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Sad State: Theater closes Friday

The day the music died? Along Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, that would be Friday.

The State Theatre, one of only a handful of small, intimate venues in the Tampa Bay area that showcase jazz, folk, rock and alternative music, will close its doors Friday night after two years of trying to gain a foothold in an area that has more than its share of pawn shops, secondhand stores and boarded-up buildings.

Although unintentional, Friday's final act will be singer/songwriter Rory Block, whose specialty is the blues.

Logan and Susan Neill, a husband-and-wife team who managed the State for the past eight months, said the theater will close because, "we were unable to negotiate a lease because the building is unsecured due to mounting past debt."

That inherited debt, Susan Neill said Tuesday, includes a $250,000 First Union Bank loan that was used to renovate the building. Neill also said the building, which is owned by St. Petersburg pediatrician Perry Everett and his wife, Lisa, has a tax-assessed value of $260,000.

"I thought we were making headway in turning around that notion that St. Petersburg's downtown is dead," Susan Neill said. "I just felt, walking outside the front of the theater on the night we had a show and seeing Central Avenue alive, and having restaurant owners from down the street thank us for them getting more business .

.

. well, I thought we were starting to turn the corner."

The 68-year-old former movie house officially re-opened March 15, 1991 when acts Firefall and Nicolette Larson played to a sold-out house. Since then, the State has played host to such varied acts as Melanie, Ricky Skaggs, Tuck and Patti, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Al Stewart, the Guess Who, America, Stephen Stills and David Benoit.

With its Edwardian green walls, sloped floor and Ionic columns, the 550-seat State was a throwback to the cozy theaters of the '20s and '30s.

And although not every show sold out, the Neills said ticket sales had steadily increased in the past six months.

"I guess more than anything, I have a general sense of disappointment," Susan Neill said. "Not only for myself and Logan, but more important, for the people who have been so supportive for the last eight months _ the patrons, the musicians, the volunteers.

"Certainly, there were some disappointments _ some things I thought the public would support more than they did. It was a very big disappointment to bring Ricky Skaggs in and have only 300 people there.

"But again, that's a risk you take no matter who you bring in."

The Neills said they sank all their personal savings into the theater and had hoped to make the State a beacon for other businesses.

"But I believe," Susan Neill said, "by the place being dark once again, it will only add to the argument of those pessimists who say, "Here we go again. The Dome's dark, the Bayfront Center is losing money, and the State Theatre is closed again.'

"

Rob Douglas, promoter at Jannus Landing, a venue five blocks east of the State that competed with the theater, said the closing of the State is another painful event in the effort to revitalize the downtown area.

"It's a great loss," Douglas said. "They (the Neills) made a very significant contribution to what's going on around here, and that building was perfect for what they were trying to do.

"I saw a lot of great shows there, and I liked the fact it was downtown."

As for the future of the theater, that's uncertain.

Sonny Katz, a local builder and a major investor in the renovation project at the State, said he hoped the theater would reopen as a concert venue soon.

"There are a lot of unsolved problems right now," Katz said, "and sometime soon, it will all come to a head and we'll be able to settle it. But as for the immediate future, I just don't know."

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