This is a brief story about a beloved theater and the consummate showman and entrepreneur who built it, William S. Wilder.
Wilder was born in Portsmouth in 1890 at the same time that the technology and art of cinema were just being birthed. He grew up in the golden era of early cinema and as a young man worked in many of the local movie theaters including The Norva, The Strand, The Colonial and The Wells Theater in downtown Norfolk. He worked hard to learn all the operations needed to run a movie house.
By the late twenties, there was a number of large movie palaces operating successfully in downtown Norfolk on Granby Street. Wilder saw an opportunity to develop suburban theaters that were a bit smaller in size. He first opened the Newport Theater on 35th St in Norfolk in1928 and then in 1936 he built The Colley Theater in Ghent (renamed the Naro in the sixties). Later he acquired The Gates in Portsmouth and The Warwick in Newport News, and The Grandin Theater in Roanoke. His crown jewel opened in 1945 on High St in Portsmouth, The Commodore Theater, now owned and operated by Fred Schoenfeld. These were all single-screen theaters that featured balconies and beautiful architectural features.
Wilder also worked in live theater and appeared on stage when he was young. And although he never lived in New York or Hollywood, he produced and promoted vaudeville and musical shows that he brought to Norfolk’s Center Theater (Harrison Opera House).
Wilder’s illustrious career was cut short when in 1946 he died of a heart attach at the age of 56. But his movie business continued in the hands of his very capable wife Myde Wilder who continued to run their movie operations for many years with business partners Robert Morgan and Sidney Bowden. Their company continued to expand with the development of The Wilder Drive-In on Little Creek Rd in the fifties and later The Princess Theater in Va Beach and The Garden Theater in Norfolk.
The Naro opened as The Colley Theater on Feb 24, 1936, built for what was at the time the substantial sum of $75 thousand. It was a modern suburban theater with the latest amenities and an art deco design and at 500 seats was smaller than the older massive downtown movie palaces. The opening night picture was a Shakespearian adaptation, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Dick Powell.
In the sixties the theater changed hands and new owner Robert Levine changed the name of the theater from Colley to Naro, naming it after his father and mother, Nathan and Rose. Levine owned or operated a number of the suburban single screen houses in Norfolk including The Riverview, The Rosna on 35th St, The Roselle in Ocean View, and the large and beautiful Memrose that was torn down in the seventies for the expansion of Norfolk Sentara Hospital. The Naro is the only theater in Levine’s chain that’s still open and operating as a movie theater.
The nineteen sixties and seventies brought social and technological changes to the movie industry and Levine ran into deep financial problems, losing all of his theaters by the seventies to creditors. The ownership of the theater defaulted to the Stein family and the estate has been the landlord to this day.
The theater had a brief life as a playhouse called The Actor’s Theater with live stage productions in the mid-seventies.
In fall of 1977, the Naro’s lease was taken over by two young upstarts, Tench Phillips and Thom Vourlas, who lived right down the street from the theater and wanted to showcase some of the foreign, art, and independent films that had been missing from the area.. Their company, Art Repertory Films (ARF, Inc) has programmed and operated the Naro as a decidedly independent theater competing with the big theater chains. In the early years of the seventies and eighties, the theater held a virtual monopoly on the showing of classic movies. There were no videos to rent, cable TV to hook up to, satellite dishes, or movies to download — and only three major networks for content. It was a golden era for specialty cinema and the Naro thrived.
In the 21st Century, the Naro has ridden a wave of unprecedented technological changes. The worldwide web has radically changed the social habits of modern life. The web has eaten up books, newspapers, music, and now movies. Some media giants like Blockbuster and Border Books are in bankruptcy with others to come. Will the Naro survive as a community gathering place for public audiences to experience new films, live music, speakers, and public discourse? In this age of Facebook and movie downloads, will people even want to continue to view films with a public audience? As in the past, the boxoffice will decide the Naro’s fate. And with a little help from Clarence, the guardian angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, there just may be some more life left in this beloved old theater.