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Living History

Improvements to the State Theatre include turning the orchestra pit into an open floor. © 2017 Encore Publications
State Theatre director aims to build community and memories

History is often preserved in “look, but don’t touch” exhibits, but when it comes to the Kalamazoo State Theatre, which is turning 90 this month, the building’s executive director, Stephanie Hinman, believes the best way to preserve history is to keep it alive.

“This is important, not just because of the building,” Hinman says. “It’s a lively piece of history downtown. It’s not some closed-off museum space. It’s active and is still creating more memories.”

But keeping nearly a century’s worth of history well maintained while creating a space that works for modern audiences and performing acts is a very precise — and expensive — balancing act. The Hinman Co., which owns the theater, has maintained as much of its original design as possible, from repainting the interior walls to match the theater’s original colors to keeping the statues that decorate of the atmospheric auditorium (one of which may have gone crowdsurfing during a Red Chili Peppers concert), but many changes had to be made.

Most of the changes, such as the refurbishing of dressing rooms for performers and the addition of fireproof curtains, were made to bring basic amenities up to date or ensure the safety of those in the building, while other changes, like replacing the orchestra pit with an open floor, were made to cater to the modern programming the theater provides now, as opposed to the vaudeville and orchestra performances of its past. But there are still a host of changes Hinman aims to make.

“I’d love to get cooling,” Hinman says, “and there’s tons of other things we’d like to do. But it’s just having the money to be able to do it, which is hard because we don’t.”

“We can’t really do it on tickets alone,” she adds. “Being that it’s an older building, it really could use a chunk of money for improvements. It would be nice to have (new) heating. It would be nice to have ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) improvements and get it up to code.”

The company is exploring many possibilities, including the formation of a nonprofit organization, to ensure the theater will be here for another 90 years or more, Hinman says. Other historic theaters, such as the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, have established nonprofit organizations to help them bring in money through endowments and donations to fund for necessary improvements.

“If we had the capacity to book more private events, then we could probably grow,” Hinman notes, “but we would need more staff. And the more we use the building, the more we would need improvements.”
“If we stumbled on $30 million, it would probably be really nice,” she jokes.

Hinman has managed the theater since becoming its executive director in 2014. Despite the limitations she faces with the State Theatre, she loves the building and its patrons.

“It’s cool when it’s full,” she says, brimming with excitement as her voice echoes off the walls of the ornate, dimly lit auditorium. She says there’s a sense of community and shared energy that comes from going to an event at the State that isn’t quite as present at some of the area’s other performance venues.

To build that sense of community, Hinman says, she tries to get as many types of audiences through the theater’s doors as possible. And to that end, the theater has seen all sorts of programs over the past few years, including burlesque shows, ballet, world music, rap, R&B and more.

“We want to have a really well-rounded variety of programs,” she says. “We (the Hinman Co.) own it, but it’s for the community. Without the community, we can’t be in business.”

In the future, Hinman hopes the work she puts into the State will ensure that the theater will be around long after it isn’t in her charge anymore.

“We own this building, but we’re not going to be here forever, and we want to make sure it ends up in the right hands, with the right mission: to preserve the historical integrity,” she says. “This is a place that is a box of everybody’s memories, passion, hopes, dreams, blood, sweat, tears. And we’ll preserve that and provide programming that is relevant to the community.

“This is a part of Kalamazoo’s culture, and it will continue to be. (We) just have to do the legwork to make sure everything’s OK.”

Adam Rayes

Adam, who is working as an intern at Encore Publications, is somewhat new to Kalamazoo, so his story this month on the Kalamazoo State Theatre’s 90th anniversary not only gave him an opportunity to see the interior of the historic theater for the first time, but triggered a desire to learn more about Kalamazoo’s rich culture and history. Adam is a native of Monroe and is majoring in journalism at Western Michigan University.

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