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Rebounding from the State Theatre fire

Mitchell and area firefighters work to extinguish the blaze of the State Theatre fire May 1, 2004 in downtown Mitchell. (Daily Republic file photo)

Every once in a while -- maybe a couple times a year -- Cathy Weber will look across Main Street, only to have the memories start flooding back.

Ten years ago earlier this week, on May 1, 2004, Weber's business selling home goods and handmade items changed forever because of a massive fire on Main Street

"It was hard," Weber said, after collecting her thoughts this week. "But there was never a moment where I was thinking that I was going to hang it up and quit, because I love what I do."

Built in 1915, the State Theatre building was located at 313 N. Main St. It had three storefronts and also had apartments on the second and third floors.

That Saturday morning 10 years ago, it burned to the ground. Destroyed were The Scoreboard sports bar, Weber's store The Little Red Hen, and the theater itself, which had just been renovated by the building's owners, the Mitchell Area Community Theatre.

The fire put an end to 98 years of theater business at that specific site on Main Street. Prior to the State Theatre, the Gale Theatre sat in the same location from 1906 to 1914.

Although the fire was a devastating moment for Mitchell's Main Street, it didn't end operations for those three organizations or the two connecting businesses, which also sustained damage from the blaze. All five are still in operation in different locations on Main Street.

Diane Moody said she still smells the smoke sometimes when she walks through the back door of her shop -- Moody's Western Wear -- that she and her husband, Tom, own. It was next door to The Little Red Hen.

"It was just awful. I hope I never have to go through it again," Moody said earlier this week.

The fire

The fire broke out around 2 a.m. A Davison County sheriff's deputy driving down Main Street noticed smoke billowing out of the building's third floor. By the time firefighters reached the scene, the fire was already through the second floor. By that time, the heat and smoke were so great, firefighters stayed out of the building.

The famous marquee collapsed at 4 a.m., and firefighters continued to pump water into the building for the remainder of the weekend. Cranes and construction workers gently removed parts of the rubble from the building to keep from impacting the nearby structures.

The smoke smell was pungent throughout the city.

Scoreboard owner Steve Culhane remembers the call he received in the middle of the night.

"You could drive down there and you could see the flames shooting up and coming over the side of the building," Culhane said. "I just said, 'Oh my goodness.' It didn't take very long to figure out it was going to be a total loss."

In the days following the fire, investigators narrowed the location to the third floor apartments, but no official cause was ever determined. Demolition carried on for months, as construction crews tried to protect the neighboring Einstein's Costume and Prop Rental building.

Brenda Olesen, the costume shop's owner, said it was two-and-a-half years before the hole in her south wall got fixed.

"All the things that happen when you go through that, there's a lot of steps, there's a lot of hoops," Olesen said. "And it was like, I just wanted to go back to what I was doing before."

New business

For The Little Red Hen, Weber was set on returning to Main Street.

"There was no other option in my mind," Weber said. "Being on Main Street was of the utmost importance. And I still feel that way. We're a pretty close-knit group."

Weber was out of business for 54 days. In June 2005, she moved to her current location at 314 N. Main St., almost directly across the street her first location.

The Scoreboard had mostly smoke and water damage from the fire and lost most of its famous sports memorabilia, except for its famous photo of Marilyn Monroe and historic team photos of previous Mitchell High School squads. Regardless, Culhane said he was considering a move to a different location before the fire.

"About a month before the fire, we had been approached by the Chamber, saying, 'Hey, we have an opening next to the Corn Palace,' " Culhane said. "We had said, 'Maybe we'll look into that,' and we hadn't really given it much thought. Then when the fire happened, it was like 'OK.' "

His business moved to Sixth and Main, but not before major renovations. The building was the former Bubble Soap Factory, and it had to be morphed into a restaurant. A kitchen was added and Culhane took advantage of the space in front of the building to add a fenced patio. The location of his new business opened in August 2005, 111 days after the fire.

"The only thing that's the same is the name, and we added 'Pub and Grille,' " he said. "The old Scoreboard was just an old pool hall and was just kind of a guy hangout. We definitely received an increase in interest in being next to the Corn Palace."

For Moody's and Einstein's, they took different roads back to normal.

Olesen had to work around a hole in the second floor of their building, caused by demolition of the structure. Along with her husband, Dan Hauser, they built an additional staircase in their building to get their building's third floor. The previous staircase, along the side of the building, was out of commission due to the fire.

Smoke and water forced Moody's Western Wear to temporarily work out of two locations in Mitchell. Most of the merchandise had to be replaced, but Diane Moody said business went back to normal.

A bigger stage

This fire really hit the people involved with the Mitchell Area Community Theatre hard.

The owners of the building, ACT, sunk nearly $440,000 into the theater for renovations prior to the fire. Those changes ranged from new dressing rooms in the basement, new carpet, paint and upgraded heating and cooling.

Lori Holmberg described it as incredibly bad timing.

"They had just done so much work in there and looked really good," Holmberg said.

She helped with a film about the history of Mitchell and Main Street and it played in the State, ironically running just hours before the old building would catch fire.

"There was no way they could ever foresee something like that coming because they had put so much into that," Weber said.

The fire occurred the weekend after the ACT reopened a renovated State to the production of "Hello, Dolly."

The group lost 10 years worth of posters and programs from the fire, in addition to countless pieces of memorabilia.

"We knew we weren't just going to give up," said current ACT board member Al Jacklin, who was also on the board in 2004, along with his wife, Teri.

ACT never missed a show without the theater. Instead, ACT used the school auditorium and Dakota Wesleyan University for its productions.

Al Jacklin said the fire ended up being "a blessing in disguise."

The theater group moved quickly, and the city deeded ACT the site at the Seventh and Main, the former balloon museum. Once fundraising started in March 2005, it took six months to raise $394,000 and renovate the balloon museum into the Pepsi-Cola Theatre. The first show, "Anything Goes" played to sellout crowds on the opening weekend in fall 2005. The building is smaller -- about 400 seats -- but provided modern amenities and a new home.

"Members of the community just really stepped up to make it happen," Teri Jacklin said. "They saw what they lost."

The legacy

The predecessor to the State Theatre went up in 1906, when Lawrence O. Gale -- one of the founders of the Corn Palace -- built one of the only theaters at the time with a double balcony. It was the only place in Mitchell for entertainment at the time, according to local historian Lyle Swenson.

The Gale Theatre was short-lived. It burned to the ground on March 26, 1914; 100 years ago this year. A theater was rebuilt in 1915 as the Metropolitan Opera House and eventually became the State Theatre.

It was described as being of the vaudeville style, with careful touches like the gold rail along the balcony and with acoustics so good an actor or actress hardly needed a microphone. The building's capacity was reduced to about 700 people over the years, as the building was renovated numerous times, including the addition of a sound and light booth.

In 1932, the theater was closed for several months and reopened as the Paramount Theatre.

Twenty years later, the theater was again remodeled and renamed the State Theatre. The lobby was remodeled and a new marquee proclaimed the new name.

In 1972, local resident Jeff Logan and his Logan Luxury Theatres Corp. purchased the theater from the national ABC Theatres chain.

Logan, who owned the State Theatre from 1972 to 1994, said it was a place built for plays.

"There was just this wonderful sense of the event when you were in there," Logan said.

The eight apartments on the second and third floors were also unique and helped the building pay for itself from an upkeep standpoint, Logan said. The apartment complex is the only business that was lost in the fire and was not replaced.

"It was a great building to keep up," Logan said. "The heating bills were high in the winter, but I kind of enjoyed working in there."

After a fire to his Roxy Theatre on North Lawler Street in 2001, Logan said the fire at the State was like opening raw wounds.

"It was just sad to see it all burn," he said. "And there were a lot of steel girders, but there was a lot of old wood in there and it just went."

The future

Today, there's a hole in the streetscape where the businesses were. First United Methodist Church, which is located on the other side of the alley between Main Street and Rowley Street, owns the property and bought it from the ACT in 2005 for $22,000. When the lot was purchased, the church's leaders dreamed it could become a family life center, with a gym and a kitchen.

But the church has since had to prioritize other upgrades to the existing church buildings and facilities, and for now, the lot remains just a dream without a timetable.

Jan Quenzer is the chairwoman of the church's board of trustees. Lately, conversations have moved to a church parking lot that could also be used as an outdoor space for worship, something the church currently does not have.

"We still have a dream for that space," Quenzer said. "I'm sure there's people on Main Street who would like to see something there and we do, too. We want something that will fit in our Main Street. But we have some other projects that need to be finished first."