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State’s illumination sparks memories

BY DONNIE JOHNSTON

Greg Yates admits that when a group called the “Founders” approached him a decade ago and asked him to consider buying the run-down State Theatre building, he had to think long and hard.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with it,” he said. “But when I went home and told my wife, Liz, she said, ‘You have to buy it and save it for the town.’”

Yates bought the building, which was about to be demolished and its lot to be used for a new police station, and turned it over to a foundation that he helped start.

Last night, after nine long years of tireless work and fundraising, the marquee lights of the State Theatre again brightened Culpeper’s Main Street as they had done when the movie house opened 75 years ago.

The “Grand Illumination,” as it was billed, without question lived up to its billing.

More than 500 people oohed, aahed and cheered as the Yateses flipped a ceremonial switch and brought the once-abandoned theater, which closed in 1993, back to life.

“I’m excited!” exclaimed Debbie George, who with her brother Doug, worked for years in the old theater. “The marquee is absolutely beautiful, better than it was when I worked there.”

Restored at a cost of $100,000, the marquee spent three years in an Ohio shop before being brought back to Culpeper two weeks ago.

The occasion provided an opportunity for many Culpeper natives in the crowd to reminisce about times spent in the theater.

“I would come here almost every Sunday afternoon,” recalled Bobby Ryan, who is now a member of the Town Council.

Councilman Frank Reaves, who grew up just down the street, said he was in the movie house every time he could afford the price of admission (about 50 cents in the late 1950s).

“One thing I remember is that they had really good popcorn,” Reaves said.

For Wussy Gilmore, who turns 90 next week, memories of the theater have now come full circle.

“I was here when the theater [then the Pitts] opened in 1938,” he recalled. “I met my wife, Jackie, here. There was a group of us just hanging around out front waiting for the show to start.”

Tickets were a quarter back then and popcorn was a nickel, Gilmore recalled.

“I remember watching ‘Gone with the Wind’ here when it first came out,” he said.

For Tad Loving, who is chairman of the board of the State Theatre Foundation, last night was Phase 1 of a dream come true.

“It’s really nice, but it hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said, recalling all the trials and tribulations—including a recession that almost derailed the $10 million project—that his foundation has overcome since 2003.

Phase 2 will come May 4 when the completely refurbished theater holds its 10-day grand opening.

For two hours Wednesday, visitors toured the theater, with its restoration about 90 percent complete. Many remained in the aisles for long periods, recalling old times.

“The plan was for everyone to just walk through,” laughed Yates, who stood in the old lobby to greet old friends and newcomers. “Yeah, right! That really happened.”

Prior to the Grand Illumination, the Virginia Gentlemen, an a cappella singing group from the University of Virginia, entertained with Christmas tunes and other music.

Ed Bednarczyk, the State Theatre Foundation’s executive director, explained to the crowd that money is still needed to help pay for the restoration of what Culpeper hopes will be the “crown jewel” of Main Street, proving an economic boost to the downtown area.

Still, it was those marquee lights, burning for the first time in 19 years, that made everyone’s evening.

No one walked away disappointed.

Donnie Johnston:

djohnston@freelancestar.com

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