Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A true gift to Ely

Many thanks to those who made the restoration of the State Theater a reality

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The Ott family and the new nonprofit organization, Ely’s Historic State Theater, (EHST) have delivered a monumental gift to Ely and beyond. The impeccable restoration of the State Theater was clearly a labor of love— a sustained, five-year effort to bring back a masterpiece of the art deco era and an iconic fixture of downtown Ely. Perched at the top of the hill, the theater’s classic marquee once again lights up Sheridan Street, showcasing the possibilities that entrepreneurship can bring to the end of the road.

We can’t even imagine how much the Otts and their company, Alley A Realty, must have invested to bring this facility back to its former glory. By the time the Otts purchased the building, it was well on its way to total decay. Built in the early 1930s, the building had suffered from neglect for decades. For years, water poured into the back half of the theater every time it rained, leaving theater goers to prop their feet up on the seats in front of them as small rivers rushed forward between the seats. After the theater closed in 2008, few believed it could ever be restored.

But the Otts undoubtedly saw the potential of the theater’s restoration, both for its historical significance as well as the symbol it represented of Ely’s renaissance.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the restoration effort took longer than it might have, but the Otts were careful and methodical in ensuring that the restoration remained true to the original construction. Such a project involves a million tiny details, all of which take time, consideration, and funds. It’s a remarkable testament to perseverance that this project is finally nearing its completion and that handover to the nonprofit group that plans to operate the facility as a spectacular venue for the cinematic and performing arts is near.

Getting the doors open will take a bit of help from the community, including about $200,000 for the purchase of a new or newer projector and screen for the main hall, a new audio system and stage lighting, as well as a projector for a second, smaller screening room.

Keeping the doors open will require creativity and ongoing community support and interest. Running a movie theater in a small town was always a challenge, but it is all the more so today given the many alternative forms of media available to the public.

Even so, there is nothing like watching a movie on the big screen, and the remarkable restoration of the State Theater will make that movie-going experience even more enjoyable for area residents. For many of us, it will be like turning back the clock.

Of course, it will take more than movies and popcorn sales to keep the doors open, which is why the board of directors of EHST is focused on alternative uses for the facility. The theater stage has been expanded to make room for theatrical performances, concerts, and other events. The front rows of seats can be removed to accommodate dancing or larger group activities.

Creative thinking is the key to sustaining small town theaters. Just ask Carol Carlson who has kept Cook’s Comet Theater operational for the past couple decades through diversification. A gift and antique store and a coffee shop all help keep the cash flowing and the bills paid, and that’s the key to success for most small businesses here in the North Country.

But few could hope to undertake a project of the scale that the Otts committed to with the restoration of the State Theater. That took deep pockets, total commitment, and a long-term plan involving a credible partner, like EHST. Here’s to their success!

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