The theater and movie house was revolutionary: a business designed by, built by, operated by and featuring African Americans.
by Denise M. Watson
Denise Christian grew up in the neighborhood a block away from the imposing brick building on the corner of Church Street and Virginia Beach Boulevard. In her memory, it had always been Stark and Legum, a clothing store known for its vast hat collection.
She wouldn’t know until years later of the structure’s famed past; built in 1919 as the Attucks Theatre, billed as the first-of-its kind, a revolutionary theater and movie house, ringed with offices and retail space built by African Americans for African Americans.
Everybody who was anybody on the black entertainment circuit made a stop and left a mark in some way. (The faded signature of the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie is still visible on a piece of wood in the building.)
But who played there isn’t as impressive as how the theater survived a century of economic depressions, closures, re-openings, urban blight and then urban renewal.
Christian now has an office on its second floor and has spent nearly 30 years studying its history, preserving it, and helping the Attucks reclaim its spot in Hampton Roads’ cultural landscape. This year, the venue marked its centennial with an eclectic blend of national and international talent, including Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones in April, NBA legend and bestselling author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in November and Canadian fiddling duo Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy and their children for the Christmas holidays.
“This place has so much history,” Christian says.
The Attucks was built as a necessity and a statement. The Reconstruction Era following the end of the Civil War in 1865 produced a significant, albeit brief,
flash of political and educational progress for African Americans. As a result, African Americans started their own banks, construction and insurance companies and, locally, the predominantly black Church Street area became the epicenter.
“The idea of becoming a ‘race man’ or a ‘race woman’ became very important and was instilled in the minds of every African American who was going through college, high school, graduate school,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University.
“This idea that as you grow, develop and achieve, you must always, always, always give back. You never forget where you came from. This is something you owe to your community. You owe it to your ancestors.”
Wells Theatre had opened near downtown in 1913, but African Americans could only view movies from its “for Negroes only” balcony. Church Street had the Palace Theatre, which catered to African Americans but was white-owned.
The Attucks, however, would be financed, built, operated, insured and designed by African Americans. It would also be named after one. Businessmen from Norfolk and Portsmouth established the Twin City Amusement Corporation and tapped Richmond-born architect Harvey Johnson Sr.
Johnson was in his mid-20s when he moved to the area to work as a carpenter for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. He’d learned skills of design and construction from his father and had studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. After a year with the shipyard, he opened a practice in Norfolk.
Construction of the Attucks began in 1919, and one of its most interesting features was a safety measure – the stage’s fire-resistant curtain. Planners contacted the popular Lee Lash Studio in New York and had it recreate a painting of the 1770 Boston Massacre on the two-story high asbestos screen. Featured prominently among plumes of gunfire and British redcoats was the brown-skinned Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave who’d made a living on among Boston ports as a seaman and ropemaker.
The night of the massacre, Attucks was among a mixed group of men who argued with British soldiers. He was among five shot and killed, and later hailed as martyrs.
The Attucks opened on Oct. 4, 1920, with a price tag of $265,000. It had 1,200 wooden seats that filled its auditorium, balcony and box seats. Ceiling fans cooled its interior. Its three-story facade was red brick with white terra-cotta trim. A tablet on the top frieze proclaiming “Attucks Theatre” would never change, though the name of the building would during the years.
The building also contained 21 offices for dentists, insurance agents and doctors. Johnson had an office on the third floor. He started designing stately bungalows and Georgian colonials for African American professionals a mile away along present-day Virginia Beach Boulevard in the Broad Creek area. The homes, a statement of the city’s growing black wealth, were also a necessity. African American entertainers performing at the Attucks were still not welcome in area hotels, so they often stayed in the affluent homes nearby.
Within six months of the theater’s opening, Mamie Smith, an international jazz and blues performer, performed there. Other names, like Duke Ellington, would follow.
The Attucks settled into what the community needed. It had small shops like an ice cream parlor. It was a community center. Black nationalist Marcus Garvey filled the theater in July 1922 with his talk of black solidarity and his “Back to Africa” push.
Audiences could see the best in black entertainers, while also paying 25 cents to see the latest Douglas Fairbanks silent movie. Harvey Johnson Jr. would often watch movies from the balcony when he visited his father’s office. Johnson, who died in 2014, said in interviews that he learned to read by following the words on the screen.
The Attucks even experimented with integrated audiences by permitting white people to attend its Friday midnight shows. The city of Norfolk, however, passed an ordinance in November 1922 to stop the race-mixing.
The theater was renovated in 1929 to accommodate the new talkies.
With the Depression, the business changed hands and closed briefly in 1933. It reopened the following year with new paint and a new name to reflect a modern African American hero – the Booker T. Theatre. It was named after Booker T. Washington, who died in 1915, but was regarded for his rise from slavery in Virginia, founding a college, and helping open a string of schools for African American students throughout the South.
The Booker T. held its own. It drew in jazz singers like Billie Holiday and held talent shows that enticed teens from other cities to break curfews and venture to Norfolk. One of them was a Portsmouth girl named Ruth Brown. By the mid-1950s, Brown was an international star who wore the crown of “Miss Rhythm.”
The Booker T. closed in 1953 as the post-World War boom afforded black people the luxury to spend their money elsewhere. In 1955, the building reopened as Stark and Legum, which had operated a shop nearby for years but needed a new home.
The new owners remodeled the lobby to house clothes and a pawn shop. The wooden seats of the auditorium had already been removed, and the area was used as a warehouse. Boxes filled the stage and blocked the once-lustrous Crispus Attucks fire curtain.
A lawyer’s office, beauty parlor, a few other offices remained in the building. Charles Legum recalls hearing dental patients scream from the third floor.
By the late 1970s, the structure was one of the few buildings still standing along the corridor. The city bulldozed the blighted area around it in the name of progress. Fans of the Attucks didn’t forget it, though. It was nominated and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and bought by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority in 1986.
Stark and Legum moved to Granby Street in 1990. Later that year former Norfolk councilman Joseph N. Green and philanthropist Andrew Fine led a group that raised money to save the theater.
Charles Johnson – no relation to the architect – was a high school teacher interested in local history when he joined the group. He’d known the Attucks when it was Stark and Legum and he was a student at then-Norfolk State College in the early 1970s hitting its racks for the latest fashion. But he also knew it was a former theater; he had peeked into the warehouse during those shopping trips and saw the dilapidated stage and tarnished lanterns. He knew it held a special place in the heart of the community.
“Our mission was to save the Attucks and bring it back to the community,” he says.
Christian was completing her master’s degree at Norfolk State University in 1993 when she was offered the opportunity to research the Attucks history and work with the group. “I started as an intern,” she says, “and never left.”
She became the program manager for the Attucks’ renovation. It was work. The roof leaked so much that it was beyond repair. Termites had eaten into the fire curtain and mildew had turned Crispus Attucks’ hair blue.
The buildings bones, some office doors, some light fixtures and the curtain were only a few of the original pieces that could be saved and restored. The state, city, preservation tax credits and private fundraising eventually totaled the more than $8 million needed to rebuild and expand. A three-story wing was added to include banquet rooms and green rooms for the entertainers.
It opened in 2004 to seat more than 600 people in red-velvet chairs found at a theater built about the same time as the Attucks.
Big bands play here again. Couples rent its banquet rooms for weddings. Pharrell’s local foundation, From One Hand to AnOTHER, used the Attucks this year for its summer camp.
Charles Johnson, now vice chair of the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, helped organize a two-day celebratory bash in early October that drew hundreds of people who toasted the theater and reminisced.
The Attucks is, again, the community center it was built to be.