A gleaming, hand-painted bronze sign reading “Veni Vidi Vici” hangs above a wall of stained paint cans, dividing a vast work floor from a second-story mezzanine.
The work floor is 100 feet by 100 and contains band saws, table saws and steel saws, and piles of burned-out theater lights. Elvis once sang to Norfolk sailors here.
The old stage is gone. The work floor is overlooked by the original wooden, stadium-style seats in the wraparound mezzanine, seats that now stay folded, collecting dust.
The room that was once the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium, built in the 1940s as Norfolk’s largest entertainment venue, is now where the Virginia Opera builds its sets.
The place is a piece of Norfolk history where, now, the sights and scenes of fictional stories are brought to life for present-day audiences.
It smells like a church basement and is busy with color and clutter — a big beautiful mess at the heart of the city.
Old theater props are hoarded like otherworldly relics, from places like the Forest of Arden or performances of “Camelot.” A cardboard weeping willow waits in the wings; a painted cow is forever about to moo; a 12-foot-high, freestanding staircase spirals to nowhere. An old-fashioned baby carriage seems rolled in right off the stairs in the final big action scene of “The Untouchables.”
And a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary stands tall in the northern balcony.
“She’s carved out of pure rosewood,” said Roberta Brennan, facilities and properties manager for the Virginia Opera.
“If you flip her over, you can count the tree rings,” said John-Luke Whitten, head carpenter and crew chief.
“We were going to use it in the graveyard scene of ‘The Sound of Music,’ but then it got cut,” Brennan said, “because it creeped everyone out.”
The room, more than merely a massive storage unit, is also the workspace for a group of opera staff members who prefer to adjust spotlights rather than stand in them.
In high school theater, they’d have been called techies.
“I think I had two lines in a high school play,” Whitten said, “and it almost killed me.”
These technicians, carpenters and production managers, like Whitten, handle the props, lights, sets and all the backstage dealings that an audience never sees but are crucial to any live show.
“We call this room The Gym,” explained Brennan, who has worked backstage for the opera for 26 years.
“Before we had Scope and Chrysler Hall, this was the big entertainment venue.”
Construction on the Municipal Auditorium was completed in 1943. It was built with city and federal funds as a venue to entertain the city’s growing wartime populace.
“They did wrestling, they did car shows, they did basketball games!” Brennan said.
There were USO dances and beauty pageants. The place doubled as a 3,000-seat concert hall and sports arena. The 3-point lines of a basketball court are still fading slowly off the floor.
Here in 1960, William & Mary upset nationally ranked West Virginia led by Jerry West.
“Elvis played here. Hendrix played here,” Brennan said. “Like, right here, yeah.”
In June 1959, singers Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson canceled a performance here when they learned the seating would be segregated. The upper rows of wooden seats that remain are where many African Americans were restricted to watching shows during the Jim Crow era.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about civil rights here.
Richard Nixon gave a victory salute here during his 1968 presidential campaign. James Brown, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Katharine Hepburn all graced its stage.
Then in 1994, the Virginia Opera bought the Municipal Auditorium and an attached 1,800-seat space used for smaller theater productions, called the Center Theater.
The Center Theater was refurbished into the opera’s main stage, and the opera turned the auditorium into its set creation room where, these days, a headless poster of a greased-up and nearly naked Arnold Schwarzenegger hangs from the ceiling.
Vehicle seats, pulled out of the company’s transport van, are piled on top of a tool cage.
A sheet of flame-proof Z-Tex unfurls over the lip of an overloaded shopping chart randomly parked in the center of the room.
“They like to throw anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else, in here,” said the director of production, Scott Schreck.
In the mezzanine, giant urns sit plump in the old, dusty seats.
In the upper-upper decks, around 30 boxes contain paperwork belonging to Virginia Symphony.
Whitten, who was first hired by the opera part time in 2016, remembers when he first saw The Gym and instantly wanted to know more about its present clutter and past history.
Now, he said, “I know all sorts of things about this place.”
“I heard at some point, part of it was run by the CIA or OSS in World War II.”
And, he says, there once was a nuclear fallout shelter under the floorboards.
He’s looked for it in his spare time and spent a lot of time crawling between the building and its foundations.
“I think the bunker has been buried. There is a mound of dirt and a tarp over it where it used to be. … I know, right?” he said. “I’ve wanted to go in there so much.”
Last week, Whitten stood in the middle of the room, inspecting two giant doorways and a matching golden fireplace, each for the upcoming production of “La Traviata.”
“I attached rigging points here and here,” he said, pointing to the 15-foot-tall fireplace.
Every time time a scene changes, the scenery will “fly through the air” either on or off stage, he explained.
The place is also supposedly haunted.
“I don’t know of any actual story of, like, who haunts it. So, that’s why I think it just makes weird noises,” Brennan said, before adding, “You’ll think you hear piano playing when you’re pretty sure that you’re alone.”
Schreck said, “That’s not just a noise, the building groaning because of heat expansion. Piano playing, that’s more than just a noise.”
Neither of them has seen a ghost.
“Well …” Whitten chimed in.
“Yeesss …” everyone replied.
“Um … I don’t know. It could have been a trick of sound …” he began.
One night, Whitten said, he was walking on a catwalk when he heard someone say, “Hello. Hello.”
“Hi,” he reflexively replied.
“Then, I looked behind me and saw that it was nothing but ceiling there,” he said. “I left.”
Ghost or not, the room is haunted — by history, clutter and techies, and by charming, occasional oddities.
Colin Warren-Hicks, 919-818-8139, firstname.lastname@example.org