The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South
The musicians of the greatest caliber performed here, great players, play here. Going out and here's somebody like Duke Ellington or Cap Calaway or Nat King Cole or Lewis Armstrong. I can't even possibly imagine what it would be like sitting in a restaurant, standing up and going walk into a theater and hear Lewis Armstrong right down the street in my neighborhood. It was a place of great entertainment in a segregated south. This is what they had and they had the best. This was before the Apollo. I would describe that as a theater as a national and state historic place. For young people today these lobby names in history might send some of them to Google.
These are the greatest of the great artists of all time and they were at this place. When I sit back and think who was all part of that performance calendar, that gives me goosebumps really. But Duke was, without question, one of the biggest artists and most respected artists that they've had in that building. Until to 1919 the history of the addict's theater is rich. From the legendary performance it drew to the impact it had on a people during a tumultuous time in American history. The developers were a group of black business leaders known as the Twin City Amusement Corporation. They called on Harvey Johnson a 26 year old architect to build the theater not only with this unique structure serve as a venue for top notch artists. It would double as a movie house and provide office space for African American businesses. Once completed Johnson himself occupied one of those spaces.
Harvey Johnson is probably one of the most interesting characters. He went to the Carnegie School of Architecture. He went to this white company to get a job and they wouldn't even give him a bench. So he went into the military and landed at Norfolk Naval Shipyard where he became a dress man. As soon as the war result he started his construction business. As an architect his unique style and attention to detail shown through as he took on what would soon become a focal point of Norfolk's black community. In those days it was rare for a performance center to be built that's designed for a listening environment for the black community because dance was heavy in the black community. So for a theater to be built specifically for the purposes of listening like the white audiences were doing for symphonic music they were used to going and sitting and listening to the orchestra's performance but that wasn't commonplace for the black community.
Johnson was one of only a handful of black architects in Virginia during that time. From a historical perspective that was one of the first in the country that the architect was an African American. It was a building designed and paid for by African American money and featured predominantly African American performers. He built structures across the region including several banks and numerous churches. Johnson worked diligently in his community and was a founding member of what is now Norfolk State University. In the day they did not have amplification and this theater was built perfectly to the size where a person could stand on the stage and speak in a normal voice and be heard. As in many African American communities across the US it was important that the new theater be named after an African American hero.
They decided to name it after Christmas addicts. The first American to lose his life in the Revolutionary War. A scene from Boston Massacre is painted on the theater curtain which shows the red coats advancing and the fallen Patriot Christmas addicts on the ground. An honor to Christmas addicts who is leader and voice that day. The first to defy in the first to die with Maverick, Carr and Gray. His breast was the first one ripped apart that Liberty Stream might flow. For our freedom now and forever his head was the first bit low. This was the time when the state of Virginia passed legislation that put into place very strong policies of segregation. Many African Americans were looking for ways in which the community could rally around their heroes.
Once the doors opened the addicts was an instant sensation. For many of the biggest stars suddenly Norfolk was the place to be. These were the artists who were reshaping the landscape of American music. But now here comes someone like Bessie Smith. Now all of sudden blues takes on a specific form. She reshaped the whole landscape of the blues. Portsmouth native Ruth Brown also graced the addicts stage along with memorable voices like Saravan and Billy Holiday. It was the place, I mean people came from other places in the country to visit the Harlem of the South is what they dubbed it.
The Harlem of the South was, you know, in church street was that main artery of it and there were all kinds of professional and businesses. The cab was more than just a singer, an actor, dancer, fabulous dancer. He was just the consummate entertainer. Funny had a wicked sense of humor and the cab was one of the first artists that brought that element into a musical performance. He would engage his band sometimes in conversation, they would have these skits worked out. So there was this deep humor element into what sound it was, it was a truly entertaining show watching him. He was high energy from the moment he came on the stage, the moment he left and they all dressed to the knives.
Among the list of addicts' grates was Ella Fitzgerald. In addition to her powerful voice, she improvised wordless melodies and rhythms flawlessly. For African-American audiences, the addicts was also their movie house. All of the early African-American movies, especially the silent movies, they were shown at the addicts. Harvey Johnson Jr. recalls leaving his father's office, which was on the third floor of the addicts and walking across the hall to the theatre's balcony to watch the silent films. I would always come at the time that the Westerns would be, you know, Tom Bix and all those words, and that organist could keep up with the action and actually do create the sounds, the horses hoofs, the grandshops and so on.
But you needed to know what the people were saying and the organist couldn't do that. So that the screen would have on it, the words that were being said, which have occurred. And we had to learn how to read it. If you couldn't read it, you just had to sit down and look at the action or sitting beside somebody who could read. Things began reading early during those days, I knew I did. For a decade, the stars came and the crowds grew. Inside the addicts was a star-steaded wonderland, while outside, hard times were coming. When a great depression hit, the market crashed, you know, the black entrepreneurs that were investing and spending money in that area. They would have had no money or if they had it, they weren't spending it. People lost their jobs and the first to go were black folks and they didn't have, unless they had their own business or were employed by businesses, they had no support.
Even with the crash of 29 and all that came with the great depression, if you could save a dime or a dollar, you'd spend it at the addicts. I don't think that people realized that the addicts theater played multiplicity roles in the community or its importance on church street. Like most of the segregated south, Norfolk was divided, when Granby Street were white consumer shopped, blacks were not welcomed. But the black community had church street, where there were black banks, shops, restaurants, doctors and lawyers to serve their needs, and the beating heart of church street was the addicts theater. It was central to the heartbeat and lifeblood of that business community. It was not only a place of entertainment, it was a place of community.
The music, the movies, the entertainment, the parade, I can just remember it's just being a very exciting place and it was an opportunity to do things that you couldn't do because of the segregated society around you. It was that mecca, that place where you could just hear yourself. For the church street community, having top-notch performers walk through your neighborhood, made quite an impression. You recognize there was a world beyond where you live and people were doing positive things there. You knew there was another life and the gave you something to exemplify in the Emily. The owners of the addicts theater took care to change with the times. As the motion picture industry evolved, the addicts was renovated to accommodate the new talking pictures. The addicts theater shut down in 1933 for extensive renovations and it reopened and then
you saw by the following year, it was now called the Booker T. People that came to Booker T, you didn't just leave work and go there and see the moves. You had to go home and change your clothes to come into the Booker T. Of course you didn't go in there like that. When they walk up to the women and say, give me a ticket, I'd have them to take it. And then, about a minute or so, they're back and getting to meet one. I knew the management and management won't go and let them go in there. So the manager would just tell them, go home, change clothes and come back. By 1940, the fortunes of Norfolk were on the rise. Bonnie McKeechin opened a 12-room hotel up the street from the addicts and was so busy that in six months' time she had to move to a location with twice as many rooms. She named it the Plaza Hotel. I need double the amount that I did have because I stayed still all the time. And most of the time, people were waiting.
I wanted to check out so they could check in. We as kids would see the great entertainer come in. They all stayed up the street from me. Well, there were a lot of stories about a lot of the artists that came in to know that they would all stay at the body of McGeech's in the Plaza Hotel. Anybody of color, that's where you had to stay. They named it the home away from home. If they were in 50-mile res or 75 miles, you know, they would drive 100 miles to get right back to the street that night and even have to head to get up the next day and move out. They all lived at the Plaza. People like Duke Ellison, they would order from New York, the steaks these morning. My husband would go and call the ambulance and have him cut for him and ready for it. They set up all night long, rehearsed. One time he would make songs that were recorded, like yakking the yak by the coasters that
was made right in the dining room. When the performers weren't taking center stage, local talent got their chance. It was at one of those showcases that Terence Effor Anderson's parents first caught each other's eye. My mom and dad met at a talent show at the Atix Theatre in the early 40s and my father happened to be there in uniform, he was in the Navy, he was a sailor, and he came over and thus began a great love of hair that had done it for some kind of five years of marriage. It was running back in the day, man, back there, especially, Church Street. For Gary U.S. Barnes, who would later go on to become a star himself, seeing performers of this magnitude walk through the community and later take center stage at the Atix, was all he needed to know what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The Atix didn't inspired me to my mom's favorite and she took me to the Atix book team
called himself. I gave her day to see Bull Moose Jackson and average Johanna. That was my first concert, the lights came on and all the guys came out with the shiny suits on and different colors and everything and then the girls started screaming and yelling for them. That's what I wanted to do. That's exactly what I wanted to do in life, I like that stuff. The second world war brought a boom to Norfolk with its naval base and shipyards. Black sailors and soldiers back from the war had money to spend.
But with the changing times, they had more places to spend it. Opportunities opened up beyond Church Street. We started seeing the never-people on Church Street, they were not shopping, they were not attending the movies and then all of a sudden I was allowed to go over to Granby Street. And there was the Lowe's and there was the Norva and there was the Granby's and yes, they were much larger than the theaters on Church Street. And now they're attending, you know, the other African Americans were going there, but then also you would go back to Church Street and you could see the change. He's doubted by the changing times, the addicts theater closed its doors in 1953. What was once the glittering jewel of Church Street became a men's clothing store and pawn shop.
The look at the theater, which is now the addicts theater, had been closed for about two or three years and they were happy to sell it to us. When I looked at that building, it was huge, couldn't imagine what we would do with it. Architects came in and we got at the first floor, leveled it off to the street level and installed a retail operation in the front. The backside, they removed all the seats and the backside was used for storage. I remember thinking then, you know, how tragic it was to this historical record and this treasure was being used as a warehouse. For 35 years, Stark and Legham occupied the building along with a handful of black professionals who still occupied the upper floors. My father had a law office in the addicts theater and as I was thinking back about it, probably from the middle 1950s until the middle 1960s.
Meanwhile, all around them, businesses like the Plaza Hotel fell to the bulldozer. I can never forget the tears that slowed that day. It was burning and they told me the next day that I wouldn't be able to operate it again. I'd have to tear it down and rebuild. And that particular time, my husband was ill and I knew there was one of the things that we couldn't afford. Norfolk was determined to rebuild. It was out with the old to make room for new buildings and wider roads. And neglected now blighted neighborhoods like the Church Street Quarter were the first to go. But the memory of the addicts theater would not rest. In 1982, the addicts was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A group of community and business leaders determined to reverse the decay of the ones vibrant Church Street envisioned a new addicts theater. It would take time and money.
The Christmas addicts cultural center board was formed. They called on Father Joseph Green and Andrew Fine to leave the fundraising charge. I had left the city council, but I had left with the statement from the council that if we raised the money for the addicts theater, whatever we raised, they would match it, dollar for dollar. Because somebody was wise enough to suggest that Andrew Fine could work with me to find the money we needed to restore the addicts. They had barely begun raising funds when new architectural drawings made it clear they'd need to double the amount of money planned, $8.4 million. It was a huge challenge and we knew how we had to chip away at it and had to get the banking community behind us, that was a typical way money was raised. For a Texco, which was a company that did the restorations, they got into it. The only thing holding up the ceiling was their imagination with a bad, bad shape.
The ceiling was the thing that we thought we could use. We couldn't use any of it, it had to be replaced. I was up in the balcony making the pitch about all the reasons why he should give us a substantial amount of money. Just like it had been planned, that panel came from the roof straight down to the floor. It was a gift from heaven. And I'd never stopped talking, I just kept on talking like, no, that was a normal event here. The ceiling was falling and the thing gave us a very substantial gift. I don't know whether he ever got over it, but I certainly wasn't used by it. Atix Project Manager Denise Christian says the restoration was done in three phases. The first phase, we abated hazardous materials in the building and replaced the roof. Also during that time, we cleaned and encapsulated the historic fire curtain.
The second phase, too, was the reconstruction of the box seats, the balcony, bringing in state-of-the-art light equipment and sound equipment and rigging equipment. The third phase was the construction of a new wing on the back of the building. So we developed three floors, banquet rooms, green room and dressing rooms were installed, and the loading dock was built at the back of the building. For more than 50 years, the Atix stage had been silent, but in October of 2004, the theater opened once again, bringing in Grammy winners, went in Marcellus, Al Jaro, and many more. It also brought back the legends, like Ruth Brown and Gary U.S. bonds, who came to the theater as children. I remember coming in this theater, at the Book of Key it was called in, and I was up here
one night, trying to get on the amateur hour of my day to walk right down the aisle. He said, all right, come on, come on. In those days, you didn't have to get home, he took that bell off right then. When you walk out on that stage and then you take for a moment to think what preceded you and who was actually on that stage before you, it's easy to think about it. I talked out a lot, I've had people ask me who I was talking to, and I said, well, I'm talking to some very powerful spirits here, because there's a lot of spirits in this room that's passed through here, and have left their mark, and it's like an honor and a blessing for me to be on that stage performing, and it's one of my favorite venues to play. One hundred years later, Harvey Johnson's dream of creating a place where quality entertainers could perform, and the community could come together, lives on, and the dreamers who
refused to allow the center of the community to fade away, can say with pride that the addict's theater carries on. You have opportunity for Norfolk performers and entertainers and creators to be on stage. It's a spectacular time for the community to embrace our young performers. I was very excited to be here. It was the only time I could really come here and do something I really want to do for the rest of my life. This show was a Christmas Carol. I was a junior in high school, and this was the last year that I was performing at the addict's theater, and I played Fred. Well, I remember when they first let down the backdrop, and we saw the addicts soldier up there, and I was so shocked and amazed by it. The fact that it wasn't in a museum, but it was here in the actual building. At that moment, I knew that I was a part of something that was bigger than me.
It still has that old feel to it. It's hard to find that. It's a special, cultural, spiritual place. Every time I go in there, I feel it. Just to dress up, man, and be on stage with the lights in you, that was it. Look at you, addicts. Well, come on, everybody take a trip with me. Well, down the Mississippi, down to New York, there were a lot of stories, I can't really tell. Thank God Denise came along at the right time. Denise didn't raise a lot of money, but she had to spend it all.
I said I, yeah, I'll go away, stay home, take a store down the beside the streets. They told me, who could have out in the harbour? Call the people of slowing down coming to the seats. I say, that must be my free. The heaven's in you living there. They got the rich, most famous. Bring that doghouse music, I love it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
- Producing Organization
- WHRO (Television station : Norfolk, Va.)
- Contributing Organization
- WHRO (Norfolk, Virginia)
- AAPB ID
- Program Description
- One of Hampton Roads' greatest treasures, the Attucks Theatre, turns 100 years old. Musicians of the greatest caliber have performed at the Attucks, legends like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole just to name a few. The 600 seat venue was an instant source of pride to Norfolk's Black Community. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
- Other Description
- "The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South" was produced in partnership with the City of Norfolk, Norfolk State University, and the Virginia Arts Festival.
- Broadcast Date
- Asset type
- Media type
- Moving Image
Producing Organization: WHRO (Television station : Norfolk, Va.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: ATTUCKSTHEATRE-WHRO (WHRO)
Format: Hard Drive
Identifier: cpb-aacip-535-c24qj7957r.mov.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South,” 2019-02-08, WHRO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 4, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-535-c24qj7957r.
- MLA: “The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South.” 2019-02-08. WHRO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 4, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-535-c24qj7957r>.
- APA: The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South. Boston, MA: WHRO, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-535-c24qj7957r