Beloved local venue The Norva, turning 20, has had its share of special moments.
By Denise M. Watson
It’s almost appropriate that Rick Mersel’s plans to mark The Norva’s 20th anniversary in April went awry. This time it was the coronavirus. Twenty years ago, it was fire officials.
Mersel and his then-business partner had poured more than $4 million into renovating and updating the nearly 80-year-old building, with plans to open on a Monday in late April. But as the big night approached, they still lacked the required permits.
Several days went by and still no permits. In fact, Mersel barely managed to get a temporary, 12-hour permit, before the Friday night show. “We got it three hours before James Brown hit the stage,” he says.
And that is how the Godfather of Soul inadvertently became The Norva’s inaugural act. That was more than 3,200 shows ago. Since then, the venue has grown into a beloved local institution and national darling, one that occupies a rare spot in the word of music; small enough for up-and-coming bands like The Last Bison from Chesapeake, but big enough for headliners like Willie Nelson, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West.
Hang around the music industry long enough and you will have a filing cabinet full of stories – and Mersel does, most of them involving famous names like Prince and Slash. But really, the best stories about The Norva, Mersel says, come from the people who saw their first concerts at the music hall and now bring their kids to shows.
Mersel fell into the business of music when he started running video shows and a concert series at Tulane University in New Orleans in the late 1980s. He returned home to Hampton Roads and jumped in deeper, launching Off The Record Entertainment in 1991. Mersel opened The Bayou night club in Virginia Beach in the late 1990s and became a booking agent for now-defunct Cellar Door Productions.
He took what he learned in that time and applied it to a new idea, an intimate concert house in downtown. The spot would have to compete with The Boathouse, which sat near Harbor Park, had a loyal fan base, and pulled in old and new talent like Pat Benatar and Jay-Z.
But downtown Norfolk was experiencing another reincarnation. Tidewater Community College established its Norfolk campus in 1997 and MacArthur Center opened in March 1999. Mersel and his team selected a vacant four-story building on Monticello Avenue that had served as a gym for almost 20 years, first as the Downtown Racquet Club and then the Downtown Athletic Club. In its first life, however, it was the Norva theater which opened in 1922. The building still had the wrought iron, detailed molding and exposed brick from when it had seated 2,000 and featured an 18-piece orchestra to score movies.
It had the potential to be a destination all its own, which Mersel thought was needed. “Let’s face it, no one has to play Norfolk, Virginia, to further their careers,” he says. “We had to give them a reason to make a left off of I-95 to come here.”
Mersel and his team embraced the old character of the building. The wood floor that once held aerobics classes was redone with reclaimed planks from a 250-year-old barn outside of Richmond. They decided to forego fixed seating to allow room for dancing and create a better flow from the first floor to a second-story balcony area, which was renovated to include a bar area and bathrooms.
When it came to sound, however, planners went modern. They installed a cutting-edge V-DOSC system, which at the time was the second on the East Coast.
And for the entertainers, The Norva would provide a sprawling floor with a sauna, hot tub, a game room and a basketball court where they could shoot hoops and unwind. It even included a washer and dryer for roadies, and a masseuse and doctor on call. Food could be prepared in-house or ordered in.
Kathie Moore, who earned the name “Music Mother” for revolutionizing the local scene, says she has heard from acts that the green-room amenities of The Norva were unlike any they’d seen at even bigger spots, including New York and Los Angeles.
“They always said it was fun to have that kind of space to unwind,” says Moore, who hired Mersel to work at Cellar Door Productions. “You don’t find that kind of hospitality anywhere.”
For guests, Mersel’s team created a VIP program with its own private lounge, seating, bathrooms and entrance. People could also eat before shows at the rock-themed Norfolk Backstage Café that opened facing Granby Street.
“We know they’re spending their money in here,”
Mersel says. “Why not give them good food? Why not give them good facilities? Why not give them good sightlines and the best sound that they can possibly hear?”
Mersel’s idea worked so well that within a year of opening, he received a call from a representative for Prince, one of the biggest music stars in the world. The icon was on his 2000 “Hit N Run” tour and the rep told Mersel that they’d heard about his spot. It sounded like the type of intimate setting the eclectic artist was looking for.
“He called us up … and said, “Whatever you have on Tuesday clear it out. I’m coming,” Mersel says. “That was that and it had nothing to do with anything other than our reputation.”
And that reputation would continue to grow over the years. In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine picked The Norva as one of the top five venues in America. By 2013, it topped the list.
Bartt Barnes of Virginia Beach saw his first concert in 2009 there, an all-star slate with Kid Cudi, Asher Roth and Kanye West. Barnes is now a professional DJ who goes by the name Fake Uzumi. He has performed throughout Hampton Roads and calls The Norva a musician’s dream. “A lot of DJs like it because of how loud it can get,” he said, “you can literally feel the floor shaking there.”
Charles Rasputin, a Norfolk-based musician, was 20 when The Norva opened. He has both helped put on events at the venue and attended them. One thing that stands out to him is how diverse the music selection can be there, from electronic to rap to punk. “That’s the magic of The Norva he says. “It has made a place for everyone.”
He now has an 18-year-old stepson and they can go to shows together; the venue’s open dance floor allows his son to roam and not stick under Dad the whole night. “People are hurting for spaces that are holy spots for them and music is one of our spiritual experiences,” Rasputin says. “I’m grateful to have had that for the last 20 years.”