When silent movies arrived in Syracuse, Salina Street had the Empire, the Strand, Keith's, Temple (later Paramount) and Eckel theatres to draw patrons downtown for movie-stage shows. The latest and grandest was Loew's State Theatre.
Marcus Loew attempted to buy the Empire Theatre but negotiations failed. Real Estate developers found him the building side at the northwest corner of Salina Street, occupied by the Jefferson Hotel, along with frontage for a block along Jefferson St.
Thomas Lamb was commissioned as architect. He had already designed the Strand, Temple, and Keith's. He planned the city's largest theatre, 3,000 seats, with an eight-story office tower.
Site acquisitions, costing $1.9 million, began on March 29, 1926.
Groundbreaking for construction began on March 15, 1927. Construction took eleven months and three days, involved more than 300 workers and cost $1.4 million.
Loew's State's opening was announced February 18, 1928. The new theatre was advertised as "the last word in theatrical ornateness and luxuriousness." By mid-morning on that first day, hundreds had formed lines outside the new Theatre. For 25 cents admission, patrons were directed by uniformed ushers through the lobbies, absorbing the wealth of colors and materials – marble, terrazzo, tapestries, filigrial chandeliers, and exotic furnishings. They were ushered into Lamb's exotic world through the main lobby, which boasted a chandelier designed by Louis Tiffany for Cornelius Vanderbilt's mansion, and the grandest of the theatre's several huge murals. The Musician's Gallery, located over the front doors, featured quartet serenades as intermission entertainment during the 1930's. Patrons who ascended the grand staircase reached the promenade lobby, where they delighted in finding a fishpond with a Japanese pagoda fountain. The main auditorium, which houses 2900 seats, was decorated in rich reds and golds and accented with wall ornaments throughout. The 1,400-pipe Wurlitzer organ offered its own exotic flavor flavor, treating patrons to such sounds as a glockenspiel, marimba, bird whistles, hoof beats and surf sounds.
For more than a year, Loew's showed only silent films. It shows its first "talkie," "The Broadway Melody" on March 30, 1929.
The Depression thirties provided some of the Theatre's finest hours. In the cultural style of the times:
• A uniformed doorman or "barker" greeted patrons out front
• Three cashiers staffed the outdoor box office kiosk
• Uniformed ushers, overseen by uniformed captains, directed waiting patrons into lines between velvet ropes, then to seats as they
• Sharply dressed "candy girls" graced the concession counters
• A basement carpenter shop created signs and stage props to order
In 1933 Loew's presented its first public demonstration of television In 1934 it introduced double features. About the same time, color arrived. In the early 1940's Hollywood presented war films, complemented by newsreels which patrons scrutinized for glimpses of friends or relatives in uniform. Veterans were paraded across the stage. Intermissions were devoted to war bond sales.
In 1947, Loew's State box office receipts peaked. But after WWII, staffing, maintenance and tax costs all rose, with enormous negative impact.
Soon, the Loew's Corporation began to diversify, resulting in a perception that downtown theatres were corporate liabilities. It reduced staffing, maintenance, and systems upgrading. Mechanical plants failed. Decorative fabrics, walls, carpeting, and seating, once fastidiously maintained, fell victim to vandalism.
In 1954 Loew's State Theatre's organ became defunct. 10 years later the company sold it and its components were crated and later installed in the Stanford theatre in Palo Alto, CA.
In 1967 the parent corporation of Loew's State announced closing and probable demolition of the Theatre. Concurrently, the neighboring Keith's and Paramount theaters were being demolished for new retail development.
City officials joined with cultural organizations banded together to save downtown's last movie house. But county officials instead approved and built the John H. Mulroy Civic Center on Montgomery St.
A reduced tax assessment in exchange for a pledge to keep operating enabled Loew's State to reopen. But it featured exploitation or second-tier fare, indifferently received in competition with TV and suburbia's smaller, well-financed first-run houses.
In the mid-1970s Loew's again announced the Theatre's closing. With demolition threatened, community leaders, city officials and cultural agencies established a committee to study possible community acquisition.
On May 21, 1975 a Citizen's Committee to Save Loew's was formed.
The next day, Loew's State was officially closed.
On June 4, 1975 the main lobby's Vanderbilt chandelier was sold. On July 9, the Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre (SALT) was designated the agency to try to acquire and preserve the theatre. The city promised tax rebates. On July 14, 1975 the theatre reopened.
On May 3, 1976 the US Dept. of the Interior listed the Theatre in the National Register of Historic Places. This provided a federally protected preservation covenant and made SALT eligible for preservation funding and discouraged commercial development.
In August, 1977 Sutton Real Estate kept ownership of the office building; SALT would buy the Theatre portion for $65,000 – conditional on raising the funds in ninety days. Volunteers intensified fund-raising and began emergency repairs to allow reopening.
Volunteers scrubbed, patched and resuscitated aging equipment. They arranged tours to reintroduce residents to the Theatre's splendor. The first weekend, lines formed on Salina St. The high point came on October 11, 1977 with a sold-out benefit with Harry Chapin. Even after all this, SALT remained more than $30,000 short. On November 5, the State Office of Parks and Recreation, citing the magnificent effort of volunteers, announced a matching grant of up to $35,000 for acquisition of the Theatre. The National Endowment of the Arts also made a $5,000 grant for architectural feasibility studies.
On June 29, 1979 title to the Theatre was finally transferred to SALT. Volunteers swarmed over the building, removing now-prohibited asbestos, replacing some 1,800 light bulbs, and many other tasks.
Local, state, and federal governments, foundations, and corporations began responding to funding pleas. Once more the theatre became a venue for stage events. Revenue from individual memberships increased.
Painstakingly gaining momentum, the Theatre hosts dozens of events a year. Legends that appeared as the theatre reopened included Gregory Peck, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. 2006 saw Celtic Woman, Ratdog, many stage plays, corporate fundraisers and private events, Chicago, Jerry Seinfeld, Al Gore, LeAnn Rimes and the tour of So You Think You Can Dance, just to name a few.
Major projects still remain. We are presently in the middle of a capital campaign to raise funds to expand our stage area so that we may host bigger and better shows, like Broadway's "Lion King" and others.