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Amid fire code violations, the State Theatre struggles to keep shows

ST. PETERSBURG — Kendra Marolf stood outside the State Theatre with a roll of $20 bills. More than 400 people had tickets to the rock show inside.

The day before the concert, a St. Petersburg fire marshal inspector surveyed recent repairs and renovations. It was part of an ongoing attempt to rectify 30 fire code violations uncovered at the historic venue within the past year.

The violations — outdated sprinkler and alarm systems, inadequate handrails and emergency lights, noncompliant doors and exit lights and a green room riddled with electrical and access issues — stretched back prior to a high-profile voter rally with Sen. Tim Kaine and Jon Bon Jovi just before the 2016 election. Many persisted as the venue hosted dozens more events throughout 2017.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tim Kaine jams with Jon Bon Jovi in St. Pete

Marolf, the State's general manager, thought that after weeks of work and two prior inspections, the club was in the clear. Instead, the inspector issued the State a slashed crowd capacity of less than 400 — well below the venue's normal limit of 705. Instantly, the Sept. 23 Lynch Mob show was oversold.

"We offered to pay for additional fire watch," Marolf said, meaning extra public safety officials at each exit. The city said no. "So just to make it right for the fans, anyone that was still left outside that wasn't able to redeem their ticket, we refunded them cash on the spot."

It began a nightmare period for the State Theatre. Since Sept. 27, at least seven concerts have moved to other venues as a result of the inspections, costing the venue, by Marolf's estimate, some $200,000 in revenue.

Most of the State's initial violations have been resolved, but the diminished capacity, now at 431, remains. And at that number, Marolf said, the local historic landmark — for years a prime spot to see artists like Twenty One Pilots, Matchbox Twenty and Alison Krauss before they hit it big — is not financially sustainable as a concert venue.

Brian Mahar

Twenty One Pilots play a sold-out concert at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg on March 23, 2013.

Brian Mahar

Twenty One Pilots play a sold-out concert at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg on March 23, 2013.

"We're just trying to hang in there," Marolf said.

Through Marolf, the venue's owners, Anthony and Frank Dagostino, declined to comment. They have hired an architect, John A. Bodziak, who in an Oct. 20 letter to St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Fire Marshal Michael Domante, said the new capacity "virtually makes it impossible to operate."

The building that houses the club at 687 Central Ave. is co-owned by Tony Rifugiato, an owner of Daddy Kool Records and promoter who frequently books concerts there.

"The building's been there since 1923, and obviously, some improvements have to be made," he said. "It's a situation where, to be able to keep that designated capacity, they have to make a lot of improvements... That's what's called a crisis."

Fire code violations at music venues can have disastrous consequences. In 2003, a fire killed 100 and injured 230 more during a Great White concert at a Rhode Island club smaller than the State Theatre. In December, a blaze during a concert at a warehouse-turned-artist collective in Oakland, Calif., killed 36. In both instances, the spaces had received repeated code complaints and violation notices prior to the fires.

The State Theatre began as a bank building, but after liquidating during the Great Depression, became a jazz club, then a movie house that ran until 1977. The club reopened in 1991, booking acts both old (Stephen Stills, Chick Corea, Warren Zevon) and new (Garbage, Tori Amos, Yeah Yeah Yeahs).

A Nov. 5 voter rally attended by then-vice presidential candidate Kaine and Bon Jovi was the State's highest-profile event ever, necessitating a fresh round of safety and security inspections. Officials found 30 violations that, in a letter to the venue months later, Domante described as "extremely concerning" with the potential to "contribute to large scale loss of life and property when not properly addressed."

But the Kaine-Bon Jovi event, and all subsequent events, were allowed to go forward, Marolf said, with the "understanding that we had to make progress for each subsequent visit."

LUIS SANTANA | Times

Recording artist Bon Jovi performs on stage with Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine playing the harmonica at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg in 2016.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

Recording artist Bon Jovi performs on stage with Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine playing the harmonica at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg in 2016.

Eight of the club's 30 violations were cleared in February; another three in August and September. The Sept. 22 inspection kicked the club's repairs into high gear; 15 more violations were cleared by the next follow-up on Oct. 6. The most serious violations involved the artists' green room that has since been shut off.

But on Oct. 10, Domante denied Marolf's request to restore the previous city-approved capacity of 705 — which was in place for many years — saying the State lacked the necessary square footage.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue did not respond to several requests for comment.

"It's a surprise to me, because in so many years I've been running, they've always had the same capacity that I've known forever," said Cocoa Beach promoter Rob Deuterman, who has booked shows at the State for several years, including a concert on Thursday by Shwayze.

All of this came during the State's busiest stretch in recent memory — 21 events between Sept. 22 and Nov. 2, including at least a half-dozen sold-out concerts.

"We have been waiting for this month all year," she said. "The ticket sales per show for a month's time frame were beyond anything I've ever seen."

Instead, the State was technically in breach of contract with artists and promoters, and had no choice but to let the shows go. Sold-out concerts by Judah and the Lion, Nothing More, Hollywood Undead and Zakk Sabbath moved to Jannus Live, as will a Nov. 2 sellout by Johnnyswim. An Oct. 21 show by Conor Oberst moved to the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.

"We don't make any money when that happens," Marolf said. "But we did work with, and we also helped negotiate with, other venues. Everyone was really accommodating to make sure that at the end of the day, the fans and artists were at a proper venue, and promoters weren't losing any money."

This spring, the State unveiled a new website and logo with a chic retro typeface. The lobby's murals and posters have been replaced with a stylish paint job, including a starry ceiling and golden flecks sparkling from the walls and columns.

VENUE STRUGGLES: Big rents and changing tastes drive dives off St. Pete's 600 block

In August, Mayor Rick Kriseman held a post-primary rally at the State Theatre. After Hurricane Irma, the State opened its doors to people and pets without power and distributed six tons of ice from its ice machines. Kriseman honored Marolf before the City Council for her "extraordinary contributions" during the storm. That honor came on Oct. 12 — two days after the State's occupancy limit of 431 was set in place.

The few violations that remain are partially out of the venue's control. For example, a slight gap between the rear exit and pavers in the alleyway — caused in part by heavy delivery truck traffic to other businesses — is a city issue, not a club issue. Brejesh Prayman, St. Petersburg's director of engineering and capital improvements, has inspected the alley himself, and said the city is working to schedule those repairs.

The venue has submitted revised repair plans that Bodziak, in his letter to Domante, said should push the capacity back up to 590 — still well below 705, but not as dire a hit.

Until the city makes its decision, it's unclear how much more State business will be affected. The city's Et Cultura festival, Nov. 15-19, has three nights of concerts there, but brand director Lea Umberger said the capacity issue shouldn't have an impact.

"If the capacity is 400 and we have 330 people in there, we'll sell 70 more tickets," she said. "We'll work to whatever the capacity is."

Rifugiato, on the other hand, is now limiting which artists he can bring in, or at least warning them about possible limitations.

"Until this question is answered, I don't know what level of band I can (book)," he said. "For St. Pete, it's been a very bad time for venues."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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