buy and rehab buildings with historical integrity and lease them to others for reuse, often bringing a new energy back to a street or neighborhood. The family business, Alley A Realty, is rooted in Columbia, Mo., where Ott grew up, and has expanded to Ely, where his family has long spent summer vacations at a lake cabin.
“Ely is a small town like no other,” said Ott. It’s a place where the kids walk to school and families walk to nearby restaurants.
“It has a unique sense of place,” he said. “It’s surrounded by lakes and wilderness and the town is filled with entrepreneurs. It’s retained its small-town feel.”
The family bought the theater — and adjacent building — on the city’s main drag in 2014 and began shoring it up.
“The roof was leaking even before [the theater] closed,” he said. “People remember going to the theater and bringing their umbrellas with them.”
Over the years, the project took a back seat to others that had already lined up funding and prospective tenants. Alley A Realty owns 15 buildings in Ely, and eight have been renovated, including the theater, which is expected to reopen later this year. (The adjacent building, which will include the concession stand and a smaller screening room, likely will be completed by next summer. That building also includes space that could be leased for a restaurant.)
Excitement is building over the theater’s renovation and reopening, said Alanna Dore, a board member of the nonprofit group, Ely’s Historic State Theater. It’s stirring nostalgia for those who remember 9-cent admission, penny caramels and the pairing up of boys and girls in the dark of the theater.
The nonprofit group is raising money to finance the finishing touches, including projection and sound equipment, stage lighting and other theater necessities such as a popcorn machine and candy counter. Ott figures the group will need to raise $300,000 to $400,000. Donors who contribute $400 or more will get an engraved placard on the arm of a theater seat.
As of last week, the 234 theater seats had been installed and an outdoor ticket booth that was removed long ago was back. The installation of the burgundy foyer carpet is scheduled for October.
But it was Ott’s focus on the architectural details — the simple lines and shapes from what he calls the Streamline Moderne Art Deco period — that are striking, such as the three submarine porthole windows on the entryway doors, the imported numbers that replicate the original building address, etched glass “Ladies” and “Mens” signs on the restroom doors and the cast-iron end seat standards.
With a crowd of about 400 people watching, the theater’s restored marquee was lit in 2016. Ever since, it lights up in the few hours before the sun rises and in the evening when it sets.
“We wanted people to see it when they drive to work and when they drive home,” Ott said. “We wanted to give them a sense of community pride that their theater is being revitalized and will be open again soon.”