November Theatre History
Having opened its doors on Christmas Day, 1911, the November Theatre is the state’s oldest major stage house and a linchpin in Virginia history. It operates today as the vibrant home of Virginia Repertory Theatre, and as a living museum commemorating and exploring the roles this landmark building has played in the rich cultural life of Central Virginia.
Built by Moses Hoffheimer with an interior design by famed Italian artist Ferruccio Legnaioli, the November was named the Empire Theatre for the first three years of its existence. The Empire opened on the final day of the century of mourning that followed the horrific Richmond Theatre fire of Dec 26, 1811. Seventy-two Richmonders had died in that blaze, including Virginia’s sitting Governor, George W. Smith, and former U. S. Senator Abraham B. Venable. That tragic event had been considered the worst urban disaster in America in its time.
With a keen focus on fire safety, Hoffheimer modeled his Richmond Empire on the world-renowned Empire Theatre in New York, which had opened in 1893, and is credited today with starting what we now know as Broadway. Located at 1430 Broadway between 40th and 41st Streets, NYC's Empire was the first theatre in that city to have been built with all electric lighting. Also, due to advances in digging equipment, the Empire was the only NY theatre in its time to feature a stage situated below street level, allowing audiences to enter and exit the rear of the house at street level, without having to negotiate stairs. Due to these singular features, New York's Empire was famous for being “thoroughly fireproof.” Richmond's Empire was the first theatre in Central Virginia to replicated all these advances.
The Empire was also Richmond's first "air conditioned" theatre, allowing it to be open during the summers. Small tunnels can still be found inches beneath each aisle. Large blocks of ice were placed under the stage at the mouths of these passageways, and powerful electric fans blew across this ice sending chilled breezes up through floor vents situated near the ends of each row.
From 1911 through 1914, our historic November Theatre was named the Empire. It was Richmond's first integrated theatre post Reconstruction. Virginia's earliest Jim Crow Laws banned black theatregoers from all entertainments patronized by whites. Moses Hoffheimer, developer of the Empire, proposed converting his theatre's gallery (the top balcony) from a seating area reserved for the "gallery gods" (young white ruffians who filled a similar balcony at Richmond's Academy of Music) to a segregated seating area for black audiences. At Hoffheimer's urging, Virginia's Jim Crow Laws were re-written to state, "Every person... operating... any public hall, theater, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race."
It seems regressive now, but Hoffheimer's efforts to seat black and white audiences under the same roof were progressive for their time. Forty-three years later, the founders of Barksdale Theatre would put the next nail in the coffin of Virginia's Jim Crow theatre law. In 1954, Pete Kilgore and Muriel McAuley invited a group of professors and students from Virginia Union University to join their white audience at Hanover Tavern, sitting side by side. In open defiance of the law and risking arrest, they presented the first fully integrated performance in Virginia post Reconstruction.
When the Empire opened in 1911, it operated as a legitimate theatre, presenting live performances of great plays instead of vaudeville or silent movies. The renowned actress Lucille La Verne, a veteran of seven Broadway hits, assembled her own stock company at the Empire in 1913. She presented 80 performances in four months, selling 147,000 tickets! Edith Lindeman, Times-Dispatch theatre critic, wrote that the Empire "was a popular theater with audiences, especially on Wednesday matinees when each woman in attendance received a quarter-pound box of Huyler's chocolates and a dainty linen handkerchief to wipe her eyes during the sad scenes."
During its earliest days as a legitimate theatre (1911-1914), our historic November was known by its original name, the Empire. It was home to several national stars who worked in the Empire’s own stock company for several months out of every year, dividing their careers between Richmond, New York and the emerging film capital of Hollywood.
Prominent resident actors at the Empire included:
- Lucille La Verne – leading lady and manager of the stock company, best remembered for subsequently voicing the Wicked Queen and the crone with the poisoned apple in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ,
- Frank Morgan – the Empire’s juvenile lead who later achieved film immortality playing the title role in The Wizard of Oz,
- Edward Arnold – the Empire’s dashing leading man who went on to co-star as a character actor in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the late 30s, and then served as President of the Screen Actors Guild,
- Mary Miles Minter – the stock company’s ingénue who later rivaled Mary Pickford as the silent movie era’s leading starlet, earning one of the first stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and
- John Bunny – the 300-pound comic who was the most popular movie star in the world from 1910 until his death in 1915. He starred in over a hundred silent films, made “more money that the President,” and his cherubic face was insured for the unheard of sum of $100,000.
In December 1914 the Empire was refitted for the emerging art form of film, and renamed the Strand, copying the name of the lavish NYC movie palace built the year before at the corner of Broadway and 47th. The Strand served until 1927 as one of Richmond’s most prominent and popular homes for film and vaudeville.
In 1927, a fire damaged the space, and it lay dark until it was re-opened in 1933 as the Booker T Theatre, which featured films and vaudeville performances until 1974.
In 1977 Theatre IV (now known as Virginia Rep) rented the Empire Theatre, launching its first main stage (non-touring) season of major productions designed to serve elementary age children and their families.
Theatre IV purchased the theatre and its neighboring Walker Theatre (which later became the Little Theatre and finally, Theatre Gym) in 1986. Restorations were completed in 1990, and Theatre IV presented performances for children and families in the renovated space, which they renamed the Empire Theatre.
Twenty-one years later, with the Empire in need of new renovations, Sara Belle and Neil November made a $2 million gift for restoration, and in 2012 the Empire Theatre was renamed the Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre.
Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV merged in 2012 to become Virginia Rep, and we continue to present performances at this downtown, historic theatre.
In 2013, the stage at the November Theatre was renamed to the Marjorie Arenstein Stage to honor the legacy of prominent Richmond actress, Marjorie Arenstein.