The State Theatre (1927—1984)
“The Abbott” circa 1929. The State Theatre marquee is at right, advertising the silent film Someone to Love starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Photo Credit: City of East Lansing. Reprinted in Miller, p. 53.
East Lansing’s first movie theatre was called the Elmac (an acronym of East Lansing Michigan Agricultural College). It was built around 1915 on the east side of Abbot Road, about a half block north of Grand River Avenue. The theatre only survived for a few years before closing its doors. Its building remains standing at 210 Abbot Road and now houses P. T. O’Malley’s bar and grill.[Kestenbaum, p. 140. Miller, p. 25]
In late 1926, the East Lansing Development Corporation began construction of a large, multi-use commercial block on the northwest corner of Abbott* Road and Grand River. Known as “The Abbott,” the building included a theatre in its design by Bowd and Munson. This seemingly innocuous addition to the business district caused a major controversy and one of the earliest instances of political conflict within the young city.
As construction on the Abbott proceeded, a group of concerned women “began to wonder what effect a ‘motion picture theatre’—seen in those days of silent films as an opportunity for immorality or at least dissipation—might have on the community.” They formed a committee in March 1927, declaring their opposition to the theatre, and produced a list of reasons why, on both moral and economic grounds, the theatre would be detrimental to the citizenry. (Oddly, no one at the time appears to have recalled the Elmac, only a few years gone, which had failed to turn East Lansing into the den of turpitude the committee feared.)[Kestenbaum, p. 26. Miller, p. 54]
In response the Abbott’s developers accelerated their construction efforts, endeavoring to make the theatre a fait accompli. Meanwhile, a compromise was floated by the women’s commmittee: ban movies on Sunday. The city council agreed to put a “straw vote” on a special election ballot in May to test voter opinion. “The lone dissenter on the council was O. J. Ayrs,” who was “a prime figure in the corporation which built the Abbott building.”[Kestenbaum, p. 27]
Along with the developers, and other local business owners who felt the theatre was being unfairly singled out, M.S.C. students were opponents of the Sunday ban. A State News editorial claimed that as much as half of the student body visited Lansing theatres on Sunday afternoons, and posited that a local theatre would benefit the community, as it would be “under the supervision and censorship of East Lansing businessmen.” As the pro-theatre side gained momentum, the women’s committee countered by convincing the city council to change the impending vote from an informal opinion poll into a binding charter amendment.[Kestenbaum, pp. 27–28]
On May 24, 1927, with a voter turnout that was “nearly half again as large” as the preceding month’s regular city council election, the Sunday movie ban was soundly defeated by a vote of 520 to 398. The Abbott Building saw its grand opening in November, and the State Theatre screened its first picture, The Fair Co-Ed, a silent comedy with Marion Davies in the title role.[Kestenbaum, p. 28]
Along with movies, the State Theatre presented vaudeville acts as well as plays. Over the years it was well used by both the residents of East Lansing and the students of the College.[Miller, p. 54]
The State Theatre in 1974. The marquee is advertising The Groove Tube. Photo Credit: Joey Harrison. Reprinted in Miller, p. 122.
By the 1980s however, the State was battered, faded, and barely surviving. Competition from multiplexes at the outlying shopping malls spelled the end of single-screen theatres in the area. The State Theatre was torn down in 1984 and replaced with a parking lot. Four years later the Campus Theatre (on Grand River between Charles and Division Streets) met the same fate for a Student Book Store expansion, and the last movie house in East Lansing was gone.[Miller, p. 122]