July has been a big month for historic theaters in downtown Sioux Falls. The Washington Pavilion took over management of the Orpheum Theater on July first. And just last week, the Sioux Falls City Council approved a $1.5 million dollar gift to the State Theatre. That’s on top of a $3.5 million dollar donation from T. Denny Sanford to finish restoring much of the building. These two landmarks represent a theatrical revival for downtown Sioux Falls.
Sioux Falls was bitten by the acting bug while it was still a sleepy frontier town of 10-thousand people back in the 1870’s. Patrons with sophisticated tastes were demanding live entertainment options in their growing community.
“A lot of the people coming to Sioux Falls came from bigger cities and things like that at the time,” Old Courthouse Museum Marketing Coordinator Adam Nelson said.
The Old Courthouse Museum features an exhibit that tracks the history of theaters in Sioux Falls. The earliest ones were retro-fitted into existing buildings. But eventually, stand-alone theaters like the Orpheum would provide audiences with the entertainment they craved. .
“Many of the performances would be variety shows with music, dancing, comedy, things like that. Orchestral performances were popular. I know John Phillip Sousa played at the Coliseum back in the early days,” Nelson said.
Theaters entered a Golden Age with the arrival of silent film. Downtown Sioux Falls was a cluster of movie houses then.
“And all within a couple of blocks, there’d be 8-10 theaters all competing with each other in those days,” Nelson said.
Back in the days of silent film in the 1910’s and 1920’s, the theater staff would provide their own sound effects for the audience. THis would simulate the horse clomping down the street. Then of course, you have people walking, the clip-clop of feet. I mean, this was high-tech audio back in its day.
The State Theatre trumpeted the arrival of a “deluxe movie palace” to downtown Sioux Falls back in 1926.
“The organ recital might have been first and they’d maybe do a news reel and then they’d get to maybe a cartoon, they’d do a vaudeville act of some kind, here was usually a live performance act. A lot of people don’t know that the State Theater has a stage,” past president of the State Theatre Stacy Newcomb-Wieland said.
The State even hosted a world premier in 1956 with the debut of The Last Hunt, a western filmed on location in the Badlands and Custer State Park. But eventually, moviegoers fanned-out beyond the city’s core. The K-Cinema, built in 1968 near 37th and Minnesota, was the first theater located outside of downtown. To much fanfare, the West Mall Theaters opened at the brand-new Western Mall. The theater industry had staked out new, more profitable territory, leading to the demise of theaters downtown.
“Everything sort of shifted in the seventies and eighties to multi-plexes. Most of them were attached to shopping malls. And I do think it’s an encouraging sign to see an old theater come back to life, downtown,” Nelson said.
Once the State is restored to its former glory, the theater plans to start showing movies again next spring.
“It’s going to be the only daily public venue that we have downtown, it’s an affordable public venue. And it’s also very spontaneous, so you just say, OK, let’s go to a movie,” Newcomb-Wieland said.
With this revival, historic theaters like the State have come full circle: playing a starring role in the past and future of downtown Sioux Falls.
Downtown theaters tried all kinds of promotions to get people to attend their movies. Joe L. Floyd, who would start KELOLAND TV, used to put on a game show at his Hollywood Theatre. It was called G.I Blind Date, which would later morph into the popular 1960’s TV show, The Dating Game.
The theaters exhibit at The Old Courthouse Museum is open through September.
If you’d like to make a donation to the State Theatre restoration, click here