ABOUT VIRGINIA STAGE COMPANY AND THE WELLS THEATRE
Designed by the New York firm of E. C. Horn and Sons, the Wells Theatre is significant both as a representative of early 20th-century popular culture and as an outstanding example of Beaux Arts theatre architecture in Virginia. The Wells was built in 1912 and served as the opulent flagship for Wells Amusement Enterprises, a string of forty vaudeville theaters owned by Jake and Otto Wells throughout the South. The poured-in-place, steel-reinforced concrete structure was technologically advanced for the period, while the ornate decoration that is still visible today is a well-preserved example of Beaux-Arts neoclassicism.
On August 26, 1913, the Wells opened to a full house with The Merry Countess, a Schubert musical. In 1916, Jake Wells installed a movie screen and projector, making the Wells the most dazzling, first-run movie house in the southeast, although theatrical bookings continued to occupy most of the Theatre’s schedule. Many of America’s leading performers appeared at the Wells: John Drew, Maude Adams, Otis Skinner, John Philip Sousa, Billie Burke, Fred and Adele Astaire, and Will Rogers, among many others. Throughout the Great Depression, the Wells continued to stage vaudeville shows and movies. By the beginning of World War II, burlesque was added to the Theatre’s repertoire, which provided a steady source of income by attracting thousands of sailors stationed in Norfolk. Moviegoers of the 1940s and 50s remember its double and triple features. In the 1960s, the Wells shared in the general decline of downtown Norfolk by converting to an X-rated movie house and occasionally staging live burlesque shows. The backstage area became the Jamaican Room, one of Norfolk’s infamous gin mills and brothels. The Wells was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The Theatre originally had 1,650 seats with 12 boxes and three balconies. The top balcony served as a segregated balcony "For Negro Audiences Only," and had its own entrance and box office. A system of stairs made inside access easy, allowing waiters from Wong Ping's Chinese Restaurant to serve patrons on the second floor roof garden before and after performances. The downstairs lobby facing Tazewell Street housed Doumar's Cones and BBQ's first location in Norfolk.
VSC has grown to be a highly respected regional theatre company, attracting artists from Broadway, off-Broadway, and other leading theaters across the country, as well as from the worlds of film and television. Recent highlights include a groundbreaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Virginia Symphony, the world premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical, The Secret Garden, Steven Schwartz’s Snapshots, and Lanie Robertson’s Nobody Lonesome for Me.
Virginia Stage Company produces a main stage subscription series consisting of six productions (with special matinee performances for students) and the annual holiday classics, A Christmas Carol and The Santaland Diaries. Our Education & Community Engagement Department has a series of touring productions and educational programs for students in schools throughout Hampton Roads. We provide infrared listening devices, signed performances, and wheelchair accessibility. Through all of its programs, VSC strives to enrich the lives of the people of Hampton Roads through the production of theatrical art of the highest quality.
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The Virginia Stage Company acknowledges the Chesepioc, Nansemond and other peoples of the Powhatan Tribes as the original stewards of this land, taken by conquest, on which the Wells Theater now stands. The descendants of these indigenous people still live among us. We thank them for their forbearance and for the enjoyment and education this space affords all people seeking justice and wisdom.
VSC likewise acknowledges the injustice done to Black and other people of color during the unconscionable era of segregation when this theater divided and distanced its patrons by separating their seating areas (Blacks in the balcony; whites in the orchestra). May we learn from grave errors of the past to build a just and more loving society.