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Student hopeful after theater-facade victory

By Jaime Hughes | Special to the Metro Monthly

As night glimmered off the old State Theatre, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and wonder what kind of people had laughed in this building. How many people came down on a Sunday afternoon looking to see movies? How many generations had crossed the skywalk over the alleyway that led to the grand theater?

Memories are what make up Youngstown. But what good are memories if there isn’t a piece of them to stay alive?
A while back, that’s what I decided to do – keep a part of Youngstown alive. It seemed unrealistic to try and save a theater that had been on a demolition list for years, but I felt compelled to save the building from the wrecking ball.

It felt like an uphill battle to protect something that had been closed for decades. Many newspaper articles published on the State Theatre called it unsafe. One paper reported that a man who had entered the building sustained injuries due to unsteady floors and missing railings.

But my endeavor to save the State Theatre led me to meet politicians, students, artists, professors and even a man who would not survive – but who had pushed us and believed in us from the beginning even when no one else did.

I stood to make my case in a small, packed café in front of people all much more older than me – all with degrees and full of skepticism. How could an 18-year-old Cardinal Mooney senior and her 20-year-old YSU partner save a building that would cost a considerable amount of money to renovate?

As I stood in that café in front of reporters, the media, and concerned citizens, I felt as if I were looking into the eyes of a firing squad. That meeting was a blur until the late Bob Fitzer stood up, and I will never forget what he said to that crowd that night: “These kids are full of ridiculous ideas, but if it isn’t for kids like them and ideas like theirs, we would not have the passion and determination we have today. We are standing in a building that I saved [the Cedars]. They may not be able to save this building [the State], but they sure as hell can put up a fight and save the most valuable part – the facade.”

Those words gave birth to the “Save the State Theatre Facade” effort. From that moment, we had vowed to save the building’s decorative facade facing West Federal Street.

A buzz of ideas and positive vibes circulated the room. What had been a firing squad just minutes before had turned into dinner with friends. Downtown Youngstown isn’t just a place you visit then never return. It’s a place where you meet new people who become familiar faces and friends.

As the night came to a close, the fight still was not over. Petitions began circulating, friends and family members began writing letters to local government on the importance of this downtown facade. Architects and Youngstown activists began speaking at national conventions and to the media on the status of the project and the significance of the facade staying intact, in its original location.

The State Theatre, which dates from 1927, has a beautiful terra cotta facade. The State was known for its arched facade and its interesting set-up – a small entrance and foyer area led to a skywalk that took theater-goers into the 2,000- seat theater.

After ending its life as a movie theater, the State became a venue for rock music, first with the Tomorrow Club and then the Agora Ballroom. In the 1970s and 80s, bands like the Ramones, who were rumored to have autographed the back wall of the theater, had played there with many other great bands. It wasn’t until 1986 that the theater closed for good, due to financial troubles. It has since sat vacant. (The State is owned by the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp.)

Some local theater groups expressed an interest in the building, but no luck. As time went on, the theater slid further and further into disrepair. It finally made its way onto a real demolition list. The site will be used by the Taft Technology Center.

But the story does not end there. Thanks to wonderful activism and a vocal community, the State facade will remain. It will now be preserved on West Federal as part of an emerging technology block. And to ensure that the facade remains intact, there is a $100,000 penalty if it is harmed during the demolition of the rear theater building.

This is why I am never ashamed to say I was born and raised and continue to fight the good fight in Youngstown, because the area is comprised of wonderful, dedicated people who have great concern for our city and it’s future – even if it is one facade at a time.

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