Colonial Theater

116 W. Tazewell 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 W. Tazewell Street in Downtown Norfolk, near Boush Street. 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 11 comments)

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 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 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 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.

norfolk356 on June 12, 2015 at 5:03 pm

A directory available on the internet from 1917 list the address of the Colonial as 116 West Tazewell St. The same directory list the address of the Hotel Princess as 118 West Tazewell St. The building was never at the corner but stood directly at the rear of the Thomas Nelson about midway between Granby and Boush. From at least the early 1970’s the corner lots were vacant and occupied by a parking lot. I don’t know what’s at the corner now.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on June 12, 2015 at 9:21 pm

norfolk356: What is on the corner now (and extending along Boush Street all the way to College Place) is an enormous building called Harbor Heights. It has retail space on the Boush Street side of the ground floor, with fourteen floors condominiums and lofts above. The parking garage extends east along Tazewell about two thirds of the way to Granby Street, so the Colonial’s site must be under its footprint.

norfolk356 on June 16, 2015 at 10:25 am

Thanks. I clicked on the street view option, which I had not done, and saw the new building. That’s how it looks to me as well. The theater was about where the parking garage is now located. About where the fire escape is visible on the rear of the Tazewell Hotel(formerly the Thomas Nelson) is where the bridge that joined the two buildings was located. It was a multi story bridge that connected the upper floors of the Thomas Nelson to the hotel portion of the Colonial buiding. The basement opening to the left of the Tazewell Hotel entrance was once the street entrance to a barber shop(circa mid 1950’s). The barber shop was also accessible by another entrance from inside the hotel. Around the corner on Granby where Snapper’s is located was the location of the restaurant that serviced the Thomas Nelson. It was accessible from either the Granby entrance or glass doors inside the hotel and near the lobby. As the hotel declined the entrance off the lobby was kep’t closed and locked although never walled over to my knowledge.

Do you know if the Colonial had boxes? I seem to rememer one or two boxes on the east side. Is my memory correct or am I confused?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on June 16, 2015 at 10:55 am

I never saw the Colonial Theatre, nor have I seen photos of its interior, but it was a legitimate house built in the early 20th century and I’ve never come across any good-sized theaters with stages from that era that didn’t have boxes. It’s very unlikely that the Colonial would have been an exception to the rule. Boxes were typically the highest-priced seats in a house, as a lot of well-to-do customers preferred them.

Boxes were sometimes removed from old theaters that were extensively modernized for movies in the 1930s or later, and during the silent movie era the pair of boxes nearest the stage would in some cases have to be removed to accommodate pipes and an organ screen if a pipe organ was installed, but I don’t think the Colonial was ever extensively remodeled, so it probably kept at least some of its boxes even if it got an organ.

norfolk356 on June 16, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Thank you for the information. I was only in the building two times and only once in the auditorium. Because of little lighting, the cold, and the pidgeons flying about, my mind was not as fully concentrated on the details as I wish it had been.

The room above the box office the Fitzgerald’s used as their office was a large room with a very high ceiling. Plaster had fallen in many places and the framing around the large windows was in terrible condition. The Fitzgerald’s heated that room with a space heater which barely made a dent in the cold. They worked under layers of blankets.

If my memory is correct, the several levels of dressing rooms were located behind a door on the left side of the stage(west side). I saw the door and the stairs but I did not go beyond the foyer. I was told the west side lacked a fire escape which was another major problem that would have to be resolved. I assume the fire exits for the dressing rooms had been sealed and the ladders removed sometime after the theater was only showing movies.

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