Rock Of Ages

The Current Success Of The NorVa Lies Deep Within The Building’s Storied Past

Jeff Moore

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At an age when most buildings are getting torn down or argued over by preservationists, The NorVa theatre has been reborn as “the best live music venue in America.” Not bad for a 96-year-old brick old-timer with a wraparound balcony, a history of good times and many stories to tell.
In the 13 years since it became a music venue, the sounds of many of the world’s most popular and influential performers have reverberated around these acoustically padded walls. But embedded in the exposed brick and rustic corners of the place Rolling Stone magazine readers named the best live music venue in the country this past July, you might also hear the faint ghost yells of kids at a matinee screening of “Captain Midnight,” the tip-taps of old hoofers doing a dance routine for a half-filled house or the phantom squeaks and grunts of a heated racquetball match.

The NorVa’s spirits are many, varied and ours. This brick structure at 317 Monticello Ave. has long been a meeting place for laughter, thrills, spectacles and singing along. The theater opened in 1917 as a vaudeville venue and then, starting in the ‘20s, became one of the area’s premier movie houses, lasting a half-century and spanning the history of film from the early talkies to the blockbusters of the 1970s.  The property became the headquarters of the Downtown Athletic Club in 1980, and a renovation took place with numerous, and important, additions. When concert promoters Bill Reid and Rick Mersel walked into this venerable building 20 years later, looking to find a space for a music venue, they immediately saw the possibilities.

“No artist needs to play Norfolk, Virginia to further their career,” says Mersel, who worked alongside Reid at Cellar Door Productions (Scott Benton is the third partner in the venture) and who together are responsible for helping develop the nTelos Wireless Pavilion. “The artists do have to play L.A. or New York or Chicago, but they don’t need to play here.” Norfolk is in kind of a cul-de-sac, he explains. “We’re off the beaten path. We knew from the beginning that we had to build a better mousetrap to get the big artists to come to Norfolk, Virginia.”

The decision was made to build the best backstage area in America, and thanks to those Downtown Athletic Club add-ons, it was a readymade. “We’ve got a sauna, a Jacuzzi, a game room, a basketball court [which they converted from racquetball], a full catering facility, two washers and dryers; so when the artist comes in The NorVa, they are blown away by the amenities,” he says. “They’re relaxed, and when they go on stage, they are happy to be there and put on a great performance.”

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