The American Theatre
A Rich History
A little over 100 years ago, long before the Town of Phoebus was incorporated into the City of Hampton, construction began on a theatre, which was to provide “clean, wholesome amusement.” The American Theatre opened in 1908 and subsequently survived many incarnations and even a fire. Operating as a vaudeville and motion picture house, the theatre’s projection room caught fire barely a year after the theatre was built. Miraculously there were no casualties — well, apart from the building itself!
Undeterred by the averted tragedy, the owner, Mr. A.M. Johnson of Norfolk, rebuilt the theatre and opened in less than a year. The American then enjoyed a century of growth and change, but it has always remained the centerpiece of the historic community. The American is the only remaining theatre of the four that Hampton supported during the first half of the 20th century. Generations recall fondly the 10¢ movies on Saturdays. The American became The Lee for a while and, it became the Lee Adult during the years when Phoebus itself was enjoying its reputation as “Little Chicago.” During the 1980s the theatre became The New American Theatre where beer and pizza accompanied a movie and local bands played.
The Theatre fell into decline and closure in the mid 1990s. That is when the Hampton Arts Foundation (a not-for-profit organization), with assistance from the City of Hampton, purchased the building, fulfilling a long-standing dream of arts patrons throughout the region to create an intimate and acoustically superior space for the performing arts.
The Hampton Arts Commission had commissioned a study by one of the world’s leading theatrical consultants, which concluded that the City of Hampton would benefit by building a 400–600-seat theatre. Theatre Project Consultants also recommended that: The City support the renovation of Hampton University’s historic Ogden Hall (1800 seats); that the region could support a large (25,000 seat) amphitheater or outdoor venue and that the municipalities on the Peninsula should get together and build a new regional venue (1800–2000 seats). Remarkably, all of those recommendations have been implemented. Now metropolitan Hampton Roads enjoys the Virginia Beach Amphitheatre, the Ferguson Center for the Arts at CNU, HU’s renovated Ogden Hall, and as many would say, the jewel in the crown, Hampton’s The American Theatre.
Once the purchase of the run down building was completed in the spring of 1998, Hampton Arts Foundation, retained the renowned architectural firm Hanbury, Evans, Newill, Vlattas & Company. Then, in partnership with the City of Hampton, the Foundation launched a $2.9 million campaign to restore and bring The American back to life. Hundreds of community leaders, corporations and arts lovers came together to ensure the success of the campaign. The American Theatre re-opened in June 2000 with a star-studded gala celebration and no debt!
When The American Theatre originally opened in the early 20th century, it was the first “integrated theatre” in Virginia. In those days, it had 600 seats on two levels. It now has just fewer than 400 seats and has earned an enviable reputation as “Hampton Roads’ favorite performing arts venue.” The new renovation included a “wing” to provide lobby, concessions, public facilities, mechanical and production rooms and office space. The size and depth of the stage were increased dramatically and a green room and dressing rooms were added. Another unique opportunity arose when the building adjacent to the Theatre became available. With the assistance of The City of Hampton and The Commonwealth of Virginia, the Hampton Arts Foundation purchased the 1939 building and completed an ambitious $4 million campaign — The Century Campaign — to incorporate the building into The American Theatre. It created a unique educational wing and added stage and production space.
Since its opening in 2000, the City of Hampton has provided day-to day operations for The American Theatre, leasing the building from the Hampton Arts Foundation. In 2012, the theater as well as The Charles H. Taylor Arts Center was merged with Hampton Coliseum to form the new department of Hampton Coliseum/Hampton Arts Commission. The American Theatre now hosts more than 50 attractions a year. Legends such as Marcel Marceau, Bea Arthur, Ben Vereen, Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, Dame Cleo Laine, Claire Bloom, Frederica von Stade, Nell Carter, The Blind Boys of Alabama and a host of other greats. Our arts in education programs in the new wing have flourished, featuring classes, workshops, and camps for all ages.