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"Preservation... It's a Conversation" Storytellers, April 2020

Storytelling is an integral part of history. Stories teach, they inspire, they motivate, they caution. Stories tell where you have been and where you are and where you hope to go in the future. Through Storytellers we share local preservation stories that can serve to educate and inspire others, and ourselves. Preservationist are often "in it for the long haul", through the twists and turns, the ups and downs. John Stagnone and The Friends of the State Theatre can attest to that, with their years of working toward the ultimate goal of having the theatre open for community use once again. Even when faced with major obstacles, this small group has persisted and continues to keep their eyes focused on a positive preservation outcome.

The State Theatre, Stoughton Submitted by John J. Stagnone Friends of the State Theatre

On December 8, 1927, the State Theatre opened its doors for the first time to an excited, waiting crowd of theatre goers. It was an atmospheric, vaudeville theatre, designed by Boston-based architectural firm Funk and Wilcox, built on the former Atwood’s Market site in downtown Stoughton, which had burned down a year earlier. An ever-revolving repertoire of vaudeville acts and silent films came through the venue, such as Ed Andrews & his Nautical Garden Orchestra and Smile, Brother, Smile, complete with an Estey pipe organ for an in-house accompaniment. Throughout the century, the beautiful venue was renamed and refitted to accommodate new tastes and populations (1940: Interstate State Theatre, 1970: Stoughton Cinema; 1990’s: Stoughton Cinema Pub), before finally closing its doors only 6 days before its 80th birthday with a production of A Christmas Carol, by the Little Theatre of Stoughton.

Shortly after this not-so-happy-ending-Christmas story, the non-profit Friends of the State Theatre was founded by John Stagnone and his wife Roberta in February, 2013. FoST’s mission was dedicated to preserving, revitalizing, and operating the historic venue once again for dance, music, theatrical, visual art, film, and touring acts, all for the benefit of the local community of Stoughton and its surrounding communities. Having secured a long-term lease of 30 years, the first 20 of which were rent-free, FoST felt confident they could garner support from local arts-lovers, corporations, organizations, and legislators to purchase the property.

John, a former Board of Selectmen, had always felt the presence of the State Theatre in his wife’s hometown, along with sharing several memories of his time spent there with fellow South-Shore natives. His fellow leaders in town governance felt, and still do feel, similarly, including the revitalized State Theatre as a critical player in three of their economic and downtown revitalization plans. The Historical Commission of Stoughton also designated the site as historically significant, supporting a $500,000 pledge from community preservation funds.

These efforts came to a halt in 2016, when Bostonia Nominee Trust purchased the State Theatre and its adjoining properties for $1.45 million dollars from its previous owner. The intention of this new owner was – and still is – to tear down this historic property, building a multi-level parking structure. Fortunately, FoST’s lease still remained in place, until recently when they were forcibly evicted from the property after a lengthy legal challenge. These court proceedings went through multiple appeals on both sides, finally ending in November 2019, where it was determined the small non-profit did not have any right to access the property, much to the chagrin of its board of volunteers and local supporters.

Even though these suits stalled any major fundraising and organizational growth efforts the small non-profit could make, support totaling over $350,000 has been collected from donations, foundations, and corporations, as well as support written into recent budgets by State Representatives Lou Kafka, William Galvin and Senator Walter Timilty. Stoughton’s Board of Selectpersons and Town Management have also shown wonderful support of the revitalization project. Currently, FoST is attempting to negotiate with their former landlord to convince them to save the historic property. In addition, they are networking with local lenders to secure support should the opportunity arise to again secure the venue’s future.

What Was The Biggest "Lesson Learned"?

Reaching out to local influential individuals and corporations has been a difficult task for our small non-profit. Finding the right networks for financial support has been a challenging task, even if the project’s prospects and mission are immediately evident to those we speak to. Conversations can be fruitful at times, but it takes a serious investment of work hours to develop and maintain these relationships in addition to the fulfilling the needs of the organization.

What Sort Of Assistance Or Resources Did You Find Helpful?

Preservation Massachusetts toured the historic property and immediately saw the potential for the project, expressing their support of our efforts. An updated letter of support, which outlines the importance of the State Theatre and its potential influence on the local community and economy, would be extremely beneficial. Networking with similar organizations through PM could strengthen our organizational capability and open new doors for any maneuvers future negotiations might require. Even though the State Theatre may be the last atmospheric theatre of its kind in Massachusetts – and potentially in New England – its situation is certainly not unfamiliar.

What Advice Would You Give Others Facing A Similar Project?

Build a strong, diverse organization with connections to the community and industries you are trying to affect. Be a passionate group of advocates for your project, being open to every possibility and opportunity to fulfill and further your mission.

Is There Anything Else To Share?

Stoughton is a diverse, blue-collar, working-class community of approximately 27,000 people. It is a growing community, but caught between similar, yet faster-growing towns, about 25 minutes South of Boston. The town has shown dedication in recent years to improving the lives of its citizens in recent years, approving the construction of a new Public High School and Library. Community beautification projects, property acquisitions, and studies about key downtown aspects, like parking and walkability, have also been undertaken to make improvements to downtown life. A renewed State Theatre could continue these efforts, spurring further business and economic development, which has been widely supported by the wonderful community in personal discussions and polling.

What Does Preservation Mean To You?

Preservation is more than just saving a building…it’s a conversation about where we were yesterday, understanding today, all while dreaming about tomorrow.

Thank you to John Stagnone and the Friends of the State Theatre for their dedication, belief and hard work on behalf of preservation in their community. The Friends of the State Theatre are willing to answer any questions about their project. If you have a question, please email us and Preservation Massachusetts will facilitate its answer.

If you are interested in sharing your local preservation story, click here! To learn more about Preservation Massachusetts, our programs and work across the Commonwealth, click here.

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