The State Theatre: 75 and counting

Documentary maker Wes Page. (Modesto Junior College)
Documentary maker Wes Page. (Modesto Junior College)

In the early days of the State Theatre, the historic Modesto movie palace used to hire "spotlight girls."

These were beautifully dressed young women who did nothing more than direct people to the aisles.

A woman who had that choice job is interviewed for "The Show Starts on the Sidewalk," a new 20-minute documentary about the State that will be shown at the downtown venue's 75th birthday celebration Saturday.

The movie screening is just one component of the free festivities going on that day. Kyle Barker will play the State's Hammond Elegante organ, and the theater will show classic cartoons and action-packed serials from the 1950s. Cake, root beer floats, popcorn and balloons will be served up, all on the house.

The State Theatre opened on Christmas Day 1934. Over the years, thousands of patrons enjoyed movies in the art deco venue. In spring 1979, the theater changed hands and became Cine Mexico, a venue for Spanish-language films and stage shows.

A year after Cine Mexico closed in 1992, the Downtown Arts Project bought the theater and started booking performances. When efforts to raise money for the theater lagged, the State Theatre of Modesto Inc., took over ownership in 2005 and renovated the venue.

State management approached Wes Page, video/media production specialist at Modesto Junior College, to make the documentary several months ago.

Page, 62, who has lived in town nearly all his life, agreed to do it at no charge as a labor of love. He said he loved talking to people who worked at the State in the beginning years.

"This has been an absolute delight for me to meet these people and have them share their stories," he said. "It's an oral, living history of their experiences, some of which I remember."

Among those Page interviewed was a man who worked his way up from usher to manager and came up with stunts to market the theater. One ill-fated stunt was to put smudge pots on the roof that made smoke to promote a movie about a fire. Unfortunately, people thought the theater really was on fire and called the fire department.

Page also interviewed projectionists and other employees.

To lighten the mood, he asked all his subjects to identify the distinctive animals that decorate the walls of the theater. He got at least 15 to 20 different responses. People guessed that they were anything from gazelles to mountain goats.

The documentary also touches on the many other theaters, such as the Covell and the Modesto Theater, that used to exist in Modesto.

"All of these theaters once thrived in our town, but the only one that remains is the State Theatre, and we're very proud of that fact," Page said.