Generous Rappahannock lenders couldn’t keep Historic Culpeper State Theatre afloat

Foreclosure auction set for September

Almost one year to the day that it abruptly went dark, the financially strapped Culpeper State Theatre is in foreclosure — set to go on the auction block Wednesday, Sept. 13, at 11 a.m.

All photos by John McCaslin

The Culpeper State Theatre as it appears currently, its windows mostly blackened, its box office empty, and its reel still

Few are as upset about the historic 500-seat theatre’s demise as the unnamed individuals from Rappahannock County who generously opened their wallets to keep the circa 1938 vaudeville-style showhouse afloat.

Although their identities are not known, the Rappahannock residents reportedly made a total of $5 million dollars in loans to the theatre on two separate occasions, once through a limited liability company, Melbell, LLC, which was organized on March 9, 2011.

“As the attorney that was involved for both of the lenders to the State Theatre any of my information is confidential and I wouldn’t be at liberty to disclose any identities with respect to Melbell, LLC,” Washington attorney Michael T. Brown tells the Rappahannock News. “That’s the reason that was done through an LLC, so that the identity would not be a matter of public record.”

As is usually the case, this LLC lists as its address the representing legal firm, in this case Walker Jones Law, 211-A Main Street, Washington.

Quoting court documents, the Culpeper Star-Exponent reported last week that “a Rappahannock County couple made a $2 million loan to the State Theatre Foundation in 2012 with a scheduled maturity date by the following year. The repayment schedule was extended in 2013 to 2020, as the request of the State Theatre Foundation, and the creditor agreed so long as the loan did not default, according to court documents.

“A second Rappahannock County party, Melbell LLC, made a $3 million dollar loan to the foundation for construction around the same time for which the repayment schedule was also extended to 2020 at the request of the Foundation, according to court documents.”

The newspaper says the 2017 real estate assessment for the restored theatre puts its value at only $2.68 million, even though a reported $13 million restoration took place in 2013.

Until it closed Sept. 14, 2016, the theatre was led by a volunteer board of directors headed by Jerry Whitlock (chair), Joseph Wills (vice chair), Gary Lee (treasurer), Elizabeth Hutchins (secretary), Alex Forte, Chris Hamilton, Don Haight, Mike Hudson, Octavia Yates, and Joe Grills (board advisor).

While Whitlock did not return phone calls, the board had numerous fundraising efforts underway at the time the theatre was shuttered, including tax-deductible donations, a preservation society, individual and corporate annual memberships, seat dedications, personalized engraved bricks, and sidewalk stars similar to those in Hollywood. The board also welcomed donations through estate planning. All of which, it turns out, wasn’t enough.

“Dear Culpeper Community,” a large notice from last September reads on the door of the theatre. “It is with great sadness that the State Theatre Foundation Board of Directors announce that we will be suspending the operations of the theatre until further notice . . .

“We had hoped that with the changes in staffing, our new direction of diverse programming, and our community partnerships and educational outreach that we would be able to create renewed interest for the community and the region to provide the contributed income necessary to sustain operations. Unfortunately, while we saw a trend of positive results, we fell short of our fundraising goals to keep us moving forward . . .

“In the coming months, the State Theatre Foundation Board of Directors will take the appropriate steps to decide how to move forward.”

Apparently there were few steps to take. The auction will take place outside the Culpeper County Courthouse, with a required minimum of $250,000 to bid.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at