Colonial Theater

Tazewell Street & Boush Street,
Norfolk, VA 23510

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Colonial Theater

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The Colonial Theater was built about 1907 as a legitimate theater in Norfolk, VA. It was located on Tazewell Street in Downtown Norfolk, near Boush St. It was built during the Jamestown Exposition, a commemoration the 300th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent English settlement in the Virginia Colony. Being in the segregated South, there was a separate entrance for African-Americans, which opened to a staircase leading directly to a balcony, where they were required to sit. The first show at the Colonial Theater was a live production of “Pocahontas”. The theater later became a movie theater and vaudeville house. Mae West and Fred Astaire were some of the legendary entertainers said to have played the Colonial Theater.

After the demise of vaudeville, the Colonial Theater was a movie theater from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. It was one of the first theaters in downtown Norfolk to fall into disrepair in the 1960’s and be used to show adult films.

I saw the inside of the empty theater in 1977. It had been closed for a while and was in poor condition, having last been used some time in the mid-1970’s. Dressing rooms for performers were still intact. The theater appeared to have been originally built with two balconies, and the second balcony had been retrofitted to accommodate a film projection booth.

I recall walking around with a flashlight and seeing beveled mirrors on the walls of the stairwells to the first balcony, and it struck me that this was once an extremely elegant theater. I found an old program of some type. It was from the 1920’s, and it made some mention to Theda Bara, an actress in silent films. I saved that program.

The Colonial Theater was demolished some time in the 1980’s or 1990’s, and definitely before 1997, when I moved from Norfolk.

Contributed by Jeffrey G. Klein

Recent comments (view all 6 comments)

cw1953
cw1953 on July 11, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Thanks for the interesting post. I’d always wondered what was inside. Certainly by the very early 60’s when I was old enough to walk around downtown by myself, both the Wells and Colonial had succumbed to showing only adult films. Thankfully, patrons of the arts have restored the Wells. Unfortunately, no one came to the similar rescue of the Colonial.

Matthew Prigge
Matthew Prigge on November 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

if anyone has any memories of the Colonial in its adult days, please email me at

Love to hear your stories.

norfolk356
norfolk356 on May 5, 2015 at 9:14 am

I disagree with some of the above information. The entrance for the African Americans was actually built as the street access for the Hotel Princess. The Hotel Princess was located above the third floor of the front one quarter of the building facing Tazewell Street. Eventually the Hotel Princess became an annex for the neighboring Thomas Nelson Hotel by building a bridge across the alley. After the two buildings were joined and the theater began showing films is probably when the former hotel entrance was converted for use by black patrons of the theater. The entrance in question was located at the extreme west end of the building facing Tazewell Street. The entrance was outlined with decorative masonry which distinguished it from the theater entrances. As a side note, the Hotel Princess sign, painted in white at the top of the west side above the fire escapes on the brick, continued to be faintly visible until the building was demolished.

I visited the theater during Christmas, 1976. At that time the theater was leased by Mr. & Mrs. Edward Fitzgerald and had been renamed the Corinthian Theatre. The Fitzgerald’s hoped to restore and open the theater. In the meantime they rented the building to theater groups who used the stage area for rehearsals even though the building lacked heat and had little electricity. Power was provided by a maze of extension cords which ran to the stage, lobby, and the second floor room above the ticket booth and perhaps other areas of the building. The second floor room was used as an “office” and reception area for visitors of the Fitzgerald’s. The theater was indeed in bad shape but seemed mostly intact. Pidgeons had invaded the building through a broken window at the top of the stage area on the north east side. This window functioned as a fire escape and had a ladder running to the street/alley. There were signs of much water damage, including a collapsed mural above the stage as well as crumbling plaster throughout the building. The building was demolished during Jan. and Feb., 1997. I witnessed some of the demolition and there are at least two newspaper articles availble at the Virginian-Pilot to verify when the building was demolished.

norfolk356
norfolk356 on May 5, 2015 at 10:51 am

Correction and further information

The Hotel Princess was located above the second floor, not the third. The former hotel entrance is visible in the above photo and is the opening at the far left. In the photo the bottom floor has had some slight cosmetic renovations. Although the entrance is still accessible, the masonry outling the entrance has been covered over by the update. Eventually the marquis was removed and the first level was completely covered and sealed with the exception of one of the theater lobby doors.

There were two balcony’s but by the time of my visit both had weakened and were considered unsafe for use. The initial renovation that never took place called for repair of the lower level only. After the initial repairs the Fitzgerald’s hoped to open with a play written by Mrs. Fitzgerald and advertisements promoting the play were displayed in the box office window. Since it was the holiday season, the lobby and windows were decorated with Christmas decorations.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on May 5, 2015 at 11:25 am

A 1907 guidebook called Illustrated standard guide to Norfolk and Portsmouth and historical events of Virginia 1607 to 1907 describes the Colonial Theatre briefly:

The Colonial Theater is located on Tazewell Street, between Granby and Boush streets. This is a new and modern playhouse, where only the highest class attractions are presented. This is one of the Schubert [sic], Belasco theaters, which insures only the very best productions of musical comedies, operas, and dramas. Prices of admission range from $2.00 to 25 cents according to location, and the seating capacity is about 1,800.“
A hotel was to be part of the Colonial Theatre project from the beginning, as noted in the October, 1905, issue of Engineering News:
"Norfolk, Va.—The Colonial Theater Co. has been organized by G. A. Woodward, R. W. Cooke and W. C. Cobb, to erect a combination theater and hotel at a cost of $150,000.”
The November 23, 1905, issue of Manufacturers' Record had another item about the project:
“Norfolk, Va.—Theater and Hotel.—The Colonial Theater Co., previously reported incorporated to erect theater and hotel, is having plans prepared by Albert Swazey [sic], New York, for the erection of seven-story building, to cost $100,000: the theater to have a seating capacity of 2000. C. A. Woodward is president.”
The December 14 issue of the same publication had a notice that J. H. Pierce had the $125,000 contract to erect the theater. Architect William Albert Swasey designed some thirty theaters in New York City alone, and numerous houses in other cities.

norfolk356
norfolk356 on May 5, 2015 at 5:25 pm

I appologize for the wording of my previous post. The building was modern for it’s time. However, by the time of my visit, the utilities were damaged and not useable, including the electrical system. The electrical system was one of countless obstacles preventing the reopening. I was told the building even containted an early cooling system and that some of the apparatus was still in the building. I did not see the remaining cooling equipment.

My partial tour of the theater was by accident. I was walking on Tazewell and noticed the lights, Christmas decorations, and the notice about the play. I cannot recall the name of the play and I did not know and had never heard of the Fitzgerald’s. There was a sign in the lobby welcoming visitors. Part of the sign read something to the extent “Merry Christmas, come inside, make yourself at home.” I entered the lobby, was approached by Mr. Fitzgerald, and was promptly given a partial tour. There was a door on one side of the stage that I was told led to several levels of dressing rooms. According to Mr. Fitzgerald, theater equipment was still in storeage. As the previous post pointed out, there was junk throughout the theater spanning the decades of operation. At the time of my visit the Fitzgerald’s were in the process of collecting and sorting the material they had found. They had large file folders of paperwork collected from here and there they hoped would aid in writing a history.

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