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At 90 years old, State Theatre still bringing culture to Uniontown

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Thanks to restoration efforts by the Greater Uniontown Heritage Consortium in the late 1980s, the 1,404-seat State Theatre Center for the Arts is as grand today as it was 90 years ago when it first opened its doors to the public.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
State Theatre Center for the Arts executive director Erica Miller shows even the back of the mezzanine of the 90-year-old theater exudes the style and splendor of the era in which it was built.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
The State Theatre Center for the Arts as it stands today at 37 E. Main St. in Uniontown.
This photo was taken of the State Theatre around the time it opened 90 years ago.
The back of the mezzanine at the State Theatre as it appeared 90 years ago.
This is the cover from the original program of the theater’s opening night, Oct. 30, 1922.
The State Theatre on opening night Oct. 30, 1922.

For 90 years, The State Theatre — known as the State Theatre Center for the Arts — has provided entertainment and culture to the Uniontown community.

“We are very fortunate that this theater has survived. There was a time in America that every town had multiple theaters. Most towns no longer have their theater, so we are very lucky that we still have a beautiful theater building,” Executive Director Erica Miller said.

The theater was built by the Penn Amusement Company, who commissioned Thomas W. Lamb, the pre-eminent theater architect of the early 1900s, to design a “picture palace” for Uniontown. The State Theatre opened to many accolades on Oct. 30, 1922. At that time, it was hailed as “the largest, finest and most beautiful playhouse in Western Pennsylvania.”

The theater showed silent movies with accompaniment by The State Symphony Orchestra on its $40,000 Pleubet Master Organ. The venue presented Vaudeville's finest acts from the B.F. Keith Circuit, and as the Big Band sound emerged, some of the country's greatest musical attractions, including Paul Whitman, Glen Gray and the Dorsey Brothers. The popularity of “talkies” signaled the end for in-house musicians and the end of Vaudeville entertainment.

The theater continued to be a thriving entertainment center for the community for 50 years. Then, as television grew in popularity and the movie-going public turned to smaller auditoriums and multiple screens, there was not enough business to keep the doors open. The State Theatre closed in June 1973.

After a number of years, Clyde Tewell reopened the theater as The State Music Hall. The venue featured country and western legends such as Johnny Cash, Slim Whitman, Waylon Jennings and the Statler Brothers. Unfortunately, the theater was not able to survive as solely a concert venue, and the theater closed again.

“Then in 1988, a group of individuals and business leaders, with the help of local politicians, purchased the building,” Miller said. “They wanted to set up a performing arts venue to culturally enrich the community.”

The group of about 15 representatives from local civic organizations formed an organization called the Greater Uniontown Heritage Consortium. Robin Semans, president, was one of the group's original founders.

“The idea was to do something to revitalize downtown Uniontown and the greater Uniontown area in general. We wanted something tangible for people to see that progress was being done and the opportunity to buy the State came available,” she said.

The group reopened the historic building as the State Theatre Center for the Arts. The revitalized theater began presenting nationally touring professional productions such as Broadway musicals, Big Bands, symphonies and dance and dramatic performances.

In 2007, the theater returned to its roots as a “picture palace” by introducing a Classic Film Series. In addition to the live shows, the theater shows some of the greatest movies ever made for the big screen. Some of the movies offered are the same ones that played in the theater when they originally were released to the public.

“These movies were made to be seen that way. We get so used to seeing them on a small TV screen, we forget how beautiful they are and how thrilling they are and that they were meant to be seen that way,” Miller said.

The theater has an Education Series that offers field trip opportunities to school children and is often the first opportunity local children have to enjoy live theater. Additionally, the theater hosts professionally promoted concerts, local dance recitals, high school musicals and civic events.

“We try to offer something for everyone here. We want all the people in the area to feel comfortable to come here and see a show here because this theater is for the community. This building was originally dedicated to the people and, 90 years later, we are still here to serve the public,” Miller said.

With the Greater Uniontown Heritage Consortium acting as the theater's board of directors, it has had 22 successful seasons as The State Theatre Center for the Arts and is celebrating its 90th anniversary of bringing culture and entertainment to the community.

“We have been very fortunate with all the community support. We couldn't do it without them,” Semans said.

Semans said the theater was a spark that helped begin the revitalization of downtown Uniontown. Over the years, it has established itself as an important piece in the economic health of the downtown and the general area.

“When I look at the State Theatre celebrating 90 years, I see it as a crucial piece to the downtown but also to Fayette County as well. Anytime you have a venue that can bring people in to the community, it helps bolster restaurants and shops and other businesses close by. They are just this incredible economic asset to the community and have been for a long time and hopefully will be for a long time more,” said Muriel Nuttall, executive director of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce.

The theater has one remaining show in its 2012-13 anniversary season , “Fiddler on the Roof” at 8 p.m. April 6.

Linda Harkcom is a freelance writer.

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