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State Theatre cuts its ties to symphony

The State Theatre and Modesto Symphony Orchestra are parting ways.

The orchestra has managed and operated the historic downtown venue for State Theatre of Modesto Inc. since the nonprofit group purchased the building in June 2005. The collaboration resulted in the theater's renovation and reopening a year ago this month.

Board President Michael Zagaris and Orchestra President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Jan Zdunek said the decision to part was mutual and amicable.

The State's board of directors has hired Sue Richardson, Modesto Bee advertising special projects manager, as its new general manager.

"We have an outstanding relationship with the symphony and they with us. Their mark will always be on that theater and there is no question they did a great job," Zagaris said. "But at this historical moment, both organizations have taken a look and decided to change their relationship."

Zdunek said the groups have worked closely during the transition.

"We just wanted to make sure we left it better than when we found it," Zdunek said. "I think it has been a huge success. We were essentially starting a whole place from scratch. The symphony and its profile has been elevated and we were able to help save another organization."

The J Street landmark opened on Christmas Day 1934. Over the years, thousands of patrons enjoyed movies on the large screen of the theater, decorated in art deco style.

In spring 1979, the theater changed hands and became a venue for Spanish-language films and stage shows. That lasted until Cine Mexico closed in 1992 after business dropped off.

Late the following year, the Downtown Arts Project offered to buy Cine Mexico for $200,000 and began booking acts. The first show took the stage on March 11, 1994.

Efforts to raise more than $1million to restore the theater proved difficult, and in summer 2005 State Theatre of Modesto Inc. took over ownership and pumped much-needed money into the project. The renovated theater opened the following February.

Zdunek said parting from the State will not affect the orchestra's existing programming or future schedule. Instead, the group can focus on the September opening of the Gallo Center for the Arts. The orchestra will be one of the new center's four resident companies.

Zagaris said he wanted to hire a full-time general manager to take the theater to the next level as it enters its second year since the reopening.

Richardson will begin her job Feb. 28. She has been with The Bee 21 years, starting in its marketing department and moving to advertising.

"I see the State Theatre as a gift to this community and I really want to help it live up to its potential," she said. "I've been a supporter as long as I can remember."

Richardson will oversee facility operations, film and live event scheduling, event marketing and staff management. She will report to the board of director.

"We were impressed by her skillset, her leadership capabilities and her enthusiasm," Zagaris said. "She has tremendous ideas and a feel for this community and what the State represents."

Zagaris also said Richardson's marketing background will be an important asset. The theater board is committed to bringing in diverse programming, so marketing to the different audiences is key to the State's continued success.

The board plans to hire a talent buyer for its live shows, much as it works with a film booker for its movies. The buyer would work with Richardson as a freelance contractor to schedule and book performances.

Zagaris said he is happy with the theater's film offerings in the first year. The venue has brought in series of new and acclaimed movies and attendance continues to grow. But, he said, he would like to see the live programming increase and expand.

This includes booking more shows, creating alternate programming, working more closely with local promoters and renting the space for corporate and private events.

"If we do a good job at the State Theatre, we will provide an opportunity for a number of activities to take place that might otherwise be priced out of the market with other venues in town," Zagaris said. "We want to make the State a comfortable, friendly place that is available to (promoters)."

Richardson and Zagaris are working on changes to the theater's rental rates. The options include lowering the rates and-or subsidizing the fees with sponsorships.

"This is a community theater. We want the community involved and their vision," Richardson said. "We have to represent a really diverse community. I kid with Mike and say that I want to return the theater to the people. Really, we want them all to be a part of it."

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