By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
As a teen during the 1950s, Malcolm Avery would join family members and friends to watch movies on the Norfolk Attucks Theatre screen featuring Roy Rogers or enjoy the live acts of a young James Brown or Gary U.S. Bonds under the Attucks’ stage lights.
There also were performances by local aspiring artists such as the Showmen and concert recitals by talented youth such as Roger Williams.
Avery recalls talent shows organized by students from Booker T. Washington High School and Ruffner Middle School, as well as stunt nights staged by adults where they showed off their singing and dancing.
“It’s a shame we do not have that for our children anymore,” said Avery, an NSU grad, former physical education teacher in the Norfolk Public Schools, and Head Basketball Coach at Hampton University before retiring as the school’s Athletic Director in 2005.
Avery said his parents owned a home at Church and C Streets across from the Plaza Hotel, the only Black-owned hotel in the city.
The Plaza was owned by businesswoman Bonnie McEachin and Avery recalls getting a glimpse of the stars, who were housed as they let down their hair before and after performing at the Attucks blocks away.
“I was too young to go in there (the hotel) unless I was escorted by my parents to have dinner because they sold liquor in there,” said Avery. “I recall one night me and some buddies sneaked in … we remember Ruth Brown and her friends carrying on and having fun.”
This year the city of Norfolk is celebrating its centennial, organized by the city’s Attucks Centennial celebration Commission (ACCC), named by Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander earlier this year.
Several events were scheduled to highlight its historical and cultural importance featuring national music artists and figures, such as sports legend and author Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who will appear in November.
But, as we speak, a team of local artists and civic activists are busily organizing a “community” event to recognize the historic theater as a venue of entertainment.
Park Place Civic leader Charles Johnson, who is a member of the ACCC and key organizer, said the two-night event will turn the spotlight on the Attucks’ history and legacy with music, dance and portrayals or vignettes of the life and work of artists and other historic figures who appeared on the theater’s stage from the 1920s to 2004, when it was reopened on October 4-5 after years of dormancy.
Originally opened in 1919, the Attucks was the entertainment playhouse of Hampton Roads for African-Americans during its heyday.
The music of Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown James Brown and the work of others will be on display October 4 and 5, 2019.
Local historic figures such as businesswoman and hotel owner McEachin will make an appearance as a host of her longtime friend Louis Armstrong at her home along the Lafayette River.
“This is what the Attucks was all about,” said Dudley Colbert, who was assigned the task by the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center (CACC) group and the ACCC to organize the upcoming event with local artists. “If you listen to the narration on both nights of the event, you will be educated and entertained at the same about the history and purpose of that theater.”
“It was about Blacks empowering themselves to showcase their genius, their art, their music, their acting, dancing, and entrepreneurship,” said Colbert. “This show will encapsulate all of that and its history for two nights.”
A narrator will guide the audience through the show both nights. The first will focus on the Attucks from 1920 to the end of the 1930s.
The second night, the focus will continue until the early 1950s when it ceased operating as a theater. Several years after it closed in 1953, it housed the Stark and Legum men’s clothing store, Black-owned now and located on Granby, until efforts began to revive its original use.
While it was originally named the Attucks, after the former Black slave, Crisps Attucks who was among the first to die at the onset of the Revolutionary War, many natives remember it as the “Booker T” Theater before it closed its doors as a theater in 1953.
The Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, an organization founded by former Norfolk Councilman and Vice Mayor Joseph Green raised millions to have it restored and that became a reality during its grand re-opening in 2004.
Known as the Apollo of the South, the Attucks during its heyday was devised, financed, constructed and operated by a partnership of Black civic and business leaders in Norfolk and Portsmouth.
The Twin Cities Amusements Corporation raised the financing, hired the architect Harvey Johnson to design it, and when it was finally built in 1919, the company was the first of several entities to own and operate it.
“The city has invited many national people to come and speak and perform in that theater,” said Johnson. “The local Black community back in the day created the theater. Why not allow the current community to be a part of the celebration of that work 100 years later.”
Over local 35 artists, including the Golden Gate Quartet, which will provide most of the music for the show, will be contributing to this trip down a historic memory lane said, Johnson.
Colbert, who was the Chief Librarian at Norfolk’s historic Blyden Library for several decades, is the Producing Artistic Director for the event.
The narrator, who will have acting part will be long-time Thespian and educator Vincent Epps, and Regina Sanford, who is also a local actor and writer conceived of the script for the show.
“I am very excited about being a part of the local talent who reclaim the history and the legacy of this historic theater for two nights,” said Epps, who is retired from teaching, but has over 30 years on the local stages dancing, acting and directing. “We will wave in music, dance and acting together with local and national history – Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald or Old comedic acts such as Butterbean and Susy.”
Tickets for both nights are free and can be obtained at the SevenVenues or EventBrite websites, and the Jordan Newby Library.