Theater set for grand debut

Open house, tours set for Thanksgiving night from 5 to 8 p.m.

by Tom Coombe
The curtain goes up, the lights will be on and the smell of popcorn will fill the air Thursday night at Ely’s Historic State Theater.
That’s when the public can get its first look at the remarkable restoration of an iconic facility.
Dark since 2007 and in disrepair when it was purchased several years ago by Alley A Realty, the building and adjacent structures have been refurbished and are about to begin a new era - under the management of a newly-created nonprofit group.
The nonprofit is opening the doors to the theater on Thanksgiving night, for an open house that’s slated from 5 to 8 p.m.
People are invited to come out for tours, guided by nonprofit board members, and to get a sneak peak at what’s been done and what’s in store at the theater.
“We’re going to have it lit up and the entire nonprofit board will be tour guides, and that way we can do some behind the scenes things as well,” said David Wigdahl, who chairs the nonprofit board. “We’ll show them some of the intricate workings of the theater. It will be a festive atmosphere and be decorated for the holidays, at least the lobby part.”
While the event begins at 5 p.m., Wigdahl stressed that the open house extends into the evening and encouraged people to stop first at another event - the annual tree lighting ceremony set for 5 p.m. at the Grand Ely Lodge.
“When we set the hours, we didn’t realize that we were conflicting with the five o’clock lighting that Northwoods Partners does,” said Wigdahl. “We’ve been telling people to go there first. We’ll be happy to show everybody that wants to see the theater afterward.”
In addition to major exterior repairs, which included the stabilization of the building and the rehabilitation and lighting of the theater marquee, the inside of the theater has had a complete overhaul.
The interior of the main theater includes over 200 seats, providing far more leg room than when the theater last hosted movies, and the stage has been extended to accommodate for concerts and stage shows.
The nonprofit has already lined up the first major production, a theater performance of The Quiltmaker’s Gift, which is slated for Jan. 24-26.
Concerts have also been booked for the summer, including dates with the Boundary Water Boys and Pat and Donna Surface, and Wigdahl believes it won’t be long before movies will be shown on the theater’s big screen.
Earlier in the fall, the nonprofit launched a major fundraising effort to secure needed equipment including a 4K projector and screen, a new audio system, lighting system and a projector for a second movie screening room in the adjacent and restored Salerno Building.
Wigdahl said the fundraising is off to a strong start.
“We’ve got some nice large donations,” he said. “The screen has been ordered, the lighting and sound system for the play in January has been ordered. There’s one big remaining piece, which is the projector and of course that’s the most expensive piece.”
Fundraising continues and Wigdahl indicated “we’re still optimistic about being able to show movies in January.”
The nonprofit has contracted with a booking agent based in Wisconsin, one that does bookings for other small theaters, to line up movies for showing in Ely.
“We’re going to be contracting with him for this first year and not have to deal with that ourselves,” said Wigdahl.
Visitors Thursday may step back in time, to an era when the theater was thriving and a hub for entertainment.
They may also be stepping into Ely’s future with a revitalized theater serving the same role - this time with a second screening room and a main venue that can double as a concert and performance hall.
The open house will also include live music, with Max Thompson playing both the keyboard and accordion.