It’s hard to imagine any American town of a certain size—small enough that most would still consider it just a town, but big enough that it probably fits the political classification of a city—that doesn’t have, or at least had, an old storefront movie theater as part of its main street. Everyone knows the type: a bold-lettered sign visible from a half-mile away (that distance constituting the edge of town), combined with that trademark marquee: an illuminated horizontal band, often protruding out from the edifice at two forty-five degree angles like a wedge, so passers-by can see the movie title displaying the movie titles in all caps from either direction. A lot like this:
While they’re not quite a novelty in 2023, storefront movie theaters certainly aren’t as easy to come by as they might have been 50 years ago, when every town had one. Other fine arts—theater, museums, symphonies—have often precipitated schisms across class or urban versus rural. So do most sports. But, by the mid 1910s, the market for movies thrived just about everywhere.
Any town over 3,000 people could support a storefront movie theater. Much like other retail, all it took was a sufficient population base to generate the demand. Retail follows rooftops. So, if a town achieved a certain size, it could expect to welcome a single-screen theater, typically right on the commercial main street. After all, when motion pictures for came into prominence in the first two decades of the 20th century, the standard typology almost immediately featured a single auditorium, initially leasing space in existing Vaudeville houses, then moving on to cramped nickelodeons, which were almost entirely a blue-collar entertainment option. But as silent films’ artistic offerings grew, the appeal expanded to the middle class, prompting the speedy demise of nickelodeons by the late 1910s. Motion picture distributors developed full-scale auditoriums with unassigned seating to host the most popular features, calibrating the size and opulence of the interiors to the demand for movies within a certain radius. An apparent rule of thumb is that a single, standalone storefront movie theater would serve a trade area between three and five miles away. If that seems like a narrow window, it’s important to consider that it simply opened the possibility that the next town could offer another motion picture theater that would only semi-compete, since it would typically feature a different movie. And in the early 20th century, the nation’s population remained so concentrated east of the Mississippi that a comparable town was likely within that 3- to 5-mile distance. As a result, the storefront movie theater typology flourished well into the second half of the century.
Enterprising exhibitors experimented with auditoriums that featured more than one screen, some as early as the nickelodeon era, but the duplex storefront movie theater was rarely successful. And some of the novelty efforts in the 30s and 40s featured a primary theater and a much smaller “annex”; both theaters would show the same movie, though one would offer a double feature. Only in the late 1950s did a Canadian dual-screen theater begin showing two separate movies; an exhibitor brought the concept to Kansas City a few years later. Dual-screen theaters grew slowly in prominence, sometimes fitting the the storefront movie theater typology, but often moving onto raw land. After all, by 1970, many downtowns of cities large and small had begun a precipitous decline, losing out to suburban development and malls. As recently as the early 1980s, only about 10% of the nation’s movie theaters had more than one screen, and of the remainder, 80% were duplexes. The closest to a multiplex in the age of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was a seven-screen theater. But the advance of mall culture galvanized the growth of multi-screen theaters, which demanded huge parking lots akin to the malls themselves. A 14-screener opened in the summer of 1982 in none other than West Hollywood, California; shortly thereafter, multiplexes of varying sizes became the status quo, proliferating first in larger cities, then trickling down to ever smaller municipalities.
Even in rural America, a multiplex boasted a much larger trade area than a storefront movie theater, which nearly always featured just one screen. Since multiplexes needed more land for all that parking, and rural land tended to be cheaper, all that was necessary was to situate a duplex or triplex at the strategic place within a cluster of smaller towns. Plop a building in one of the towns, and the storefront movie theaters of the neighboring for or five towns all got vanquished within a year.
That seems to be the fate that the State Theatre originally suffered, as featured in the photo above. Situated on one of the two primary commercial streets in Culpeper, Virginia, the opulent Art Deco picture palace served the community at the Pitts Theatre from 1938 until renamed the State Theatre in 1970, then continued until its demise in 1993. But, given the population shifts around this town-turned-small city, why did it close?
Culpeper is fortuitously located about 70 miles southwest of Washington DC, a metro that is so massive that it is still part of the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington Combined Statistical Area. A good 30 miles of country exists between Culpeper and DC’s outer suburbia, but that band of tobacco farms and horse pastures is diminishing year by year. Culpeper might be far enough away to still confidently assert a small-town character, but it’s close enough to serve as a distant bedroom community for those who want to get away but can still drive to a Northern Virginia corporate park within an hour—or take an Amtrak train, indicated by the station above. As a result, Culpeper’s population has skyrocketed: it claimed just 2,500 souls in 1960, when storefront movie theaters began to face competition from the earliest multiplexes. As of 2020, Culpeper has over 20,000 people. Its historic downtown (really two intersecting streets with a few blocks of commercial buildings on each) befits a rural community, but Culpeper boasts all the other big box essentials that typically locate in a small city of its size: a Walmart, Target, Big Lots, Lowe’s, Kohl’s—the stuff that helps kill small town main streets.
But the opposite has happened as these mega-chain competitors broke ground. Instead, Culpeper’s downtown surged. Accompanying this population growth has been considerable reinvestment, with its most interesting historic buildings concentrated on two blocks of Davis Street.
The State Theatre sits along S. Main Street (US Highway 29 – Business Route), perpendicular to Davis Street but (despite the name) with a slightly tamer commercial vibe. Truth be told, the State Theatre looks good enough.
As well it should. After a local couple purchased it to rescue it from demolition, the 560-seat theater received a $9.3 million historic renovation in 2013, after sitting abandoned for twenty years, decaying significantly during that time, if an old 2009 Google Street View is any evidence, even though it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Part of a concerted effort to spur economic activity in Culpeper’s small downtown, the revitalization depended heavily on federal and state historic tax credits for the necessary equity to get the project off the ground, but the end product restored the neon marquee, partitioned a smaller black box theater (a 50-seat “annex”), and enabled the primary stage to host both movies and live shows. Best of all, it spawned spinoff development right next door.
As the 2009 Google Street View photo indicates, the space adjacent to the abandoned State Theater hosted nothing more than a surface parking lot. Now it features two buildings, each with first-floor retail. The lefthand “building”—essentially a lateral expansion of the State Theatre (from what I can tell)—features another restaurant on the floor above, while the righthand building offers three floors of what appear to apartments above its first-floor eatery. Yes, even little Culpeper is cultivating a live/work/play milieu.
Alas, the bacchanalia didn’t flourish for long.
Notice the text on the marquee: “FARM FRESH CHICKEN AND EGGS”. Nope, it’s not the latest Liam Neeson action pic, though that’s as good of a guess as any. It’s promotional material for the large first-floor tenant, Moving Meadows Farm, a farm-to-table grocer/bakery. In an arrangement with the State Theatre’s owner, the owners of Moving Meadows Farm can use the marquee to promote their business.
With few exceptions, the State Theatre appears to be defunct. And has been since September 2016. The State Theatre Foundation board that managed the theater after its much ballyhooed revival couldn’t keep enough shows going, or couldn’t put enough butts in the seats for the shows, and it closed after just three years. Even worse: Moving Meadows Farm appears to be selling their storefront operations to focus efforts on the remote farm; if they don’t find a buyer, a major portion of sub-leasable space at the State Theatre will go vaunt, diminishing the net operating income. At this point, enough money comes in to keep the place looking spruced up; those neon light remain running at night. But how much longer can the owners run the theater at a loss?
Various efforts over the last few years to resuscitate the large storefront movie theater have stalled. A hospitality company/restaurateur purchased the theater at an auction in early 2018, but, aside from minor tweaks, not much happened. A few months later, country music star Marty Stuart (who performed at the storefront movie theater during its brief revival) basically stripped the facility of its interior furnishing, equipment, and adornments, including the 550 seats donated by DC’s Kennedy Center, all to supply a museum in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. This purchase no doubt infused the theater’s operations with much-needed cash, but it robbed it of most of its immediate value as a special events venue. In the summer of 2019 it hit the market again, at $949,000, about one-tenth of the initial redevelopment costs.
Alas, I can’t find anything else more recent about the State Theatre. Given the lockdowns of March 2020 effectively put the kibosh on theatergoing across most of the country, it’s unlikely that this or any other storefront movie theater has solicited many offers these last few years. The mismatch between the 2013 revitalization costs and its value six years later should offer all the evidence necessary to indicate why private developers wouldn’t invest the necessary amount—why the State Theatre sat vacant for so long. It was a risky venture in the best of times. Theatrical performances are usually either too big and gaudy to pursue a venue in a smallish city like Culpeper, or the production is too edgy and tiny to fill 550 seats. (The small-box was probably great for certain fringe productions, but a theater of this size cannot survive on that alone.) Musical concerts may be a safer bet, but they can be rowdy and destructive to an opulent picture palace; not always worth the financial windfall.
Which leaves movies. They’re cheap from an infrastructural standpoint; a giant screen is a comparatively small investment, but most movies require licensing costs unless they’re old, and the old movies won’t necessarily bring in the crows. But the bigger challenge for storefront movie theaters, or even all-purpose venues like the State Theatre, stands right across Main Street in downtown Culpeper:
It’s as much of a multiplex as a city the size of Culpeper needs: four screens, courtesy of the national chain Regal Cinemas. Built flush to the sidewalk, much like a storefront movie theater, the Regal Culpeper features a sizable parking lot behind it—no need to scope the downtown for on-street parking the way one might have to do with a true storefront movie theater. Most reviews refer to Regal Culpeper as “outdated”; it’s not state-of-the-art, but it still offers four times as many options as the State Theatre ever did when it hosted movies. I can’t place the date, but the color scheme suggests Regal began operating in the late 80s or early 90s, almost in line with the time the State Theatre closed…the first time around. Hopefully a second reopening is in the works. But in an era when even the future of conventional moviegoing is uncertain, what’s the best way to bring people to a massive auditorium like State Theatre on a regular enough basis to keep the lights on? Comforting as it is to see this particular storefront movie theater rescued from the wrecking ball, its current state bespeaks why so many others have suffered a less felicitous fate—and why most entrepreneurs today cannot contemplate $9 million worth out of place. Nostalgia only carries it so far. The best bet is that Culpeper will continue to grow enough to justify a venue of its size, and enough of the newcomers will appreciate a hat tip to nostalgia.