State Theatre For The Arts

By Frederick Jerant

Way back in 1910, the Northampton National Bank in Easton was torn down, just 33 years after its construction. By itself, that fact merits no more than a footnote.

But the bank’s replacement–a vaudeville house originally named the Neumeyer Theater–was the genesis of a Lehigh Valley performing arts gem, the State Theatre Center for the Arts.

An extensive renovation/expansion project in 1925 transformed the old theater into a show-biz palace. Hand-painted frescoes and gilding adorned the interior, much of it applied by local Italian artisans.

The next 30 years saw many changes in pop entertainment. Vaudeville went out, and those new-fangled talking pictures came in…and the State kept pace, expanding the screen size and installing stereo sound equipment as motion pictures evolved.

During the turbulent ‘60s, the gorgeous old frescoes in the lobby and foyer disappeared after being slathered with brown and blue paint.

As shopping malls (accompanied by easy access and plenty of parking) emerged, multi-screen facilities became anchor tenants and drew viewers away from the  neighborhood theaters—including the State. Newer technologies, such as videocassette players, made it even easier to see blockbusters—and the State’s fortunes continued to decline. In the ‘70s, the theater kept itself afloat by serving as a rock-show venue.

Finally, the State Theatre was turned over to the National Development Council in 1981. The NDC’s recommendation for the historic structure? Let the wrecking ball fly!

(In some of those rickety old movies, this would be where the dashing hero steps in and snatches the heroine from the villain’s deadly clutches. And that’s pretty much what happened next…)

Local residents formed the “Friends of the State Theatre”. The group raised enough money to purchase the theater, turned it into a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and began screening classic movies to maintain an income stream.

The real turnaround started in 1986, with the $3.7 million “Renaissance Campaign.”  The result was practically a new theater—an upgraded stage, new curtain, lighting controls, additional bathrooms, carpeting, lights…you name it.

President and CEO Shelley Brown recalls the first show she booked after taking the reins in the mid-‘90s. She swung to the fences—and went after Bill Cosby.

“I thought it would be simple,” she says.

But it wasn’t. Repeated dealings with Cos’s booking agent, blanching at the stipulated performance fee, realizing that three corporate sponsors had to be lined up to cover costs…each step was new territory for the budding impresario.

The agent’s next demand could have put the fledgling venue out of business. “He wanted a deposit!” Brown says. “I hadn’t thought about that. It took all the money we had on hand to cover it…so we wrote the check, crossed our fingers and hoped for a sell-out.”

As you’ve probably figured out, Cosby was a smash, and the State Theatre was off and running.

Since then, the State has hosted hundreds of music, comedy, dance, drama and other performances—Michael Bublé, Brian Setzer, Bill Engvall, “Nunsense,” “Hairspray,”Joan Rivers, the Nutcracker ballet, the Elvis Birthday Bash, Glenn Beck, Bob Newhart and many, many more.

And the theater itself is a hit with many of the stars, Brown says. “They walk in and the first thing they say is ‘WOW!’ Later, they’ve often told me playing the State is their favorite stop on the East Coast.”

Of course, you can’t write about the State Theatre without mentioning its resident ghost, “Fred.”

According to Jamie Balliet, senior vice president of marketing, the specter began appearing in the ‘70s. One night, historian Ken Klabunde was closing up when he saw someone walk off the stage. Thanks to old photos, Klabunde later identified the intruder as J. Fred Osterstock, who had once managed the theater…and who had died in 1957. (Fred temporarily lived in the State after his home was damaged by a flood. His former office is now the Coordinated Health room, Balliet says.)

Legend says that old Fred loved live theater, so it’s only fitting that he’s the namesake of the FREDDY© Awards. Inaugurated in 2002, the program recognizes significant accomplishments in high school musical theater.

“We’ve found it’s a great way to connect with younger people,” Brown says.  “Some of the student performers write back and tell me the night they spent on stage was the best experience of their high school years.”

The show is an annual presentation on WFMZ-TV, and won a Mid-Atlantic EMMY® Award in 2005. It’s also the subject of “Most Valuable Players,” a feature-length documentary that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) in 2011.

The coming months will be a bonanza for comedy lovers, Brown says. “We’re presenting both Lewis Black and ‘Sister’s Easter Catechism’ in March, Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood in April, and the ‘Nobodies of Comedy’ in May.”

The remarkable State Theatre Center for the Arts continues to evolve, and now includes a contemporary art gallery, the 200-seat Acopian Ballroom (used for special events and performances, such as “Tony and Tina’s Wedding”), a new “green room,” a patron annex, an electronic marquee and many other improvements.

But the key to the State’s success is the enthusiastic community.

“This theater is like a family member to some people,” she says. “On the opening day of ticket sales, people were in line at 5 A. M., to be sure they could get specific seats. Some walked away with thousands of dollars worth of tickets. It thrills me that they’re willing to devote a part of their lives to coming here.”

State Theatre Center for the Arts
453 Northampton Street
Easton, PA 18042-3562

Shelley Brown
President and CEO
ext. 201

Jamie Balliet
Senior VP-marketing
ext. 204

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