Up in the Attucks: A Restored Norfolk Theater Starts Its Second Century in the Spotlight
Behind the modern walls of the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, century-old murals hide in darkness. Three pastoral scenes, created on the theater’s original 1919 walls, were uncovered in 2004 during the restoration that brought the theater back to life. But because of their age, exposing them to light and air could ruin them.
“Trying to find ways to create access to them without damaging them has been challenging,” says Anthony Stockard, artistic director at Norfolk State University. So they’ll remain out of sight, sealed and preserved until a plan to display them safely can be established.
Much like the murals, the history behind the Attucks itself is not immediately apparent from the brick and white terra cotta that form the theater’s facade. But ask around Norfolk, and it won’t be too long before you find a city native with some kind of connection to the building. The place the Attucks holds in the collective memory of Norfolk’s African American community has not disappeared, even after years of vacancy, name changes, and collapsing ceilings.
Appreciation for the Attucks is especially perceptible this year, the centennial of the theater’s construction. A steady stream of stars—from Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live to basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—is lined up to speak or perform, complementing the typical artists the Attucks welcomes every year. Ticket sales have accordingly skyrocketed. Stockard and Virginia Arts Festival director Rob Cross, the key figures planning the year’s programming (called Attucks100), knew they wanted to make 2019 truly special.“We didn’t want to water down the programming. We wanted to complement the normal programming with a couple of really big, wonderful, signature acts,” says Stockard. “It’s just a wonderful time to be here, in this place, celebrating what is an iconic venue—the only one of its kind in the country at the time."
“The Apollo of the South.”
That was the nickname the Attucks garnered, referencing the famed Big Apple music hall. With national sensations like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ella Fitzgerald frequenting the stage, the Attucks was more than worthy of the designation. As Stockard points out, “[The Attucks] was functioning like the Apollo before there was an Apollo. It just wasn’t in New York.”
Perhaps the Apollo Theater should be known as “The Attucks of the North.” Because unlike the Apollo, the Attucks was funded and designed exclusively by African Americans, an extremely rare occurrence at the time. Twin City Amusement Corporation, the original developer, was formed by a group of black business owners. They approached local architect Harvey Johnson, who went on to help found what became Norfolk State University, to draw up the plans. Johnson always intended for the Attucks to be more than just a performance venue; in addition, it doubled as a silent movie house and contained 21 upstairs offices for African American businesses (Johnson himself set up shop there after its completion). They named the theater in honor of Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent who was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War, and depicted his death on its fire curtain.
The Attucks quickly became the centerpiece of Church Street, the main corridor of business and play for the African American community in highly segregated Norfolk. The stars came out, from trumpeters to opera singers to comedians. They developed a tradition of signing their names on the walls of the dressing room, as if to mark a rite of passage. Even the arrival of the Great Depression couldn’t dim the theater’s lights—while spare change was hard to come by, the Attucks was where you went to spend what you could.
The theater wasn’t completely immune to the changing times. Movies with synchronized sound, or “talkies,” grew increasingly popular. In response, the Attucks converted into a full-time movie theater in 1933 and was renamed the Booker-T Theater. However, the end of World War II brought changes that even the Attucks could not survive—at least, not in the same way. Young soldiers with money to spend returned to the city, and as Norfolk began to desegregate, the once-vibrant Church Street declined.
Eventually, the curtain fell on the building’s time as a theater in 1953. The front area of the building would be used for a few more decades as a men’s clothing store and pawn shop, while the grand auditorium space became a storage area and was left to decay.
Norfolk never forgot about its jewel of Church Street, though. The Attucks was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and a group of community leaders would form the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center Board to restore and revive the theater. Over the next decade, a monumental fundraising effort led by Father Joseph Green Jr. and Andrew Fine ultimately secured over $8 million. Historic Tax Credits were a key source of capital, netting $2.5 million. Matching funds from the city of Norfolk added nearly $3 million, while around $1.75 million came from private individuals and corporations.
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With the funding secured, work commenced in 2002. Despite all the building’s evolutions, the Attucks’ auditorium and interior lobby retained many of their original features. Recessed plaster panels made to look like folded drapery, original chandeliers, and a stained glass skylight all remained, along with the auditorium’s proscenium and grand fire curtain featuring Crispus Attucks. The problem, of course, lay in the building’s maintenance (or lack thereof).
Denise Christian, project manager for the Attucks’ restoration, helped devise a three-phase approach. The first stage addressed the most pressing concerns: the blighted roof and the preservation of the historic curtain. Once pieces of the ceiling were no longer falling and the curtain had been cleaned and stored, the team moved on to the reconstruction of the auditorium seats, which had all been removed during the room’s years as a storage space. They decided to build around 700 new seats for comfort’s sake, though the theater originally squeezed in many more. Significant repairs also had to be made to the balcony and box seats. Finally, the Attucks was equipped with the modern trappings necessary for a multipurpose theater to succeed in the 21st century. A new three-story wing behind the building provides banquet rooms, dressing rooms, a green room, and a loading dock, transforming the Attucks into a place for events and arts classes, not just entertainment.“It’s hard to run a theater in America without educational components. The free-standing theater by itself was just not enough,” says Stockard. “It needed auxiliary areas for activities, and that’s what the expansion provided.”
Within the broad strokes of the restoration plan, no minute detail was missed. Crews attended to the plaster light fixtures known as “glowing-eyed angels,” whose exposed lightbulbs for eyes were meant to showcase the theater’s electricity—cutting-edge for 1919. And in a pleasant surprise, workers discovered artifacts left behind by some of the theater’s historic performers. Items included original sheet music, playbills, and dancers’ costumes, not to mention the wall signatures. Many of these are now displayed in glass cases on the second floor “museum” of the Attucks.
After four years of renovations, the theater reopened in 2004. Two shows a week bring in crowds on a regular basis, co-programmed by the city of Norfolk and the Virginia Arts Festival. Workshops and master classes help introduce the arts to an ever-expanding group of locals. And Stockard and Cross, of course, are helping make 2019 the biggest in the theater’s history.
For Stockard, personally, being selected to co-chair Attucks100 by Norfolk mayor Kenny Alexander has felt like the culmination of a career-long dream, a “bucket-list moment.” Stockard spent his graduate school years at Brandeis University, just outside Boston. He observed that the city contained the only national acknowledgement of Crispus Attucks in monument form: the Boston Massacre/Crispus Attucks Monument on the Boston Common. So when his path eventually wound to Norfolk about five years ago, seeing the Attucks’ name felt like destiny.
“There was sort of a sense of nostalgia, of realizing these bricks were laid for and organized by African Americans,” he says. “It was revolutionary for them to invest in the arts and entertainment that way— not just being the act, but being the producer and provider, and being able to control the place they had in the community."
Stockard always hoped to stage a show there since his tenure as head of Norfolk State’s theater department began. Helping this year’s celebration is more than he ever expected. As it does for him and many others in Norfolk, history reverberates through the theater’s walls, along with the sense of a community’s legacy restored.
Says Stockard, “It might be a cerebral thing, but you can just feel the energy in the room. And when things are going on, it feels like this rich sense of honoring all those people who have been on the stage before.”