The 11 members of the board of the Friends of Lincoln Theater have resigned and the non-profit group has filed for dissolution, leaving the 1,214-seat venue on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville dark and its future in question.

The Friends is the group that raised $22 million for the renovation of the theater which reopened in 2005.  

Michael Madden, who became the fourth executive director last July, made the announcement Wednesday after struggling for five months to get the venue’s financial situation in shape. It was an unusual situation, Madden noted, that the theater, while owned by the state of California, had been renovated by privately raised funds, and that this group had continued to be responsible for its operations, including programming and maintenance costs.  

Madden said the theater had been operating in the red since it reopened, but had come to depend on substantial financial help from philanthropist Donald Carr who was killed in a automobile crash in August.

“We knew we were in trouble,” Madden told the editorial board of the Napa Valley Register Wednesday. “We’d been in trouble without a clear plan. … We were dependent on one person.”

Madden had canceled performances at LIncoln for December, while he tried to work out plans to pay off debts from the theater’s operations and find a way to finance its future.

The dissolution will retire the remaining debts of $250,000-$500,000, Madden said. Madden also stressed that the debts are from the operating costs only and that the cost of the renovations had been paid in full by the funds raised by the Friends of Lincoln Theater. 

Madden had reduced the staff from eight in July to five full-time and one half-time positions, he said. For the last three weeks, the remaining employees, including himself, had been working without pay.

“In July and August we worked diligently and closely with local creditors to do our best for them,” Madden said, adding that he had been able to negotiate down “30-40 percent” of the existing debt.

The death of Carr, however, proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. “Over time it had become the Don Carr show,” he said. “People have been saying, ‘How can you survive without Don Carr?’”

Madden also said he is hopeful that a new plan he is submitting to the state will allow the theater to reopen, perhaps as early as spring.

“We are currently speaking to the state directly about how to best achieve the goals originally developed when the community raised the $22 million to build our incredible facility more than six years ago,” Madden wrote in a letter now posted on the Lincoln Theater’s website. 

“As the person asked to develop Lincoln Theater’s best strategy for long-term viability and community mission, I am committed to seeing this process through,” he said.

Madden said he has met with an outpouring of support — and many ideas from community members as to how to best use the Lincoln Theater. The plan he is proposing to the state would continue to produce some shows while also promoting the venue as a rental facility.

He stressed that he would like to create an alliance with local renters who have performed at the Lincoln Theater including the Napa Valley Symphony, the Napa Valley Youth Symphony, the Napa Regional Dance Company, Justin-Siena High School and the Festival del Sol, which has used the Lincoln Theater as its anchor venue for its 10-day summer festival.

“The reason to make it happen quickly is that there are non-profits who are dependent on the Lincoln Theater” he said. 

The Friends of Lincoln Theater originally launched the renovation project to provide a home for the 79-year-old Napa Valley Symphony. With the closure of the Lincoln Theater the symphony has moved the remainder of this season’s performances to the 450-seat Napa Valley Opera House, which has a considerably smaller stage as well. 

Other groups, like the Napa Regional Dance, who have performed an annual “Nutcracker” ballet for the community since the theater reopened, will have difficulty finding another venue to accommodate their productions, he said. “These groups will need to know by the first two weeks in January” if they can perform at Lincoln Theater this year. 

“I don’t see this facility staying dark,” Madden said, adding that with an estimated budget of about $800,000, both from donors, rentals and ticket sales, he believes the theater could stay in the black.

“A lot of donors are interested in a fresh start,” he said.

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