Richmond music promoter Brad Wells visited the dormant, now 84-year-old National Theater for the first time in late 2004.
"The National, to be honest, I didn't know it even existed until I saw it," Wells says.
Wells and his business partners have since established a personal relationship with the theater. In the next year, they will open a performance venue on downtown Broad Street, the first in decades.
The Perfect Conversion
Dave Peterson, known to many Richmonders as the bass player and a songwriter for the band Fighting Gravity, is a longtime friend and business associate of Wells. He's brought his organizational skills to the Innsbrook concert series handled by Wells and Wells' Monacan High School classmate Laurin Willis. Peterson will be the National's general manager. "That Richmond has been without a marquee venue for so long, and that the National has lain fallow for so long, is kind of unbelievable. It's the perfect conversion of moments," Peterson marvels.
That a 1923 Broadway-style performance house still stands in central Richmond is testimony to several guardian angels, the most recent being the Historic Richmond Foundation. The nonprofit preservation group, in collaboration with the then-separate William Byrd Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and other investors, purchased the north side of the 700 block of East Broad Street in 1989 for $2.1 million. If HRF-APVA hadn't, the National and the adjacent Colonial would've become parking lots. Instead, the Colonial's façade and lobbies formed a portion of a state office tower. The National remained in metaphorical mothballs for almost 17 years.
About the time of the purchase, Jim Whiting, an HRF board member and retired Anderson and Strudwick executive vice president, first took a flashlight tour of the place with state architectural historian Calder Loth and then-HRF executive director Jack Zehmer.
"At the time, buying the National was considered by some people as the dumbest thing Historic Richmond had ever done," Whiting recalls. "But what isn't known is, the retail shops on the first floor paid for the expenses of maintaining it. It's an excellent corner for retail."
What began as a small cleaning project on the mezzanine lobby turned into almost two decades of caring for the National. "I'd never set foot in the place before!" Whiting exclaims. "But once I started on it, well, I couldn't stop." He made sure the place stayed safe and dry, gave occasional tours, let a group hold a Surrealist film festival, but marked time until whoever knew what to do with an old theater came along.
Seventeen years later, in walked Brad Wells.
The James Madison University graduate came to Richmond for a job producing radio commercials. At various times he's booked for Innsbrook, Mulligan's, the Landmark Theater and the Carpenter Center, and he booked the last act to play the Flood Zone, Sixpence None The Richer. In 1993 he formed Sea of Sound, a nonprofit concert booking organization designed, as he says, "to make a positive influence and outreach to the community."
Then in 2003 he and business partner Willis, who started in music promotions with the Doobie Brothers, formed the for-profit James River Entertainment to provide music for such concert series as Innsbrook After Hours. In fall 2004 Willis and Wells, under the name of RIC Capital Ventures, bought the former Mulligan's sports bar on West Broad Street with Bill Reid, who co-founded the NorVa, a dynamic Norfolk venue.
Acts at the NorVa have ranged from Prince to Larry the Cable Guy, from Paul Westerberg to former Monty Pythonite Eric Idle. The NorVa's slogan: "Locally owned. Nationally known." It's no brag, just fact. Prince called the NorVa; the NorVa didn't go looking for him.
Meanwhile, the National Theater was folded into the plans of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation. That group wanted to build a center for theater and music diagonally across from the National. VAPAF included the National in its literature, but as a question mark, because the group hadn't devised a use for the place. While VAPAF wrestled with finances and political debates downtown, Wells, Willis and Reid looked at making something notable happen in the West End.
Reid started out working in high school with the Allman Brothers. In the 1980s he ran Cellar Door Productions in Richmond and later organized concerts at the Classic Amphitheatre and at the Virginia Beach Ntelos Pavilion.
"He's done more concerts than any living person in Richmond," Wells says. "He's done it all; and he's the captain of the NorVa ship. So he knows his business."
Wells, Willis and Reid were trying to turn the former Mulligan's in western Henrico County into a kind of roadhouse. Snags were cropping up with parking and zoning. Architect Scott Corwin, a partner with Johannas Design, was figuring out a way to fit a music venue into a building that had gone through its own incarnations of restaurants and shops. The attraction was a large space uninhibited by columns.
Birth of Cool
The NorVa's Reid explains that he was excited by the Mulligan's prospect because unlike national chains, part of the fun is creating a venue's character. "Mulligan's would've been a neat space," Reid says. "But it was limited by size and we would've had to create cool. I think the difference here is that the National emanates cool."
Once the partners met at the National, they made no other choice. It was made for them.
Whiting, the National's guardian, is thrilled that someone with good credentials owns the building. During the conversations between HRF and Capital Ventures, Whiting went to the NorVa to assure himself it wasn't just some scruffy beer hall.
"It's immaculate," Whiting says. "Billy Reid travels all over the world booking acts for that place. So it's an excellent fit."
In discussions with HRF, Reid wondered aloud about how many 16- to 20-year-olds have been in the Carpenter Center or the Landmark Theatre for anything other than school-related trips to see a ballet or play. In his view, here was the chance to make an elegant space into an environment that these younger (and older) people want to visit.
Reid says, "This hits the note, no pun intended, that the point of these buildings is to not just preserve them but show them off."
Parking was the other important component for a downtown location. The National, however, is fortunate to have three nearby car decks. The challenge is making arrangements for availability for evening performances.
C. Cary Brown, interim director of the city's economic development office, says the city has two roles with the National: coordinating bus stop issues during construction and negotiating for parking.
"This is going to provide nighttime activity that we haven't had on Broad Street since frankly when these theaters closed [in the early 1980s]," says Brown, adding that the National will fill the entertainment gap between Broad Street's restaurants and galleries.
Turning It Up to 11
Reid, Wells and Willis knew they liked the feel of the National, but they needed to take the theater for an aural test drive. On July 11, 2006, the Richmond alternative rock band Copper Sails kicked out the jams for a select, critical audience. The musicians "turned it up to 11" and cranked their tunes to about 120 decibels — jackhammer territory.
The acoustic readings exceeded expectations. The 1920s theater was built without amplification in mind. In Reid's view the National's design is wider instead of longer and that creates more space for the sound to unfold rather than tunnel.
"It's like opening a good bottle of wine," he says. "The sound has room to breathe."
The partners purchased the National from HRF on Sept. 1, 2006, for $1.6 million. HRF maintains an interest in the National Theater through a preservation easement, which stipulates that HRF approve of renovation and restorative treatments to be used in the adaptation. A considerable amount of money is going into the 1923 theater to make it a durable 21st-century entertainment venue.
"We're not certain what the total cost could be yet," Reid says, sounding upbeat, if somewhat weary. "It's going to be millions, obviously. Enough to make you go, ‘Whoa. How crazy are we?' "
RIC Capital Ventures prospectus papers give a figure of $10 million. The City of Richmond economic development office approximates the possible figure at $9 million.
Either way: whoa.
Laurin Willis says, "Here, we're returning the use to what it's supposed to be: an entertainment venue. That's what it was, and what it'll be again."
Standing in the sun on the sidewalk next to the National at Seventh and Broad streets, Willis is philosophic about the money and time going into the project. The group, in a bursting fit of optimism, predicted a fall '07 opening; now they are more circumspect. Maybe the first quarter of '08. Peterson says, "In all honesty I think at this point it would be disingenuous to speculate about when the National will open its doors."
All the National's people are well aware that at the Turning Basin in Shockoe the Lady Byrd Hat Factory is nearing the completion of its approximately $10 million conversion into a 1,500-person live-performance venue, with VIP sections, restaurant and a secondary stage floating in the canal. That venue is a Richmond-administrated offspring of New Haven, Conn.'s venerable Toad's Place. Announced in 2004, and having already produced some outdoor shows, the hall has pegged its opening to early June.
Willis, a cross-country runner in his high school days, says, "We weren't in a sprint to get the fastest opening. It's been 14 months since we gained control of the building. And so we want everything looking and working the way it ought to be."
Corwin, the architect, still manages to sound amazed when he tells how the entire National Theater was designed in 1923 with just one women's lounge with two toilets. Corwin shakes his head. Whether this met code in 1923 or whether architect C.K. Howell was exhibiting a certain lack of sensitivity isn't clear. The refurbished National will have about 50 toilets and urinals between the public and the VIP sections. Corwin says, "Sometimes it feels like all that we're doing is bars and bathrooms."
It isn't, though. Corwin has considered what to do with the paint schemes for the gamboling nymphs and satyrs and flowers that adorn the auditorium's balconies, boxes and proscenium. Figuring that the attention for the theater patrons would be directed to the stage, a moderate dark color would suffice. The tone is a deep purple named "Galaxy." Turns out when uncovering the original paint on the proscenium decorations, the hues matched. "That's the color it wants to be!" Corwin declared. "C.K. Howell knew where people's focus was going to be. So the front of the house is more rich, but it's not overdone."
Then there's the second-floor nursery found when HRF was stabilizing the structure. Its walls are covered by a wide band of hand-stenciled and painted murals of children's toys and puppets dangling from strings. The intriguing images are to be shielded from dust and glare using archival Plexiglas. The room will become a quiet lounge for the performing artists.
Rock 'n' roll lifestyle
Decorative details are one matter; making the theater work as a top-notch music venue that'll attract name acts is another. A defining difference between the National and other venues, say its re-invigorators, is the experience that the artists and patrons will share. The NorVa set the standard, and the full dream is to be realized here.
Beginning in the upper balcony, some 280 padded and fixed chairs with cup holders will be provided for patrons who want to sit, perhaps parents keeping an eye on their charges. "It'll be better than ballpark chairs," Corwin says, "but easy to keep clean." A bar with a window, etched with designs from the room's original décor, and made comfortable with couches and tables, will be off the balcony. A VIP section in the front of the balcony is to assure excellent views from chairs and banquettes. A few steps away will be the whorled marble and plush red velvet of the VIP bar. "We're thinking 1920s smoking lounge," Corwin says, except that no smoking is allowed at the National except in designated sections, outside the main rooms. One made a natural fit in an alley that is to become a courtyard with its own bar.
The National's accommodations for headliners and their inevitable support crews are to be exceptional. On the second floor, Seventh and Broad street side, artists will enjoy a steam room, a hot tub, the VIP bar and lounges. The crew can utilize a games room, cafeteria and laundry.
Peterson, who knows a bit about band travel, explains, "Let me tell you, if you can wipe that road vibe off, if you're on a multi-city tour, in a bus, or God forbid, a van, then you get to the National," he nods. "It's going to be an oasis for these people."
Wells says that the elaborate preparations aren't for the mere indulgence of star egos — because not every headliner is always accustomed to such treatment, nor asks for it. "Our philosophy is, if the artists who come to the National feel at their ease and completely taken care of, when they come out onto this stage, how can they not give a great performance?"
Similar to the NorVa a VIP membership will be offered that provides two transferable tickets for every National show and complete access to its VIP amenities. The cost should be around $5,000 — or priceless.
The present, well-worn staircase leading to the basement won't be the usual way to the lower level of a new restaurant. Instead, an elevator and new stair will be installed. The basement once housed a pool hall.
That's pool, like the trouble warned about in 76 Trombones ... "Right here in River City." The hypocritical concern underlying the song's humor (gritty pool as opposed to more aesthetic billiards) is revealed as Corwin points out a big hand-painted and vintage NO GAMBLING ALLOWED sign on the wall. It's almost assured that it'll be the backdrop for many, many pictures, including band press portraits.
And perhaps Corwin's favorite remaining pieces of the old place are the coat and hat hooks mounted on a column. "You'd snap them shut and lock them, so nobody would steal your hat while you were playing pool," he says, and smiles.
Pre-show diners at the National will be able to order, by phone and perhaps computer, and earn first-entry privileges for the auditorium. There's no fixed seating on the first floor meaning no hassle of finding a chair. Concertgoers can go from nosh to mosh.
The National team is, in Peterson's words, "striving to make as perfect a music experience as you can get in a space that size." An innovation is a stage floating above the National's original floorboards. The stage is being designed by Richmond-based Acoustics First, which has consulted on sites throughout the country but has not yet worked in Richmond.
The type of stage and amplification equipment is one part of the equation. Another is the rake of the wooden floor to be fitted over the auditorium's concrete. One March afternoon, National members spent more than two hours — and not for the first time — testing slanted sections to ensure everyone will be able to stand with comfort, see the stage and hear.
"Those are decisions you can't change once they're made," Peterson says.
The National's management team will locate its administrative center in a row of third-floor offices that resemble where film noir private investigators cracked wise with their clients. Most intriguing is a door embossed in black, Sam Spade Private Eye lettering, "Modern Entertainment Service Herb Stone."
Whiting remembers the sign from his first tour. "Calder Loth told us not to strip the doors," he remembers.
Herbert Coleman Stone, now 87, was assistant conductor for the National's 12-member house orchestra that played for the four-times daily stage shows there during the 1940s and early 1950s. He was also a trombonist with "The Sauer Show," a radio music and variety show that aired on WRNL. He and fellow musician Dick Bradford ran the Modern Entertainment booking agency in 1949 and 1950. Stone was later a salesman and manager for a small consumer electronics company called Wards, which eventually became Circuit City. He then formed Town & Country Realty and built houses, including some in Chesterfield's Salisbury. Stone continued playing music around town and today he conducts a 20-member swing-style big band.
That his old office will be used by a new generation of showmen seems appropriate to him.
Stone says of the National's stage music and dance performances, "The shows were there on a week- to two-week basis, then another would come through. It was continuous."
As it was, so it shall be.