Full of history. Full of clutter. There’s a big beautiful mess of a room at the heart of Norfolk

Full of history. Full of clutter. There’s a big beautiful mess of a room at the heart of Norfolk

NORFOLK — A gleaming hand-painted bronze sign reading “Veni Vidi Vici” hangs above a wall of stained paint cans, dividing a vast work floor from a second-story mezzanine.

The work floor is 100 feet by 100 feet and contains band saws, table saws and steel saws, and piles of burned-out theater lights. Elvis once sang to Norfolk sailors here.

The old stage is gone. The work floor is overlooked by the original wooden stadium-style seats in the wraparound mezzanine, seats that now stay folded, collecting dust.

The room that once was the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium, built in the 1940s as the city’s largest entertainment venue, is now the Harrison Opera House, and it’s where the Virginia Opera builds its sets. It’s in the Neon District downtown near the Ghent Square neighborhood.

The place is a piece of Norfolk history, where the sights and scenes of fictional stories are now brought to life for present-day audiences.

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It smells like a church basement and is busy with color and clutter — a big beautiful mess at the heart of the city.

Old theater props are hoarded like otherworldly relics, from places like the Forest of Arden or performances of “Camelot.” A cardboard weeping willow waits in the wings; a painted cow is forever about to moo; a 12-foot-high freestanding staircase spirals to nowhere. An old-fashioned baby carriage seems rolled in right off the stairs in the final big action scene of “The Untouchables.”

And a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary stands tall in the northern balcony.

“She’s carved out of pure rosewood,” said Roberta Brennan, facilities and properties manager for the Virginia Opera.

“If you flip her over, you can count the tree rings,” said John-Luke Whitten, head carpenter and crew chief.

“We were going to use it in the graveyard scene of ‘The Sound of Music,’ but then it got cut,” Brennan said, “because it creeped everyone out.”

The room, more than merely a massive storage unit, is also the workspace for a group of opera staff members who prefer to adjust spotlights rather than stand in them.

These technicians, carpenters and production managers, like Whitten, handle the props, lights, sets and all the backstage dealings that an audience never sees but are crucial to any live show.

“We call this room The Gym,” said Brennan, who has worked backstage for the opera for 26 years. “Before we had Scope and Chrysler Hall, this was the big entertainment venue.”

Construction on the Municipal Auditorium was completed in 1943. It was built with city and federal funds as a venue to entertain the city’s growing wartime populace.

“They did wrestling; they did car shows; they did basketball games!” Brennan said.

There were USO dances and beauty pageants. The place doubled as a 3,000-seat concert hall and sports arena. The 3-point lines of a basketball court are still fading slowly off the floor.

Here in 1960, William & Mary upset nationally ranked West Virginia led by Jerry West.

“Elvis played here. Hendrix played here,” Brennan said. “Like, right here, yeah.”

In June 1959, singers Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson canceled a performance here when they learned the seating would be segregated. The upper rows of wooden seats that remain are where many African Americans were restricted to watching shows during the Jim Crow era.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about civil rights here. Richard M. Nixon gave a victory salute here during his 1968 presidential campaign. James Brown, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Katharine Hepburn all graced its stage.

Then in 1994, the Virginia Opera bought the Municipal Auditorium and an attached 1,800-seat space, the Center Theater, used for smaller theater productions.

The Center Theater was refurbished into the opera’s main stage, and the opera turned the auditorium into its set creation room where, these days, a headless poster of a greased-up and nearly naked Arnold Schwarzenegger hangs from the ceiling.

Vehicle seats, pulled out of the company’s transport van, are piled on top of a tool cage. A sheet of flame-proof Z-Tex unfurls over the lip of an overloaded shopping chart randomly parked in the center of the room.

“They like to throw anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else, in here,” said the director of production, Scott Schreck.

The place is also supposedly haunted.

“I don’t know of any actual story of, like, who haunts it. So, that’s why I think it just makes weird noises,” Brennan said, before adding, “You’ll think you hear piano playing when you’re pretty sure that you’re alone.”

Schreck said, “That’s not just a noise, the building groaning because of heat expansion. Piano playing, that’s more than just a noise.”

Ghost or not, the room is haunted — by history, clutter and techies, and by charming, occasional oddities.