NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — When Norfolk’s long-dormant Riverview Theater finally reopens, it’s going to host a bit of everything, from live music and comedians to church fundraisers and local forums.
But there’s one thing that just has to come before anything else.
“Opening week, whenever that gets around to it, we’re going to play one week of ‘The Sound of Music,’ because it played over 900 times here over 100 some weeks,” said John Childers, who recently gave WAVY a tour of the theater along with his dog, Gertrude. “We will encourage everyone to sing along because we all know the songs … we all wanna go ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and ‘The Hills Are Alive.'”
The beloved film played at least 115 weeks straight, more than two years, at Riverview when it debuted in 1965, according to former Virginian-Pilot film critic Mal Vincent, one of the longest consecutive runs for the movie on record. It was reserved-seating only one time a night, with matinees too on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
One woman even told the Pilot in a 1960s story that she saw the movie more than 200 times at Riverview.
That’s one of several quirky characteristics set to return to the 700-seat theater at 3910 Granby Street that opened in 1947, along with a giant water tower intake system that used to cool the place.
“Modern postwar air conditioning” was actually one of the alluring, cutting-edge features the theater used to promote its grand opening. Pitching itself as “Norfolk’s most modern and comfortable theatre,” Riverview also boasted five more inches between rows than the average theater, a box office inside to avoid any inclement weather, a “Triple-A” fireproof rating and a “crying room.”
“MOTHERS … YOU’LL LOVE THE CRY ROOM,” was featured prominently in all caps on an invitation letter dated October 8, 1947. “No longer do you have to worry about leaving the theatre in the middle of the feature because baby is crying. The Riverview has a huge “CRY ROOM,” very comfortably furnished where you may see and hear the picture without disturbing the other patrons.”
That room, which took the place of typical mezzanine seating, will get expanded and turned into a VIP room, Childers said.
“That’ll be called the Crying Room, just for fun, because people will be crying they’re not upstairs with the good stuff.”
Childers, who opened MJ’s Tavern across Granby Street 12 years ago, is one of three partners (the others don’t want to be identified at this time) who’ve come together to buy and restore the theater.
It’s long been empty since it was last used as a music venue back in the 1990s, hosting bands like “Def Leppard” and “Quiet Riot.”
“I’ve known this theater’s been up for sale since before I bought the restaurant, and it almost went through four years ago, but the deal fell apart … the neighborhood needed a venue, a way to bring the area together,” Childers said. “It brings the people from 35th Street, people from the Riverview area here, Colonial Place … as a community forum, so that’s why I wanted to open this back up.”
Local businessman Richard Levin, who purchased the venue back in 1992, says he was just waiting on the right buyer the property, and that it means a lot Childers and his crew stepped up.
“We’ve turned down offers through the years for them to tear it down to build a shopping center, apartments and so forth,” Levin said. “I wanted to see it as a theater.”
“A big undertaking”
Before anyone’s singing along with the von Trapps, there’s a lot of work to be done to fix up the place, both inside an out.
“This is a big undertaking. It has to be completely gutted, all drywall and ceiling material has to come down because of the age of it,” Childers said.
When you walk into the lobby it’ll look just like it did in 1947, with the same color walls and the “mirrors all fixed up and pretty.”
That includes keeping the original blue sky ceiling as you come through the door.
Original lighting fixtures and neon signs, like those over the bar and bathrooms, will get upgraded with LED lighting.
A new sound system will also be installed, as well as an elevator, one of several new ADA-friendly features.
Childers said they’re getting help from all over for the project, including from the city’s economic development department and Paige Pollard with Commonwealth Preservation Group. They’ve also applied for state grant funding.
Meanwhile, 500 of the seats will come from the old Rosna Theatre at 35th Street in Park Place, which is being turned into a boxing club by the city.
“Robyn Thomas [architect] is my lead liaison helping with all these things, and our main contractor is Spacemakers, so between all of us we’re going to make this thing come back to life and help everybody we can help … we want to make this place pop.”
Resurging Riverview, but no “Rocky Horror”
When Nancy Ware’s mother, “Norfolk icon” Mary Barnett, moved her Mary Barnett’s Gifts to the neighborhood from Wards Corner back in 2000, it was huge for an area that had fallen on rough times.
“Our real estate agent who was looking around for buildings for us said to my mother, ‘Mary are you sure you wanted this building?’ She said ‘Riverview’s pretty run down, there’s bats in here.'”
But Barnett said the visibility was great right off Granby Street, and so they became “kind of the pioneer” for the area’s resurgence in the new millennium, Ware said.
She thinks the renovated Riverview will be just as big for Riverview in the next 20 years and beyond.
“I think it’s going to be a catalyst for change, for one, but it’s also going to improve the general appearance and reputation of Riverview,” said Ware. “[Mary Barnett’s is] a destination and we have people coming from all over, but I have heard things are not as complimentary of the neighborhood, and I think bringing that in will bring in restaurants and people, and we’re all just super excited.”
Several restaurants actually have either moved in recently or are in the process of opening, including LeGrand Kitchen, which took over the former Crackers restaurant just south of the Granby Street Bridge.
“I think opening this place will double everything that’s out here. There will be restaurants coming in … the retail shops will all benefit,” said Childers, who also plans to build a parking lot for about 100 vehicles next to the theater.
That neighborly spirit also extends to other theaters in the area.
“It’s going to be great working with each other,” Childers added. “Working with the Naro, working with Granby Street Theater, the Generic Theater, the Wells [Theater], ODU, local schools … we’re going to be part of the community and making the community a great place for everybody.”
Childers joked that he and the Naro have a sort of gentlemen’s agreement to help prevent stepping on each other’s toes. He’s going to stick mostly to music and other live events, and stay away from their traditions.
“They’re not going to have very many live bands, and I’m going to keep my movies limited, and I will not show ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ anywhere during November or December because that’s their thing,” Childers laughed. “… and I’m not going to do ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ here, we’re all going to go over there and see it.”
The revived Riverview Theater is expected to reopen in August 2024. You can follow all the latest updates on the renovation on its Facebook page.