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2018-01-02 / Features

Behind the Curtain


Opened in 1938, The State Theatre almost became history when it closed in 2001. A dedicated community rose up to revitalize the downtown treasure, which just celebrated 11 years of movies, performances and events. Here’s a look behind the scenes of one of the most important parts of our local arts scene.





The 75-seat Attic space, located above the lobby, hosts a variety of local acts, including the newly formed Happy Valley Improv. The troupe will keep the good times rolling the first Thursday of every month.The 75-seat Attic space, located above the lobby, hosts a variety of local acts, including the newly formed Happy Valley Improv. The troupe will keep the good times rolling the first Thursday of every month.


In the wings off stage right a spiral staircase leads down to the green room.In the wings off stage right a spiral staircase leads down to the green room.


“One-man jam band” Keller Williams tunes his guitar in the green room before his show last November. Autographed portraits of past performers line the walls behind him.“One-man jam band” Keller Williams tunes his guitar in the green room before his show last November. Autographed portraits of past performers line the walls behind him.


Projectionist John Guss (see more below) cues up trailers to show before a Monday movie in December. The first film ever shown at The State was The Sisters featuring Errol Flynn and Bette Davis.Projectionist John Guss (see more below) cues up trailers to show before a Monday movie in December. The first film ever shown at The State was The Sisters featuring Errol Flynn and Bette Davis.


Accountant Kirk Larter shares an office space with marketing employees — and their posters. Accountant Kirk Larter shares an office space with marketing employees — and their posters.


The concession stand, which usually pours local beverages, was recently renovated through funds donated by the theater’s board of directors.The concession stand, which usually pours local beverages, was recently renovated through funds donated by the theater’s board of directors.


Karen Gregg took over as executive director at the end of August last year. She joined The State in 2014 as box office manager.Karen Gregg took over as executive director at the end of August last year. She joined The State in 2014 as box office manager.


The Reel Deal

The Paris Opera House had the Phantom. The State Theatre has John Guss.
By Maggie Anderson

Above the auditorium, the projection booth is mostly dark save for glowing lights from a control panel 6 feet tall. Hunching film projectors peer out, unseeing, to the screen that hangs above the stage. The image there is courtesy of a much smaller projector, this one digital, receiving its feed from a nearby computer. Hitting the play button is John Guss, projectionist at The State Theatre now — and 40 years ago.

“I worked here when I was a student at Penn State, and in the ’80s I was managing the place for eight years before it closed,” he says. “I come with the building.”
He’s watched the leaps and bounds film technology has made in that time, from film to the digital projection standard in most big movie theaters today.

“When I was learning how to do projection back in 1970, one of the guys I learned from, when he started, you had to crank the projector. It was silent films. He said when they had a real busy movie, they cranked faster so they could get another show in.”

He says The State hasn’t run film in three years — the last movie on 35 millimeter was, absurdly, Dumb and Dumber Too. A Post-It Note on the bulletin board marks the moment. Guss brings out some film, holding it up to the light.

“That’s 24 frames a second. One thousand feet a minute. You can see on the side here is the soundtrack. In between the sprocket holes it’s Dolby Digital.”


It’s a lot of information encoded in a compact space, much like Guss’s knowledge of film and of local history (he’d rather talk about almost anything other than himself).

“Right now at Premier they have what’s called DCP, which is basically the same resolution as this except they send in the movie on a hard drive. They put it on a server and download it, that way you can run it on six or eight theaters at a time. We don’t have that yet because it can be $60-70,000 to put it in. And our resolution’s about the same. Now the film companies want the movie theaters to go to 4k, which is four times the resolution. That’s even more money. But that’s pretty much the story of movie theaters... They went from black and white to color, then they went to stereo and widescreen, so it’s always changing.”

And that’s something Guss likes about his work. “I’m not doing the same thing every single day,” he says. “And I get to see a lot of movies.”

Sometimes he sees the same one over and over, like It’s a Wonderful Life every December. Or, back in the ’70s, every weekend for years.

“We ran The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday and Saturday night at midnight for like seven years,” he says. “I had to stand by the door and confiscate half the stuff coming in.”

But he says for films with multiple shows, you don’t have to really watch each time. “I keep my ear cocked if the sound stops or something. I sit over here playing on my computer and I can see what’s going on.”

But he does more than just man the projection booth — he runs the spotlight for live shows, helps out at the church service on Sunday mornings, and even drives around the talent.

“One artist made me pick her up where the buses park out here on Fraser and drive her to the stage door. It’s like 50 yards.”

He also, occasionally, has to clear snow off the satellite dish that receives the signals for high-definition broadcasts of the Met Opera, National Theatre Live and Bolshoi Ballet.

But whatever the show, some things remain constant. “We bring the lights up, the lights down, set the sound,” says Guss. “All of that stuff is basically the same.” As is the man up above it all. •SCM

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