The Landmark Theatre and its role in the history of Central New York, architectural design and our nation’s culture has been well documented in a wide variety of industries. From being listed on the United States Park Service National Register of Historical Places to being reviewed by Cinema Treasure, the Syracuse treasure is noted for its historical and cultural significance.
When silent movies arrived in Syracuse, Salina Street had the Empire, the Strand, Keith’s, Temple (later Paramount), and Eckel theatres to draw patrons downtown for movie-stage shows. The latest and grandest was Loew’s State Theatre.
Marcus Loew had attempted to buy the Empire Theatre, but negotiations failed. Real estate developers instead found him the building site at the northwest corner of Salina Street, then occupied by the Jefferson Hotel, along with frontage for a block along Jefferson Street.
Thomas Lamb was commissioned as architect for the new project. He had already designed the Strand, Temple, and Keith’s, but this was to be the city’s largest theatre, with 3,000 seats and an eight-story office tower. Site acquisitions, costing $1.9 million, began on March 29, 1926, and groundbreaking for construction began nearly a year later on March 15, 1927. Construction of the theatre involved more than 300 workers and cost $1.4 million. A little more than 11 months later, the theatre was ready.
Loew’s State’s opening was announced February 18, 1928. The new theatre was advertised as “the last word in theatrical ornateness and luxuriousness.”
By mid-morning on that first day, hundreds had formed lines outside the new theatre. For an admission price of 25 cents, patrons were directed by uniformed ushers through the lobbies, absorbing the wealth of colors and materials such as marble and terrazzo. Rich tapestries, exotic furnishings, and filigrial chandeliers also adorned the palatial theatre.
The main lobby, which boasted a chandelier designed by Louis Tiffany for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion, also featured the grandest of the theatre’s exquisite murals.
The Musician’s Gallery, located over the front doors, featured quartet serenades as intermission entertainment during the 1930s. Patrons who ascended the grand staircase reached the promenade lobby, where they delighted in finding a fishpond with a Japanese pagoda fountain.
The main auditorium, which now houses 2800 seats, was decorated in rich reds and golds and elegantly accented with wall ornaments. The 1,400-pipe Wurlitzer organ offered its own exotic flavor, treating patrons to such sounds as a glockenspiel, marimba, bird whistles, hoof beats, and surf sounds.
For more than a year, Loew’s showed only silent films. It shows its first “talkie,” “The Broadway Melody” on March 30, 1929.
The 1930s and the Great Depression provided some of the theatre’s finest hours. In the cultural style of the times, a uniformed doorman, or “barker,” greeted patrons outside the theatre. Three cashiers staffed the outdoor box office kiosk, and crisply uniformed ushers, overseen by captains, directed patrons into lines between rich velvet ropes, and then to seats as they became available. Sharply dressed “candy girls” graced the concession counters. Meanwhile, a basement carpenter shop created signs and stage props to order.
In 1933, Loew’s presented its first public demonstration of television. In 1934, it introduced double features. About the same time the Landmark began screening films in color. In the early 1940s, Hollywood presented war films, complemented by newsreels which patrons carefully scrutinized for glimpses of friends or relatives in uniform. Veterans were paraded across the stage. Intermissions were devoted to war bond sales.
In 1947, Loew’s State Box Office receipts were at their peak. But after WWII, staffing, maintenance, and tax costs all rose, with enormous negative impact for the Theatre.
Soon, the Loew’s Corporation began to diversify, resulting in the perception that downtown theatres were corporate liabilities. It reduced staffing, maintenance, and systems upgrading. Mechanical plants failed. Decorative fabrics, walls, carpeting, and seating, once fastidiously maintained, fell victim to vandalism.
In 1954, Loew’s State Theatre’s organ became defunct. Ten years later, the company sold the beloved organ and its components were crated and later installed in the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, CA.
In 1967, the parent corporation of Loew’s State Theatre announced the closing and probable demolition of the Theatre. At the same time, the neighboring Keith’s and Paramount Theatres were being demolished for new retail development.
City officials and cultural organizations banded together to try to save downtown’s last and grandest theatre. But county officials instead approved and built the John H. Mulroy Civic Center on Montgomery Street.
A reduced tax assessment in exchange for a pledge to keep operating enabled Loew’s State Theatre to reopen. But it featured lesser quality shows, indifferently received now that they were in direct competition with TV and suburbia’s smaller, well-financed first-run houses.
In the mid-1970s, Loew’s again announced the theatre’s closing. With demolition threatened once more, community leaders, city officials, and cultural agencies established a committee to study possible community acquisition.
On May 21, 1975, the Citizen’s Committee to Save Loew’s was formed, but sadly, it was too late. The next day, Loew’s State Theatre was officially closed.
On June 4, 1975, the main lobby’s Vanderbilt chandelier was sold. On July 9, the Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre (SALT) was established as the agency to try to acquire and preserve the theatre, and the city of Syracuse offered tax rebates to assist in the process. On July 14, 1975, the theatre reopened.
On May 3, 1976, the US Department of the Interior listed the Theatre in the National Register of Historic Places. This provided a federally protected preservation covenant, making SALT eligible for preservation funding and discouraging commercial development.
In August of 1977, Sutton Real Estate retained ownership of the office building, but SALT was able to buy the Theatre portion for $65,000 – on the condition that funds could be raised within 90 days. Volunteers intensified fundraising and began emergency repairs to allow reopening.
Volunteers scrubbed, patched, and resuscitated aging equipment. They arranged tours to reintroduce residents to the Theatre’s splendor. The first weekend, lines of patrons formed all along Salina Street
The high point came on October 11, 1977, with a sold-out benefit with Harry Chapin. Despite these valiant efforts, SALT remained more than $30,000 short. On November 5, the State Office of Parks and Recreation, citing the magnificent effort of volunteers, announced a matching grant of up to $35,000 for acquisition of the Theatre. The National Endowment of the Arts also made a $5,000 grant for architectural feasibility studies.
On June 29, 1979, the title to the Theatre was finally transferred to SALT. Volunteers swarmed over the building, removing now-prohibited asbestos, replacing some 1,800 light bulbs, and many other tasks.
Local, state, and federal governments, foundations, and corporations began responding to the theatre’s pleas for funding. Once more, the theatre became a venue for stage events. Revenue from individual memberships increased.
Legendary performers that appeared as the Theatre reopened included Gregory Peck, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
Since the completion of the stage expansion, the Theatre has been host to many top-level national acts, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jackson Browne, Celtic Woman, Ray LaMontagne, and numerous Broadway touring shows, in addition to the many corporate and fundraising events held at the Theatre each year.
Today, the Theatre boasts its strongest staff in decades, and has incredible support from the community and local businesses, as seen through its strong board membership and theatre leadership.
Your interest in the Theatre and the arts will help make the future even brighter. Visit our support page to see how you can be a part of it.
Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Generous donations from the community have sustained the Landmark for generations.