Staging a Comeback: Curtain closes on Year One of the Virginia's second life | News |

2022-12-23 20:32:11 By : Mr. keith wu

Cloudy with rain and snow this evening. Snow showers overnight. Low -3F. Winds WSW at 15 to 25 mph. Chance of snow 100%. Snow accumulating 1 to 3 inches. Winds could occasionally gust over 40 mph..

Cloudy with rain and snow this evening. Snow showers overnight. Low -3F. Winds WSW at 15 to 25 mph. Chance of snow 100%. Snow accumulating 1 to 3 inches. Winds could occasionally gust over 40 mph. Innovative Design Curtain

A sold-out show for Bailey Zimmerman in November was one of the highlights of the first season for the new-look Virginia Theater in downtown Somerset. 

A sold-out show for Bailey Zimmerman in November was one of the highlights of the first season for the new-look Virginia Theater in downtown Somerset. 

Yes, Virginia. There is a place for you in Somerset.

For years upon years, efforts were made in this community to bring back the Virginia Cinema, the East Mt. Vernon Street movie house which closed in 1994. Specifics were debated, fundraising attempts fizzled, and the building sat empty while other communities not too unlike Somerset around the state preserved and reinvigorated similar theater venues.

This past June, the Virginia came back — albeit in a new form.

Reborn as a venue purposed primarily for live performances and events, the Virginia Theater quickly established itself as an anchor of downtown Somerset life. Whether a magnet for attracting people to the area, to dine in nearby restaurants and enjoy a burgeoning downtown nightlife, or simply a sight to see with its glowing marquee brightening up the local landscape, the Virginia Theater enjoyed a successful 2022 — only the first step of its new life.

"I think we had an incredibly successful first six months at the venue," said Julie Harris, Communications Director for the City of Somerset. "We came out of the gate really fast, and wanted to book lots of different experiences."

To that end, the Virginia partnered with local outfit Pure Grain Productions to bring a series of musical events to the stage at the remodeled theater — and not just music, but mentalist Josh Fletcher amazed his audience late in the year as well. The Virginia finished out its first season of entertainment with a two-weekend run by Flashback Theater Co., presenting a live production of the holiday classic, "Miracle on 34th Street."

Said Harris, "I think it was a neat experience for the community to have that kind of play in that venue. We've had several private events. The space is so versatile, it really works well for a number of uses. So I think these first six months have been a great way for us to test out what works and what doesn't, and what people are enjoying."

All of this follows on the heels of the City of Somerset's 2020 decision to outright buy the Virginia and try to do something with it following fruitless efforts to find another party to take it over from the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation, which owned the building since 2003 and worked to remove hazardous materials from it so it could safely be entered and used in some capacity.

And used it has been. The Virginia saw 17 musical and individual performance events in its first year (including Fletcher), as well as the six show dates for "Miracle on 34th Street," one of Flashback Theater Co.'s most successful runs to this point, packing the Virginia every night.

One of the highlights of the year was the venue's first sellout show in November — the Power Country K93 Kentucky Takeover Tour stop with Bailey Zimmerman performing. The line to get into the Virginia stretched all the way down East Mt. Vernon Street toward the intersection with Maple Street, and even then wrapped around the corner onto that street.

"That was fantastic," she said of the joint effort between Pure Grain and iHeartRadio. 

The feedback that the City has received thus far regarding the Virginia experience has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Harris.

"I think people love just the vibe of the space on the inside, how well it's designed," she said. "We get lots of compliments on the sound. It definitely is a wonderful sound system. Everything that I've heard in there sounds fantastic, whether it's a concert or a speaker or what have you.

"We've gotten compliments from musicians as well," she added. "I think John Moreland, when he came in October, (organizer) Tiffany (Finley) told me that he left the venue talking about how he'd not ever played in a place that had that good a sound. He was really complimentary of the venue, and that is fantastic to hear from musicians because we want them to have a great experience as well as the ticket buyers."

If there are improvements to be looked at, Harris noted one show where there was some negative feedback about crowd noise, "but there's not a whole lot you can do about that. If you're playing an acoustic set and you've got 200 people on the ground floor and they're talking and moving around, it is what it is."

Another possible change could be seen in seating. With the need to have an open floor for event rentals, dancing, or other options, the old movie theater-style seating was taken out; for events where people are seated watching the action on the stage, as with the mentalist act or the play, individual chairs are placed out on the floor. That doesn't always make from the best view from farther back however, or from the balcony, where the view is obstructed by the railing.

Harris did confirm that the Virginia's planners have talked about the option of removable seat risers from the beginning, and said that's something that could still be done in the future.

"It is challenging (to see) if you are on the balcony especially," she said. "That's something we probably do need to spend some time talking about. It's just a matter of that being at some point a different phase of what we do inside the building. I think the Flashback show demonstrated the need for something like that, so that people who are up on the balcony can see over the railing. The railing is super important for safety, of course, but being able to provide an experience for certain types of shows where people who are sitting can see better is definitely something to discuss."

While the line-up of shows scheduled with Pure Grain were successful, the team behind the Virginia is looking to find ways to diversify the offerings there even more.

"We want to just take a look at what we can provide on the schedule for 2023 that provides the most variety for people in terms of entertainment," said Harris. "We certainly will talk to Pure Grain about scheduling some shows next year, but we will also be open to booking different types of shows. ... We don't want to close any doors. Anything that we can bring to the venue that will be popular and enjoyable for people, this community and the region, we are open to taking a look at that."

She added, "I heard several people who went to the mentalist talk about how cool that was. Comedy, I think could do well in there. We haven't booked one of those shows yet, so I think that's definitely something we would want to look at. The Halloween party with DJ Hurricane was really popular. Again, that's music but it's a little different type of (show), it's not your average concert. We're absolutely looking at what kinds of new experiences we can offer that people will enjoy."

There will also be a bigger focus on private rentals in 2023, said Harris; "We've had a couple of people book weddings so far, which I think is going to be really cool in that space," she said. "I do think that there are some really cool opportunities for people to rent the space and do neat things in there."

There's no timetable for when another sort of season of shows might start, it's just a matter of when shows can be programmed, noted Harris. 

"We're still learning, we've only been at this for about six months," she said. "We're still in learning mode on trying to figure out which shows are most popular in this area and so we're kind of taking it as it comes at this point."

There is one definite planned attraction for 2023 — a "classic movie night," hosted by John Alexander.

"That's going to be really fantastic," said Harris. "That right now is the only thing (scheduled) for certain outside of our private rentals and events."

During the 2022 mayoral race, Mayor Alan Keck's challenger Eddie Girdler raised objections to the sale of alcoholic beverages at the Virginia's concession stand as a potential issue. Harris said everything with that aspect of the Virginia experience has gone well, but even in the simple matter of concessions, there is more that the Virginia can do in the future.

"That has been another (case of) trial-and-error, just figuring out what people want and what they don't," she said. "In addition to drinks, we recently added snacks, so there are a number of those on the menu now.

"We did get a lot of feedback from folks saying, 'I'd really like to grab a hot dog before a show or do something like that; can you bring a food truck out?' Of course, there are complications with putting a food truck on the street, but we've talked about how we can (meet those needs). We want people to dine in local restaurants, of course, but if they're at a show and mildly hungry and want to grab something quick, how can we accommodate that? So that was the genesis of bringing some snacks to the concession area, and that's gone really well." 

Having the option to make a night on the town in Somerset — going to a downtown restaurant like Charred Oak Grill or Serendipity at the Orange Door, visiting a second nightspot like the Mole Hole/Tipsy Toad for a little extra music or Jarfly Brewing Co., and then going to see a show — is the experience that Harris and the City hopes people will have when they visit the Virginia. She noted that marketing efforts are going out to promote the idea of "Dinner and a Show 2.0" here locally.

"We have so many options for people," she said, "and that's really what we're hoping that people will start to (embrace)."

Certainly, the Virginia has been embraced by the community after its recent rebirth. Even for those who haven't been inside, just driving down the street at night and seeing the marquee, a big-city look in a variety of colors along the sidewalks of Somerset, has added a little magic to the downtown environment.

"I have so enjoyed seeing people's photos of that sign," said Harris. "I knew it was going to be beautiful, and we were all excited about it being there, but I think I underestimated how excited people were going to be to just see that emblem in the street.

"I see no fewer than three or four photos of that sign lit up at night during the week, and it makes me smile," she added. "It's quickly becoming a staple of our downtown streetscape, and I love it. It's classic and beautiful and it does light up our community, in a real way and in a symbolic way too."

"I see no fewer than three or four photos of (The Virginia's) sign lit up at night during the week, and it makes me smile. It's quickly becoming a staple of our downtown streetscape, and I love it. It's classic and beautiful and it does light up our community, in a real way and in a symbolic way too."

City of Somerset Communications Director

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