News Column

State Theatre shines in the 21st century

November 29, 2013


Nov. 29--The State Theatre was this year's clear choice for Most Improved Business Location, an annual award bestowed by the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce.

The change in appearance is more than dramatic.

Following decades of neglect and desertion, the 75-year-old art deco movie house reopened in May, gloriously restored and expanded, a beacon for the arts on Main Street.

"We do have a beautiful location," said Raven Yates at the chamber awards banquet earlier this month.

As former executive director of the State Theatre Foundation, she helped achieve the stunning transformation along with her brother, Culpeper native Greg Yates, a primary benefactor of the live arts venue.

"I know you've all seen our building from the outside," said Raven Yates. "Have you seen it on the inside?"

What makes her most proud, she said, are all the community events the State Theatre has hosted and plans to host including the breast cancer awareness event, Pamper Me Pink.

"We're going to light the Hospice tree. We've got storytelling from the library coming in the spring and the hospital is holding their gala, so we are loving the opportunity to help our nonprofits in the community, so thank you very much for this," said Raven Yates.

The nomination for the chamber award noted, "The once dark and blighted Pitts Theatre has been brought back to life after a seven-year project of promoting the concept and raising necessary funds. Following the generous donation of the property by Mr. and Mrs. Greg Yates to the State Theatre Foundation in 2006, a team of dedicated community-minded individuals spearheaded the project. The theater now stands as a beacon on Main street and promises to be become a cornerstone in our community's economic vitality."

Built in 1938 as a vaudeville and movie house, the theater is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Construction of the Pitts Theatre began in 1937 and was completed the following year at a cost of $105,000. Its first movie was "Sally, Irene and Mary" starring Jimmy Durante and Alice Faye. The theater was part of the Pitts chain of movie houses founded by Benjamin Pitts, of Fredericksburg, a state senator from 1944-1958 representing Goochland, Louisa, Orange and Spotsylvania. Nicholas Roney, of Henrico County, designed the theater in the Art Deco style and Keith Fletcher, of Warrenton, was the contractor.

According to the State Theatre National Register nomination, Pitts, born 1890, was a real estate developer who began his political career on the Fredericksburg City Council. He died in 1964 in Richmond. The Pitts family leased the Culpeper movie house to Regal Cinemas in 1973, and that's when it became the State Theatre. It closed for good to the public 20 years later when a secret society known as the Finders purchased it.

Except for cryptic messages that would occasionally appear on the marquee, little can be verified about the Finders' use of the theater. And then one day in 2004, "The Phoenix Riseth," appeared on the sign, signaling a change in ownership, and the start of a multi-year, $9 million rehab.

In addition to the chamber acknowledgment, the State Theatre was recently given another award. The Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects on Nov. 8 honored the architects of the theater rehab and expansion, Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas Architecture, with the 2013 Award for Excellence in Architecture for Historic Preservation. The award focuses on strategies and technologies that advance the art, craft and science of preserving historically significant buildings and sites.

"The State Theatre was Culpeper's primary movie house from the time it was built ... to the time it closed," according to "Its Art Deco design makes it a unique structure in a town dominated by Italianate and turn of the century structures."

The designers undertook a complete restoration of the interior and exterior to allow the theater to enjoy new life as a venue capable of supporting concerts, children's events, community theater, film festivals, professional stage production and more, according to the architect's web site.

"Exterior work included restoration of the wedding-cake facade and the signature marquee and blade sign as well as improvements to pedestrian and vehicular flow. Interior highlights include restoration of the lobby and house to their original art deco appearance and retention of the original ticket booth. The stage was adapted for a variety of theater and movie events," said the web site. "A new addition provides reception space and a black box theater upstairs."

Since opening six months, ago the State Theatre has hosted myriad cultural events, educational programs, film screenings and more.

The Blue Ridge Chorale presents a matin e show there Sunday at 2 p.m. performing their holiday concert, "The Gifts of Christmas. December 7 and 8, the Orange School of Performing Arts presents "The Nutcracker."


(c)2013 the Culpeper Star-Exponent (Culpeper, Va.)

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