London’s State Theater ushers in guests again
Story and photos by Jane Beathard
There’s a bright light shining on London’s Main Street these days. It’s radiating from the revived and reopened State Theater.
Word has spread throughout Madison County and beyond that the 1930s-era movie theater is a fun and convenient spot to enjoy first-run flicks, as well as good food and drink.
For owners Rob and Shannon Treynor, the theater has been both a labor of love and a way to spark community activism.
They acquired the shuttered business in February 2015. At the time, there were 75 vacant businesses between the Main Street railroad tracks and High Street, Rob said.
“We hoped having an anchor business would help downtown London flourish,” he added.
It was the culmination of a long-held dream for the Rocky River native. In his 20s, Rob tried to buy a theater in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. That effort failed due to zoning restrictions.
He and Shannon, a London attorney, saw the State as a way to put that dream back on track.
The former owner had completed an extensive restoration of the interior but was forced to close when all movie theaters nationwide moved from film to digital projection in 2014.
Neglect and a leaky roof had left the 250 upholstered seats, wall murals and other fixtures heavily mildewed. With the help of their three teenage kids, the Treynors tackled a major clean-up in the summer of 2015.
“We worked seven days a week from May to the July 31 opening,” Rob said.
They also patched the roof, updated the sound system and screen and converted the tiny concession stand to a kitchenette where light meals could be prepared and served quickly to seated customers.
“We were the first theater in Ohio to use a certain type of service tray that sits in a (seat) cupholder,” Rob noted.
The Treynors also acquired beer and wine licenses — near necessities in today’s theater business.
With the help of Jen Burroway, head chef of La Chatelaine French Bistro in Columbus, Shannon devised a menu of paninis and flatbreads to accompany traditional popcorn, soda and candy theater fare. Their innovative popcorn “sundae” would eventually become the theater’s signature snack.
Acquiring the much-needed digital projection system proved a bit more challenging and expensive. For that, the Treynors turned to the London community for help.
“We wanted the community to be vested in this succeeding,” Rob said.
Using the Indiegogo.com crowdfunding site, they raised $40,000 in 60 days to pay for the conversion.
A new digital projection system was up and ready to run by the July 30, 2015, reopening. However, Rob still needed to get up to speed on how to operate it.
“I had never run a projector. I had two days to learn how to run it,” he said.
That reopening went off on schedule with a cocktail party and a free screening of the classic “Singing In The Rain” for donors. Most dressed as if they were attending the Oscars.
In the years since, the Treynors have learned a few things — some good and some bad — about running a small-town movie theater.
First and foremost, box office proceeds go to Hollywood. Their profit comes from food and drink sales.
Family movies like “Beauty & The Beast” have become The State’s “bread and butter” and draw the biggest customers. But the concession stand is busiest during more grown-up showings.
In addition to first-run fare, the theater now markets evenings of classic films, live comedy shows, local football games and late-night features with Fritz The Night Owl, a Columbus TV personality.
Free post-prom and homecoming shows give high schoolers a place to wind down. The theater also hosts an annual film festival that drew four entries last year.
It has attracted some businesses, including an ice cream shop and a bakery, to London’s struggling Main Street. But all that remains a “work in progress,” Rob said.
Mayor Pat Closser is a regular attendee and believes the theater makes it easy for locals seeking entertainment to avoid traveling to Columbus or Springfield.
“You can go to the movie and get a meal for about the same amount it would cost just to attend a movie in the larger cities,” Closser said. “The other qualities that keep me coming back are the atmosphere, current movie selections and a wonderful staff.”
The State remains a “mom and pop” operation with Shannon manning the kitchenette most evenings and Rob managing and overseeing about a dozen part-time employees — mostly high schoolers — during busy showings.
“Best part of the job is being their first boss,” he said, laughing.
Managing a movie theater is a seven-day-a-week obligation, but Rob is not complaining.
“I’m lovin’ it,” he said.
Is The State haunted?
Although he’s never seen it, Rob Treynor is sure there’s a ghost in his 81-year-old movie palace. It could be the spirit of John Riley, the only London fireman to be killed in the line of duty.
The basis of Treynor’s belief can be found in 1929 issues of The Madison Press, and London historian Earl Ballenger also offered a few details.
A fire destroyed two city blocks on the west side of Main Street in February that year. Only quick help from fire departments in Columbus and Springfield kept the entire town from being leveled.
A car dealership on the site of the current theater was among the buildings consumed. Riley was on the roof, fighting the fire from above, when he fell off and suffered a broken back and other injuries. He died 35 days later in a Columbus hospital, reports said.
The State opened at Christmas time in 1936 as the first in town showing “talkies.” Builders incorporated the latest in fireproof technology, considering the flammable nature of celluloid film in that era.
The projection booth was reinforced so that if a blaze broke out, only the projectionist would perish, Treynor said.
Some believe that Riley’s ghost has also been a preserving factor over the years. Unlike Elvis, it may be that he never really left the building.