Ely’s State Theater to relight iconic marquee

(PHOTO via Ely State Theater FB post)

(PHOTO via Ely State Theater FB post)

The towns of the Iron Range stretch along a 135 mile line, each at one time a shining beacon of what a bustling industrial city would look like if it were instead a network of small towns.

Like the fortunes of a Rust Belt city, the small towns of the Iron Range have mostly suffered these last 40 years. One of the biggest casualties: the bright, busy downtown business districts that boasted commerce and culture far beyond what you’d expect on the edge of the wilderness.

Most baby boomers remember every Range town having a single-screen movie theater with a bright marquee. My mom told me about the one in Keewatin. My dad recalled the one in Aurora.

Mining employment collapsed in the 1980s. Then downtowns gave way to strip malls and box stores in regional centers. As a result, most small theaters closed.

The same fate befell Ely’s State Theater. Until now.

This Saturday, July 30, at 8:30 p.m. organizers will light the historic State Theater marquee once again.

The symbolic illumination celebrates an ongoing renovation project at the State, which new owner John Ott plans to reopen in 2017. It’s part of a downtown revitalization that signals what’s working for this Vermilion Range city on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Here’s the background from the Ely State Theater group:

The State Theater was built in 1936 and was owned by the Swanson family in Ely. Its designer was a noted architecture firm called Liebenberg & Kaplan, who had designed many theaters in Minnesota and other northern states.

Our goal with this historic building is to work with the State of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Interior Guidelines to restore the exterior and interior to its original condition. Parts of the complex could be open as soon as the summer of 2017.

We will be working with consultants to create a multi-purpose independent theater that will show films and also have the capability of accommodating musical events and possibly live theater.

By incorporating the adjacent Salerno Building to the east, this independent theater operation can house an additional but smaller screening room for smaller audiences, as well as a spacious casual food/concessions component and social area that will accommodate customers before, during, and after movie screenings.

On the second floor of the two buildings, there will be several up to date office/business incubation spaces. The plans also include reconditioning the iconic State Theater marquee as a reminder of all the social and entertainment experiences the people of Ely have encountered for almost 80 years.


  1. We were recently in Ely and I was very impressed by this project. I couldn’t stop staring at it out the window from the store across the street while my wife shopped. The were in the process of painting the marquee and I had to go over and check it out. Their whole approach to city improvement is nice with progress and planning signs posted on many of the buildings. I told my wife that Ely is taking it into their own hands to improve the town and that bodes well for their future.

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