The Little Theatre of Norfolk – “Tidewater’s Oldest Community Theatre”
Updated: Aug 7, 2021
Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Little Theatre of Norfolk.
The Little Theatre of Norfolk, or LTN as many like to call it, was established in 1926, almost 100 years ago, which is almost as long as it took me to write this article. I exaggerate, of course, but there is so much history, so much material, someone (not me) should be writing a book about this little theater. LTN just keeps plugging along, giving joy to so many.
It all started, as many great things do, with the talent and determination of one woman. Google knows little about the personal life of Rose Johnson Willis. She was involved in Norfolk Society of Arts (NSA), which began sometime after the Civil War to promote art and culture in Hampton Roads.
Many Hampton Roads premiere institutions of culture were born from NSA. Chrysler Museum, Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and Hermitage Museum can all trace their origins back to NSA. Rose Johnson Willis got two dozen people together from NSA in January of 1927 to discuss forming a theater group in Norfolk.
Willis wanted to create a place that was “cozy and intimate, and for the range of amateur voices.” She was the first and only director of LTN for the first 25 years. The small group elected Mrs. Finlay Ferguson as the first president. Many of those first two dozen had been taking drama classes with Mrs. Westmore Wilcox at Norfolk Society of Arts. They were ready to get on stage. Willis was ready to lead them.
LTN presented their first play, Aren’t We All, an English drawing room comedy, in May of 1927 to an audience of 1,000 at Blair Middle School. The $1,000 that was raised gave the group enough money to rent a former horse stable on West York and construct a rickety stage. (Editor’s Note: For reference, this amount wouldn’t even cover the electric bill these days…)
The horse stable had a dirt floor, folding chairs and pigeons in the rafters. There was no heat and no air conditioning. The dressing room and prop storage were across an alleyway in a “decaying Victorian mansion”. The actors would wait for their cues and run across the alley in the dark, dodging rats, to enter stage left.
Little Theatre of Norfolk presented an average of five plays per season in that horse stable for years, through the Great Depression and World War II.
Margaret Sullivan, LTN’s most famous alumni, made her stage debut in the horse stable on West York in 1930. She appeared as Lady Caroline in Dear Brutus by J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame). By 1931, Sullivan was acting on Broadway. By 1933, she starred in her first movie, Only Yesterday. She went on to make several movies with Jimmy Stewart, married Henry Fonda, married three other men, retired from the screen, and gave birth to three children, among them actress Brooke Hayward.
In 1949, LTN received notice that the landlord was selling the former horse stable on York Street. The theater company had to move. Willis and the company wanted to build their own theater. A place that would be “intimate and make a real home for the players”. LTN purchased a lot on the corner of Raleigh and Claremont Avenues in West Ghent.
“I couldn’t help crying when they presented me the deed,” Rose Willis said, “It was almost too much to believe that all our efforts had brought us to the verge of our own new home.”
Willis was the driving force behind LTN for years and years. From a 1949 newspaper article by Anthony Richards, found in the archives of LTN –
“Miss Willis takes the raw material – stenographers, Navy men, housewives and such - and with a mixture of coaxing, timing, molding and hoping, transforms them into finished thespians.”
Willis dropped a horseshoe for good luck into one of the cinder blocks of the new construction. By the end of 1950, LTN was ready with the first play in the new location. It was the appropriately named Happy Birthday, a romantic musical with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Little Theatre of Norfolk just kept chugging along. There were good plays and bad plays. There were embarrassing performances and extraordinary performances. There were musicals, comedies, dramas, and experimental theater. There were good years, great years, and lean years.
In 1962, LTN spent $100,000 to add extra room for rehearsals, storage, dressing rooms, and finally, to add air conditioning to the main auditorium.
The late sixties and early seventies were a tough time for LTN and other small theater companies. Large, touring companies started making the rounds of smaller cities, like Norfolk. Dinner theaters were very popular. People preferred the movies to live stage performances. The circus came to town.
Little Theatre of Norfolk kept chugging along. There was always a core group of dedicated volunteers, talented local actors, and devoted theater goers. (Editor’s note: There still is.)
It's an LTN tradition to sign the wall if you perform or tech a show. Also, some other news clippings from the theatre's history...
In 2010, the theater’s sinking floor was replaced, new stage curtains were purchased, handicap accessible seating was added and the front of the building was painted an eye-catching red. Forbidden Broadway, an off-Broadway parody of Broadway musicals, opened the 84th season of LTN.
Lois Digges is the current historian of LTN. She is Librarian by training, a part-time crossing guard by day, and a dedicated volunteer at LTN. She started in the ensemble of the 2019 production of Sweet Charity, an iconic Broadway musical. Digges is in charge of the archives at LTN. This is a huge job. Every playbill, every newspaper article, countless photos are all saved. Backstage at the theater is a history treasure trove of the actors who have performed. Most of them amateurs, many of them supremely talented.
Jean Hillegass volunteered for decades, well into her 80’s. Miss. Jean was rarely on stage. She worked in props, in the box office, fund raising, “wherever they needed me”. When Louise Casini Hollis, one of LTN's previous historians, interviewed Miss Jean in 2010 she said, “I was a French maid once and that was the end of that.”
Hillegass distilled it down to the essence of LTN when she said, “They didn’t care if you were a dentist, a taxi driver or a sailor. Little Theatre of Norfolk wanted to know what you could do for the theater. You took what you learned from the theater to your outside life. You learned how to talk to people, find out about people, become curious about the world. Wonderful people from all over the country and the world came together to create a great asset for the city.”
Little Theatre of Norfolk is still there, at the corner of Raleigh and Claremont in West Ghent. It is easy to spot. It still has that bright red front.
The first show of their 95th Season will be An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, opening this October. Tickets will be on sale later this summer through their website, ltnonline.org.
If you are interested in donating to LTN or attending a performance, go to https://ltnonline.org/donate/
If you are interested in volunteering at LTN, you can go to https://ltnonline.org/volunteer/
If you are interested in performing at LTN, follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/LittleTheatreNorfolk or check https://ltnonline.org/auditions/ for audition announcements.
Here’s hoping the pandemic will be declared officially over, or at least most of us will be vaccinated soon, so that we can begin attending live performances in a little theater, more specifically Little Theatre of Norfolk, very soon.