Attucks Theatre

Posted on March 7, 2022

Attucks Theatre
Voting for the 2022 Best Places in Local Government (aka the #ELGLKnope) Round of 32 opens on March 7, 2022 and closes at midnight PT on Friday, March 11, 2022. One vote per person. Learn more about this award online.

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Attucks Theatre

Norfolk, Virginia 23510 

  • Online 
  • Year(s)/Era: 1919 
  • Type of Place: Theatre  
  • Nomination: We proudly nominate the Attucks Theatre for the ELGL award. The Attucks Theatre is one of seven properties owned and managed by SevenVenues, the City of Norfolk’s Department of Cultural Facilities, Arts and Entertainment, Located on Norfolk’s historic Church Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in the city, the Attucks Theatre was originally known as the “Apollo of the South.”

    Designed by African-American architect Harvey Johnson, the theatre opened in 1919 and showcased a host of legendary performers such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Mamie Smith, Nat King Cole, and Redd Foxx from 1920-1953. For 34 years, the theatre remained a vibrant performing arts facility but ceased functioning in 1953. In 1977, the United States Congress deemed The Attucks Theatre a National Historic Landmark, and after a restoration period of three years and through the diligent efforts of a public/private partnership, the theatre reopened in 2004. The theatre was successfully restored and expanded to continue to educate, entertain and enlighten audiences for years to come.

    SevenVenues nominates the Attucks for this prestigious award to highlight and celebrate its compelling history and to introduce this inspirational venue to new audiences. 
  • Most notable attribute(s): The history of the Attucks Theatre is locally and nationally significant. Constructed in 1919, the Attucks was the brainchild of the Twin City Amusement Corporation, an enterprise of Black businessmen from Norfolk and Portsmouth who developed the Attucks on Church Street as a regional mecca for entertainment and commerce.  Their vision was to develop a cultural center in the heart of the minority community where the citizens would be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserved. The theatre was largely financed by two local Black-owned institutions, the Brown Savings Bank and the Tidewater Trust Company.

    The building was named in honor of Crispus Attucks, an African American who was the first to die in the Boston Massacre, the first battle of the Revolutionary War. As a symbol of heroic sacrifice in the struggle for human equality, Attucks gave meaning to the experience of that generation that fought on behalf of democratic ideals abroad during World War I only to return to the reality of racial segregation in America. The original fire curtain, painted with a scene of Attucks’ death, survives in the theatre and was restored as a part of the building renovation.

    Harvey N. Johnson, a noted African American architect, was selected to design this facility. Born in Richmond’s Jackson Ward, the son of a successful carpenter, Johnson was educated at Virginia Union University in Richmond and the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. In 1919  at the age of 26, he moved to Norfolk to design and supervise the building of the Attucks Theatre. Mr. Johnson became the first African American to serve on the Portsmouth City School Board, and he was one of the founders of what is now Norfolk State University. His original architectural drawings are housed in the Library of Virginia.

    When it opened in grand fashion in 1920, the Attucks Theatre showcased legitimate theatre (plays), vaudeville, and movies. A host of legendary performers graced the Attucks stage including Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Redd Foxx, Dizzy Gillespie, Smokey Robinson, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, and many more outstanding artists of the day.

    Though heralded for its cultural contributions, the Attucks provided many other valued services to the community.  It was a great platform for advocating social and political change. Enterprise was a major function of the complex, accommodating the offices of leading doctors, dentists, attorneys, realtors, and other professionals. It ceased to function as a theatre in the mid-1950s.

    Shuttered as a theater for more than 50 years, the Attucks reopened on October 16, 2004, following a major capital fundraising campaign to which the citizens and corporate community in Virginia generously contributed. A diverse lineup of performers has since graced the Attucks stage showcasing all genres of speakers, music, theatre, dance, and comedy. Celebrations honoring the Attucks 100th anniversary took place throughout the 2019 centennial year.

    The Attucks is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. It is distinguished as the oldest remaining legitimate theatre in the nation that was completely financed, designed, constructed, and operated by African Americans. 
  • Special designations or recognitions: * In 1977, the United States Congress deemed The Attucks Theatre a National Historic Landmark.
    * The Livas Group Architects. P.C. designed the renovation and expansion of the Attucks Theatre.  In 2005 The Livas Group won the Hampton Roads Association for Commercial Real Estate Excellence in Development Design Awards Program, First Honor Award in Best Renovated/Historic Rehabilitation Category for the Attucks Theatre.
    * Additionally in 2005, The Livas Group Architects won the AIA Hampton Roads Design-Honor Awards, Design Achievement for Preservation of the Attucks Theatre.
    * Virtexco Corporation was the general contractor for the Attucks renovation and is a 2005 award recipient for its work on the Attucks.
    * On August 8, 2020, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presented WHRO Public Media’s talented team of producers an Emmy® Award Award for their work on the documentary, The Historic Attucks Theater: Apollo of the South. One of Hampton Roads’ most beloved treasures, the legendary Attucks Theatre celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2019. Commissioned by the City of Norfolk and produced by WHRO,  The Historic Attucks Theater: Apollo of the South premiered at the Attucks Theatre in February 2019 to rave reviews and subsequent airings on WHRO TV. It was produced with support from major contributors including the Virginia Arts Festival, Norfolk State University, the City of Norfolk and SevenVenues.
  • Three words to describe: Legendary, Historic, Cultural 
  • Anything else to share? 

Local Government:

City of Norfolk 

Norfolk, Virginia 23510 

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