Stephen Burke

A dearth of downtown parking was disconcerting one recent night before realizing that a concert was the reason: a big show at the State Theater.

Then the mild annoyance became, instead, reason to be glad. After more than two years of viral standstill, the world is stirring again. 

Of course, concerning the virus, it ain’t over till it’s over, and it ain’t over. The State Theater has crowds, but so do drug stores giving booster shots. 

But it’s good the crowds are beginning to tilt. In anticipation, the State Theater has a full slate of good shows scheduled.  

September is traditionally known as “the season,” or the start of it each year, in the worlds of art, culture and entertainment. Check the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times on Sundays in August, and then in September, and you will notice a substantial increase in page count, with previews, reviews, announcements and ads for new shows, activities and exhibits of all kinds.   

At 1,500 seats, the State Theater is a major concert venue in central New York. Cornell University presents concerts, but tends not to publicize them much off campus, and the acts tend to skew toward a college audience rather than a wider one.  

Shows presented at Cornell are generally in halls primarily meant for lectures, classes and athletics. The State is a real, vintage theater, with elaborate, old-fashioned decor, Byzantine and busy. The seats have red fabric, of course. The massive curtains are maroon.

The State was a movie theater until a time when such large houses became untenable. For a few years it was reconfigured with two screens, with the balcony walled off as a second theater, but that wasn’t profitable either. It sat vacant a few years until community activists brought it back for live shows. (It should be noted that this brief recap passes over, with apologies and respect, years of strenuous revival efforts by a great number of dedicated citizens and businesses.)  

A special energy exudes from such a magnificent old showcase in the heart of a modern town. There are no dedicated parking lots; performers’ tour buses sit out front, on the street. Stage doors open to the sidewalk.

Between afternoon set-ups and evening performances the players might stroll downtown, visiting the record store, guitar shop, book stores, food markets, cafes and restaurants.

Sometimes there are antics. One of the first important shows at the newly revived State in the ‘90s was Ani DiFranco. She had played as a relative unknown at the GrassRoots Festival a few years before and developed a regional following (she is from Buffalo), but in short time her career took a rapid turn to massive popularity. 

It promised to be a big night for the State, until it developed that Patty Larkin, a more established artist with a similar fanbase, was scheduled to play the same night at a theater two blocks away. It was a smaller theater, but it threatened to divert interest from Ani’s show, and maybe hundreds of ticket sales. The smaller theater might easily sell out, but the State had a thousand more seats to fill. 

There was gnawing worry at the State up until the afternoon of the show, when a staffer coming in reported a stirring sight outside: hundreds of fans lining up on the street, three or four hours before showtime. The show was general admission and they were arriving early - extremely early - to get good seats.

The box office checked ticket sales. In those less automated days, such information was less readily retrieved. The numbers indicated that the show might sell out, competition or no. The crowd outside indicated it would be powerful. 

Someone went to get Ani. “You have to see this,” they said. “There’s a line going around the block.”   

Curious, a bit incredulous, Ani went to a stage door that opened to the street. She peeked out just a crack, not to be seen. But to get the full scope she had to emerge, and finally did.

She tried to be furtive, but it didn’t quite work, and she was spied. Then the incredulity was from the crowd, but people stayed cool: some gasps, but no signs of grasping. 

With that Ani felt comfortable enough to come out. She stood with her hands on her hips and addressed the crowd. 

“Hey, what’s the matter?” she shouted. She looked up and down the block. “Couldn’t you people get tickets to see Patty Larkin?”

The crowd was too addled to laugh, but Ani did. “Well,, don't worry,” she said. “We’ll do a few of her songs.” 

After many years Ani is back in Ithaca for a show November 8, making music and memories; maybe covering Patty Larkin, who knows. The State Theater, of course, is the scene.

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