Gates Theatre

322 High Street,
Portsmouth, VA 23704

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Gates Theatre

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This theater, which was located on High Street, was originally opened as the New Orpheum Theatre by 1906 and continued into the 1920’s. Later renamed Gates Theatre, it closed in the late-1950’s, and has since been torn down. In the 1945 Film Daily Yearbook, the Gates Theatre is shown as open with seating for 726.

Contributed by Bryan

Recent comments (view all 13 comments)

CSWalczak on May 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm

This picture shows the gates sometime in the 1930s. The caption indicates that the theater was previously known as the Orpheum.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on June 5, 2012 at 7:12 am

The Feb 8, 1914 obituary of Stephen P. Buler said that he had been given charge of the Orpheum Theatre in Portsmouth, Virginia, eight years previously and had managed the house for five years, which would give an opening year of no later than 1906 for the original Orpheum.

The 1913-1914 edition of the Cahn guide listed the Orpheum in Portsmouth as a Wilmer & Vincent house presenting vaudeville exclusively.

An ad for the Pannill Miro Screen Corporation of Norfolk, Virginia, in the March 11, 1916, issue of The Moving Picture World boasted that the company had “…installed the world’s largest moving picture screen in the Orpheum Theatre, Portsmouth….”

A June 24, 1922, item in The American Contractor reported that the Portsmouth Improvement Company would expend $50,000 for fire repairs to the Orpheum Theatre in Portsmouth, Virginia, but an item in the October 19 issue of Manufacturers Record said that the company would build an entirely new Orpheum at a cost of $500,000.

A list of buildings in which products of the J. G. Braun Company had been used, published in the company’s 1926 catalog, names the architect of the Orpheum Theatre as Charles M. Major.

JELongVA on July 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm

The Gates was envolved in a major fire which damaged it beyond repair.

norfolk356 on July 30, 2015 at 6:50 pm

I think this is the theater that was part of, or built into, the Monroe Hotel. I don’t know if the theater was part of the original construction. The Monroe was a very old building, probably built in the 19th century. I’ve heard the theater portion was destroyed in the hotel fire of 1957. The corner lot was rebuilt as The Famous and it appears the lots that contained the Gates was replaced by the building that now contains a Dollar General. I’ve seen an old photograph that shows a People’s Drug Store occupying a store front next to and to the west of the Gates theater entrance. For at least a portion of the 1980’s, the building that now contains Dollar General was a Revco Drug Store, the successor to many People’s locations in the Tidewater area. It could be coincidence that Revco ended up occupying the site because People’s had already closed most or all of their center city locations in Tidewater well before Revco took over their stores.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 31, 2015 at 12:51 am

The Hotel Monroe building did indeed date from the mid-19th century, having been completed in 1855. It was originally called the Ocean House Hotel. I haven’t been able to discover when the theater opened, but the old Orpheum was in operation at this location by 1906.

norfolk356 on July 31, 2015 at 2:35 pm

I knew the Hotel Monroe was old but I would never have guessed it dated to 1855. 

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 31, 2015 at 6:48 pm

I forgot to mention my source for the date. It was Robert Brooke Albertson’s Portsmouth Virginia (Google Books preview,) which features an early drawing of the hotel on page 27. The building was originally four storys, which is why there was a cornice at the top of the fourth floor, as seen in later photos. The top floor was a later addition, though why the new floor got no cornice atop it I don’t know.

The facade of the building is actually pretty characteristic of the commercial structures of the 1850s, being fairly plain and having smaller windows than later buildings usually had. As the 19th century progressed architecture not only became ever more elaborate, but windows tended to take up an ever larger proportion of the facades.

I had hoped to discover how the theater was configured (either it had been inserted into the hotel building, or the entrance ran through the hotel building to a new auditorium built behind the hotel, possibly extending all the way to Queen Street) but the oldest aerial view of the site from Historic Aerials dates from 1963, six years after the entire building was destroyed by fire on August 9, 1957. Maybe somebody who attended the theater will show up to tell us how the building was laid out.

norfolk356 on July 31, 2015 at 11:28 pm

All I know about the configuration is the hotel entrance was once on Court Street. Decorative dogs once stood and defined the entrance. The dogs were moved to a home in Waterview. I’ve seen the dogs but both have since been removed. This is useless information. Good luck.

norfolk356 on August 1, 2015 at 11:42 am

Was the Monroe an L shaped building? Perhaps the auditorium was built to the rear and inside the L and up against the Hotel Monroe with the stage and screen area behind the Court Street side of the building.

There are two sets of fire escapes visible on the Monroe. One is on Court and the other is on High. The fire escape on High is curious as it goes down at an angle as exits might leading from balconies. However, that fire escape goes to the top floor which would indicate they were for the hotel and not the theater. Could that indicate the Monroe was hemmed in at the rear thus requiring an exit plan for the upper floors to High and Court rather then to alley’s to the rear leading to Queen? If the Gates was inside the L, it’s fire plan must have led to alley’s to the North that eventually led to Queen St?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 1, 2015 at 4:26 pm

An L-shaped hotel with the theater tucked into the L seems most likely. But as the long side of the building was along Court Street, I think it’s likely that the theater ran north and south, with the stage at the north end and a side entrance for the stage at the northeast corner, behind the Woolworth building.

The July 26, 1922, issue of Fire and Water Engineering had a brief article about the fire that had recently occurred in the Orpheum. It doesn’t mention the hotel at all, though it gives the dimensions of the building as 100 X 25, which is surely an error and was probably meant to have read 100 x 125, which is what I’d say the modern building on the site is.

The listing for the Orpheum in the 1909-1910 Cahn guide says that it had 1,000 seats. The stage was 53 feet 6 inches between the sidewalls (which was probably the same width as the auditorium) and the distance from the footlights to the back wall of the stage was 27 feet 6 inches. Given those dimensions, and a lot 125 feet deep from High Street and only 100 feet deep from Court Street, plus the need to accommodate hotel rooms along both frontages, a north-south auditorium with the stage at the north end is more likely than an east-west configuration.

A guidebook published in 1907 lists a 900-seat theater called the Lyceum at 322 High Street in Portsmouth, and doesn’t mention an Orpheum Theatre. The Lyceum had to have been this house. The 1922 article about the fire says that the Orpheum building was 46 years old, which would give a build date of about 1876. I found the Lyceum mentioned in several publications from 1900, but so far none earlier. The house might have had a different name prior to that. It became the Orpheum sometime between 1907 and 1909.

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