IF Thomas Carter and David Steinberg have had a mantra the past few years it was surely "Renovate it and they will come." The duo is responsible for the resuscitation of the State Theater in Falls Church (220 N. Washington St., 703/237-0300), a lovely deco movie theater that deserved their attentions. Built in 1935, it had fallen into disrepair after closing 13 years ago. Their dream of aglittering suburban nightspot was fueled by the certainty that if they turned the theater into a great place to hear live music and eat good food then people would flock to it.
You have a chance to be among the flocking folks this weekend when the theater holds what it's calling a "soft opening" Friday and Saturday, with radio DJ Jack Diamond performing with his classic rock cover band on both nights, and the Tom Principato Trio playing Saturday.
But the opening of the State Theater as a restaurant and concert hall this week raises more questions than it answers. Questions like: Who will play there? Who will go to see bands there? Can a full-time music hall make it in the suburbs? Can a place that holds 800 people for a concert also be a successful restaurant seven days a week?
Seeking answers to these and other questions, I checked in with Carter and Steinberg. The first question, of course, is "Why?" Why give up three years of sleep and go into debt for a nostalgic dream that might not succeed?
"I used to come to this theater as a kid to see movies," says Carter, "and I've worked in Falls Church off and on for 20 years, so I've driven past this place thousands of times. After it closed, I brainstormed on what I could do with the space." Carter spent more than a year on market research pondering what could go into the abandoned space and make a profit. He came up with the restaurant/music hall combination that became his obsession.
He became partners with Steinberg through a common friend, and over three long years the two almost single handedly restored the State Theater to its former glory. "I believe that what we've put together is the complete package," says Carter, with not a little pride. "I spent a lot of time in clubs like the Cellar Door and the Wax Museum, venues where you could see great acts up close. After the Wax Museum closed [in 1984] there really wasn't a nice mid-sized room around here to see national acts where you could also get a cold beer."
Some local promoters might argue with Carter's definitions of "nice" and "mid-sized" (and perhaps even "cold") but it's true that until recently there was a dearth of good live music venues. It was that dearth that had Carter scrambling to get his business plan written and his bank loans secured. But between the time he conceived the idea and now, Washington has seen the openings of the relocated Birchmere and 9:30 club, as well as the recent arrival of Nation on the mid-sized club scene, not to mention the continuing success of venues such as the Wolf Trap's Barns and the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. All these places will presumably be bidding on many of the acts that the owners of the State Theater would like to see in their new space.
To play with those big boys, Carter and Steinberg have enlisted the booking clout of Cellar Door, now part of the vast SFX concert empire. Brian O'Connell, from Cellar Door, says he thinks the State Theater will have no problem finding a niche. "Just look where it is," he says. "It's a perfect destination for a huge percentage of people living in this area. If you don't live in the city, sometimes you just don't want to drive downtown." Carter echoes these thoughts: "People who live out near here don't want to worry about driving downtown, about parking, about crime, about travel time. For them, this location is perfect. It would even work for folks coming over from, say, Montgomery County."
"I`m not looking to make this place the next Bayou," says O'Connell. "Not the next 9:30 club, the next Birchmere, the next anything. I want it to be the first State Theater. This is a beautiful room. It would be great for all kinds of music. From classic rock to folk, bluegrass, jazz and country. Everything but headbanging music, I'd say. On top of that, there's not a bad seat in the house."
At a benefit concert held in the theater last week, several local bands took to the stage, guinea pigs for the fellows running the astonishing custom-designed sound and lighting systems. The bands sounded superb, they looked great (from every corner of the room) and it made me eager to see more. (Major name acts are currently being courted and signed to perform in the theater, but no one's been announced yet.)
The interior is like an upscale Cinema & Drafthouse, with elegant art deco flourishes throughout, tables set up throughout the ground level, and a balcony with more than two hundred plush seats. In front of the stage is a new wooden dance floor, and if they were to book some big bands the State could be the answer to the question most asked of the Nightwatch information desk: "Where can I go for dinner and dancing?"
I haven't checked out the food, but Steinberg promises a "broad spectrum without getting carried away." He says they'll be offering "vegan dishes, pasta, steaks, burgers. You'll find something for everyone." For now the restaurant will be open Wednesday through Saturday, as it develops a clientele, but given the lack of interesting offerings in that corner of the 'burbs, Carter and Steinberg figure they should get some loyal patrons soon enough.
Food, music, dancing, not to mention four full-service bars. The State Theater promises a lot, and what I've seen so far delivers on those promises.
Log on and jump into a live online Nightwatch discussion Friday from 3 to 4 p.m. Chat about your summer concert memories, or anything else regarding the local music and nightlife scene. Go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the "Music" button, and look for "Nightwatch Live."
CAPTION: The State Theater, once a lovely art deco cinema that closed in 1986, has been renovated as a restaurant and club.