The fate of the Lincoln Theater in Yountville is tied up in legal complications, leaving the future of the building in artistic limbo and arts organizations scrambling for new venues.
The Napa Valley Symphony has canceled concerts once planned for the Lincoln Theater. Plans to host the Bolshoi Ballet there this summer as part of the Festival del Sole have been upset.
When the Napa Valley Youth Symphony presents its winter concert today, it will be at American Canyon High School, not at its usual performance venue — the Lincoln Theater.
The venue — the largest in the Napa Valley — went dark in November. Beset by debt, the Friends of the Lincoln Theater, the nonprofit organization that operated the venue, announced in mid-December that it was filing for dissolution.
Executive Director Michael Madden had hoped that a new operating plan might be in place by mid-January.
“I was naive,” Madden said last week.
The Friends of Lincoln Theater was formed in 2000 to renovate the 43-year-old theater on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California. The group’s objective was to create a home for the Napa Valley Symphony.
The group raised $22 million to remodel and equip the theater that belonged to the state, Madden said. The grand reopening was in 2005.
Operating the theater on a lease, the Friends presented shows that ranged from comedian John Cleese to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and also rented the venue to community groups, including Justin-Siena High School, Napa Regional Dance Company and the Youth Symphony. By agreement, a percentage of tickets were provided free to veterans.
The theater struggled financially, however, and relied on support from Donald Carr, a retired banker and philanthropist, who lived in the valley. After Carr’s death in an automobile crash last August, bills began to mount, leading to the decision to shut the theater and dissolve the Friends.
Madden, who volunteered to stay on to help create a new operating plan, said he hadn’t realized how complicated the dissolution process would be or that this could stymie efforts to bring in a new operator.
The Friends of Lincoln Theater still hold the lease for the building, explained Marcella McCormack, the administrator at the Veterans Home. Until it is legally dissolved, she can’t start making plans to reopen it, she said.
“We are paying the electrical bills,” McCormack said. “And we have taken over the maintenance of the building. We want to be sure it is taken care of, but while the Friends of the Lincoln Theater still have the lease we can’t make plans for it.
“Our lawyers are talking to their lawyers.”
The Oakland legal firm of Lee, Lawless and Blyth is representing the Friends, Madden said.
It is taking time to dissolve the Friends of Lincoln Theater because “a dissolution without bankruptcy is unusual, Madden said. “It’s a complex process” that is a month or two away, he said.
“The next big event will be liquidation,” he said. “It will be a painful process because everything — soundboards, speakers, a piano, desks and computers — was all purchased by the Friends of Lincoln Theater. Even the microphones are all assets of the Friends. Those are not state property; the community paid for those things.”
Stripping the theater of these items as part of a liquidation will increase the challenge for the next operator, he added. “Someone would have to come in with deep pockets” to take over.
“It’s already a challenge,” Madden said. “No one is beating down the door wanting to be an operator.”
Once the Friends organization is dissolved, the state will most likely follow the usual route of issuing a request for proposals to operate the theater, McCormack said.
“It was unrealistic on my part” to think that the situation could be speedily resolved, Madden said. “I’m an artist and an entrepreneur and I had never dealt with the state. I volunteered to help, but three weeks ago, I said to my wife, ‘I’m going back to work.’” Madden is the owner of a publishing company.
Meanwhile, performers who had formerly counted on the Lincoln are scrambling to find new venues.
Perhaps the most dramatically affected local group is the Napa Valley Symphony. When the Lincoln Theater shut down in the middle of its 2011-12 season, the symphony moved its December concert to the much smaller Napa Valley Opera House. It canceled its January concert.
Whether the two remaining concerts of the 2011-12 season and a proposed Mozart Festival planned for April will take place remains uncertain.
Festival del Sole had announced its seventh season of summer performances in the Napa Valley, with the Lincoln Theater one of the festival’s principal venues.
Festival del Sole had planned to host a performance at the Lincoln Theater by the Bolshoi Ballet, as well as four short plays with musical interludes.
“They had already booked and paid for (airplane) tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet,” said Madden, who had been attempting without success to help open the theater for the Bolshoi. “They would have paid rent,” he said.
Now the festival is scrambling to find a new venue. Avril Nolan, a publicist for the festival, said that they were “working on changes to the schedule” for the July event.
Another affected group is the Napa Regional Dance Company, which had performed the holiday ballet “The Nutcracker” at the Lincoln Theater since 2005. Last November, the company's director, Wanda McGill was asked to move her performances from December to November when the financial problems made the closing imminent. Since then, she has been looking for a new venue in Napa County for 2012.
“We worked really hard to build up our ‘Nutcracker’ production to grace the scale of the Lincoln Theater,” McGill said. “We had seven years at the Lincoln Theater and it was always the goal to make the Napa Valley ‘Nutcracker’ at the Lincoln Theater our home for the holiday season.
“Napa Regional Dance Company was a part of the original fundraising effort to open the Lincoln Theater,” McGill said. “Our ballet school performed at the theater to help raise money to open it way back in 2000.
“It is such an unfortunate situation. I wish the community of Napa could wrap itself around keeping the venue open, but it is a testament to the times and the struggles for the performing arts.”
McGill said she plans to continue the tradition of presenting the ballet, but as yet, the only available space is the Napa Valley Opera House, which has a substantially smaller stage. “We will need restructure the production to accommodate a smaller venue,” she said.
McCormack at the Veterans Home said the state was aware of the repercussions from the theater’s closure.
“We know the theater is a wonderful asset for the veterans and the community,” McCormack said.
But until the legal difficulties are resolved and a new operator for the venue can be found, it remains an inaccessible one.
This story has been modified since first posting.