Rock Of Ages
The Current Success Of The NorVa Lies Deep Within The Building’s Storied Past
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.”
The NorVa’s rebirth as a musical venue had a hiccup at the beginning. Its inaugural show was shut down when the fire marshal wouldn’t allow headlining neo-blues group G. Love & Special Sauce to go onstage. It seems that the fire system hadn’t been installed properly. G. Love instead played a little acoustic set in the rain out front for 400 fans.
The club officially opened April 17, 2000 with a performer that set the bar pretty high: the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. “He was a statement artist,” Mersel says. Word got around in the industry and, a year later, there was a phone call—it was Prince on line one. “Prince wanted to play and he gave us one week’s advance notice,” the promoter remembers. “He said, ‘What do you have the following week? I’m coming in there.’” The Purple One’s concert sold out in four and a half minutes. The staff was impressed by Prince’s extensive soundcheck, where he walked around to every point in the room while his band played to see how it sounded. “He cared enough to make sure everyone in the audience could hear perfectly,” Mersel says.
Somewhere, lodged in the memory-crevices of this 1,450-capacity hall, is the collective scream that burst out in 2001 when Billy Idol and his band started up “Rebel Yell.” The spiky-haired snarler isn’t the only idol to give inspired performances on this stage. Here’s just a short list of artists hosted by The NorVa: Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Kanye West, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, The Flaming Lips, Justin Timberlake, Blake Shelton, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Wilco, Snoop Dogg, John Legend, Young Jeezy and Willie Nelson.
Nelson, an avid golfer, enjoyed local tee times at the Virginia Beach National Golf Club while he was here. P-Funk’s George Clinton set the record for the most time spent in The NorVa’s hot tub, while other artists, like Dylan, bypassed the best backstage in America. “Bob Dylan came, did the show and he left,” Mersel laughs. Billy Corgan didn’t come for the amenities, either. He brought his Smashing Pumpkins to the stage because he wanted to visit regional Civil War sites.
The fan prize goes to 80 plus-year-old B.B. King, who let all of the concertgoers, four to a group, come onto his tour bus and meet him after his NorVa appearance. “It’s amazing,” the promoter marvels, “that a legend would do that.”
It’s a simple formula, actually: treat the artist right and they treat the audience right. The NorVa bunch knew a good method when they saw it. A few years after the venue started clicking, they renovated another ex-vaudeville/movie house called The National, this time in Richmond. Here, Reid, Mersel and Benton built an even more elaborate backstage area, a bigger Jacuzzi, a sauna with an added steam shower—it’s a supersized version of the pleasures enjoyed at The NorVa. “We just wanted to one-up ourselves,” Mersel laughs.
It’s not just the superstar acts that play 317 Monticello Ave. The NorVa has also become an important breaking ground for emerging regional acts, such as Chesapeake’s The Last Bison, who scored a big hit on local radio with their song “Switzerland” and have become a NorVa favorite. “We can put on a show for 1,450, or we can close the balcony and scale it down to 350,” Mersel says, noting the venue’s special state-of-the-art V-DOSC sound system.
What gives a concert at The Norva that extra special touch is the building itself, well worn by time but still ready to rock. Mersel puts it in perspective: “What the House of Blues does is spend millions and millions of dollars to look like The NorVa.”