‘Benefit My State’ concert to raise funds for downtown Ithaca theater
The State Theatre of Ithaca will host its first live “Benefit My State” show in three years on Friday night. Two bands – Pink Talking Fish and The Comb Down – will perform on the stage of the venerable venue, which opened its doors in 1928, in the biggest fundraising event of the year for the theater.
Doug Levine, executive director of the State Theatre of Ithaca Inc., the 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization that owns and operates the venue, said he’s excited to have an audience for this event, especially since it was canceled in 2020 and live-streamed in front of an empty house in 2021.
“We just want people to come out, enjoy the show, buy some drinks, buy some concessions,” he said. “If they want to make extra donations, that'd be great.”
Last year’s “Benefit My State” also featured Pink Talking Fish, whose live-streamed show was “amazingly successful,” according to Levine.
“It was the six-most-watched livestream in the world that week, with just under 100,000 devices tuned in,” he said.
This year’s event falls on the weekend of the anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s legendary May 8, 1977, Barton Hall concert at Cornell University, so Pink Talking Fish is going to incorporate some Dead songs into its usual fusion of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and Phish material.
“So if you'd like any of those four bands, I would definitely recommend coming out,” Levine said. “And even if you're just like a music fan, this band is really talented, and it's just a fun time.”
“I know some people get sick of talking about the Grateful Dead show at Barton Hall,” he added. “But it is what a lot of people know Ithaca for and it's a very beloved show, so our board recommended that we celebrate it every year.”
Based in New England, Pink Talking Fish includes bassist Eric Gould, who graduated from Ithaca College in 1997. The band’s aforementioned fusion of three bands also makes it especially appropriate for the State, as Pink Floyd tribute the Machine has played there almost every year for the past decade, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has performed there twice, and Phish played the theater several times in the early 1990s (Also, Grateful Dead tribute Dark Star Orchestra, which has made almost-annual visits to the State since the early 2000s, recreated the '77 Barton Hall show there in 2007).
The Comb Down, which includes some of Ithaca’s top musicians, is known for its fiery funk grooves. Led by guitarist Brian Mlodzinski, the band also includes drummer Ashley Ickes, keyboardist Jon Petronzio, bassist Andrew Battles, percussionist Bryan Davis, and horn players T.J. Schaper and Jack Storer. The group’s burgeoning popularity has led to packed, sold-out shows at small clubs around downtown Ithaca, so the members are excited to play at the biggest venue in town this weekend.
“The Comb Down always brings it, so I'd like to get a really nice healthy crowd for this show,” Levine said. “I want it to feel like a party – I want to pack the downstairs and get a few hundred people dancing.”
State of the State
Despite shutting its doors for a year and a half during the pandemic, Levine noted that State Theatre of Ithaca Inc. actually emerged from the hiatus in a stronger position than before.
“We came out of the pandemic in better shape than we went into the pandemic,” Levine said. “And a lot of that I attribute to the success of the Save Our Seat campaign – that really showed that the community wants this theater to stick around.”
In that campaign, $160,000 was raised in eight weeks, with all 1,600 seats in the theater “saved” by donors who received a plaque affixed to a seat. That helped the State close the budget gap caused by the pandemic-induced shutdown and the loss of all show-related revenue.
Levine said the State also had a lot of success with its grant writing, and some major donors stepped up, as well, enabling the State to achieve another big goal.
“We went into this carrying two different mortgages on the buildings that we own – the box office building is now completely paid off, which is incredible,” he said. “We still have a mortgage on the theater itself, but it's at a really low interest rate.”
The staff also took advantage of the downtime to create a new State Theatre merchandise line, which is available on its website (also soon to be revamped).
Without the live concerts in front of an audience, the State “had to turn on a dime,” according to Levine, and learn how to host livestream shows, including several for the 2020 Downtown Ithaca Summer Concert Series.
“We showed that we could do livestream shows, and we did over 27 of them in less than two years,” Levine said.
There’s also a renewed emphasis on the State’s membership program, which allows members to receive special benefits such as the ability to buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. (Current membership levels are $300, $150, and $75.)
“It's a great way to not only support the State Theatre but get some benefits out of it as well,” Levine noted, “so we're really trying to push the membership this spring.”
There’s also the State Theatre Foundation, which was created a few years ago. “We want to raise enough money for our endowment, where just the interest alone will help pay for the State Theatre operations,” he said.
The pandemic did cause the State to pause or reassess several of its projects, such as renovating the box office and concession areas, creating more accessibility, upgrading the roof, and installing air conditioning.
Levine hopes to get those projects done in the next few years. “We’re estimating it will take about $3.5 to $4 million,” Levine said. A bill currently working its way through the New York State legislature could potentially provide funds for capital projects for major downtown theaters outside of New York City, but “these things take time,” he said.
Given the impact the pandemic has had on all arts organizations, Levine is optimistic about the future of the State Theatre.
“We are currently 94 years old, and we're already looking ahead to our 100th anniversary,” Levine said. “We're creating this State Theater Centennial Campaign Committee, where we have a goal to complete a ton of great capital campaign projects before we turn 100. Then our 100th year will be just a year of celebration.”
If You Go
Who: Pink Talking Fish and The Comb Down
What: 12th annual ‘Benefit My State’ concert
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: State Theatre of Ithaca
Cost: $15-$20, available online here.