A Brief History
- Portfolio Weekly, July 19th, 2005
The American Theatre, a landmark in Hampton Roads, is the only remaining of four theatres in Hampton. Built in 1908 as a "high class motion picture and vaudeville house" the Theatre has enjoyed a colorful and varied history.
A.M. Johnson of Norfolk built the Theatre to give the community a "clean, wholesome amusement theatre". The American Theatre was the first fully integrated theatre in Southeastern Virginia and it originally seated 600 patrons on two levels.
Changing ownership several times, The American Theatre is best remembered by generations for the ten cent movies on Saturday mornings. It became the Lee Adult Theatre and, later, the New American Theatre which served as a beer and pizza movie house.
In 1997, the Hampton Arts Foundation (a not for profit corporation) purchased the run down building and began an extensive $2.9 million renovation, restoring much of the original detail and adding a complete new wing to the building. After three years of fund raising and construction, the American Theatre re-opened in June 2000, reverting to its original name. The Theatre opened with a star studded gala and has since become one of the favorite venues of an ever increasing and loyal audience from throughout the entire region.
Under the expert guidance of architects John Paul Hanbury and Greg Rutledge (Hanbury Evans Newill, Vlattas in Norfolk), and general contractor W.M. Jordan, the theatre came back to life. The back wall was painstakingly removed to increase the size of the stage and to add a green room and dressing rooms. The roof, the balcony and the floor were removed to improve sight lines and to accommodate much of the technical equipment. The added wing now houses the mechanical equipment, a much expanded lobby space, concessions and office space.
When the Hampton Arts Foundation purchased the building in 1997, it was the fulfillment of a long-term desire of arts patrons from throughout Hampton Roads for an intimate and acoustically perfect performing arts venue. It is now one of the most adventurous and innovative, and certainly one of the most popular of all performing arts venues.
As a result of the highly successful capital campaign which was led by community leader and former President Jay Joseph, The American Theatre has no debt or mortgage. The Theatre is owned by the Hampton Arts Foundation and operated by the City of Hampton through its Arts Commission. The American Theatre hosts renowned performing artists from every corner of the globe in an ambitious year-round program which has become the envy of many cities much larger than Hampton.