Rediscovering Happy Valley: The State Theatre
With his arms flailing, legs churning and head occasionally looking back, Cary Grant tried to outrun an assassin-flown airplane.
I had seen this before, years ago, when I watched “North By Northwest” for the first time. The scene depicting the movie star in the masterpiece directed by Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most iconic moments in the history of cinema. It only makes sense, then, that it deserves a theatre just as great in which to play.
Say hello to The State Theatre, a local landmark celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, that recently screened the 1959 film about mistaken identity.
Before I go on with the rest of my column, here are my all-time top five Hitchcock movies:
1. North by Northwest
2. Rear Window
4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
5. Strangers On A Train
“Psycho” and “The Birds” were too weird for me, and I think I’d have to watch “Vertigo” again to fully appreciate the film. Rope, however, is probably Hitchcock’s most underrated movie. Check it out sometime. The 80-minute film was shot in 10 takes, each up to 10 minutes, the maximum length of film a projector reel could hold at the time, and Jimmy Stewart gives a great performance. Well worth your time.
Now, about the State Theatre: I love this place; the next time I ask out a girl, that’s where I’ll ask if she wants to go. If she says “no,” then I’ve just saved myself a lot of time. She’s not the one for me. The building possesses so much charm and panache that it makes you wish you could live forever, if only to continue to soak up everything the State Theatre offers: the balcony with extended opera seating, blue-shaded cushions, an upscale lobby. There’s even fabric displayed that originally was part of the theatre when Warner Brothers opened it in 1938. And if that’s not enough for you, there’s even locally brewed Otto’s beer available for purchase.
I have this dream of someday re-launching the Starlite Drive-In Theatre on Benner Pike. When the land was sold years ago, it really was heartbreaking. At the time, I remember reading that a developer planned to open a strip mall, but now the land sits vacant except for dozens of U-Haul moving trucks and vans that look as if they haven’t been used forever, like they’ve been set there as this ghastly juxtaposition of what once-was and the present.
That the strip mall never came to fruition, clearly, is not the point. How anyone could think tearing down a local treasure like the Starlite could make sense is beyond any reasonable explanation. I watched so many movies at the Starlite that it seems I spent half my adolescence there. When the property was sold, it was one of the most hollow feelings I ever had.
In other words, it's the exact opposite spectrum of emotions I have when I’m at The State Theatre, especially after the building temporarily closed its doors in 2001 before re-launching in 2006. I’ve watched 10 films there since I moved back home at the beginning of August, seeing such flicks as “The Sisters,” a 1938 film, “Annie Hall” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Each movie evokes a different experience. It was the first time I’d seen “Annie Hall;” I left wondering if Woody Allen is really funny and I just don’t get it, or is he the best screenwriter of the last 50 years? I guess that dichotomy is what makes him so great.
When I moved home, one of the first things I did was become a member of The State Theatre. Every time I get there, for the last few seconds before I walk through the front doors, I look down and see the named bricks that comprise “The Producer’s Walk.” Chances are I’ll never come across the type of money it’ll take to get the Starlite up and running again, but I’m hopeful one day I’ll be able to contribute the $10,000 necessary to become a producer at The State Theatre. In the meantime, I’m happy to spend $100 to become simply a member.
John Steinbeck has this great line in The Grapes of Wrath that says, “Maybe man doesn’t own his own soul, only a piece of a big man.”
Joe Paterno referenced this sentence in his historic Penn State commencement speech in 1973, and it’s a line I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the years.
Maybe Steinbeck meant that everyone is already part of something so much bigger than themselves without even realizing it; judging by Paterno’s use of that line in his speech, he’s imploring Penn State graduates to know that their actions have consequences that are far more far-reaching than they might realize.
I’ve written a few screenplays and directed a few films, though nothing that’s enabled me to make a career out of it. That’s my other dream, the one that seems somewhat possible. I recently touched base with some local writers and directors and it seems there may be a chance I can contribute to the grassroots network of playwrights in the area. Maybe I’ll manage to write or produce something that can one day be shown at The State Theatre.
It would be amazing if I ever re-open the Starlite or become a producer at The State Theatre, but to write a film or play that shared the same stage and screen as an Alfred Hitchcock film? That’s something that money can’t buy.