The man who changed this man named Earl Brown, owner of the historic Victoria Theater on Market Street in downtown Wheeling, was Elvis Presley, and ultimately it was “The King” who guided Brown and his wife, Nina, to purchasing the venue in May 1995.
Before Brown guided my tour, he made sure Presley was playing on the venue’s sound system.
“Elvis came on the scene in 1956, when I was 12 years old, and he did something to me. I had never heard anything like him before,” Brown admitted. “Before Elvis, we had performers like Doris Day, but nothing like Elvis Presley. So I got a guitar like he had; I learned how to play it, and then I started singing his songs.
“He influenced my life. Why? I really don’t have an answer to that question,” he continued. “I’ve just sung his songs for the rest of my life because of how it’s made me feel and because of how much my wife enjoyed his music.”
From the front of the 111-year-old building it appears the Victoria Theater is only a two-floor structure, but the rear of the building reaches five stories for the stage equipment, and the double basement houses dressing rooms, storage areas, and the “Afterglow Lounge” that has a capacity of more than 75 people. Above and behind the last balcony row sit the spotlight and the last projector utilized when the Victoria Theater showed motion pictures.
The venue was constructed in 1904 for Vaudeville performances, and Brown said many of the biggest names appeared on its stage until the film industry emerged in the middle of the 20th century.
Those who still recall the interior of the Victoria as a movie theater likely viewed “Jaws,” or “Grease” inside the 727-seat venue, but that era ended at 1228 Market St. in 1989.
“This theater was really built for great sound because we didn’t have the amplification then that we have today,” Brown said. “At that time they didn’t have the large venues for large crowds, so when they decided to build this, they wanted to make sure the sound was most important on the main floor and in the balcony.
“It was all Vaudeville that was performed here when it was first constructed, and some of the biggest names played in this theater,” he said. “And it was Vaudeville until the advent of motion pictures and the movies took priority.”
Elvis and Earl.
Brown, a Wheeling native who graduated from Wheeling High in 1965, operated a medical practice in Martins Ferry for several decades before learning of something called a karaoke machine.
The music? Without the words? Just the music?
“I had a friend who called me up one day and told me that he was at a party and they had something called karaoke,” Brown recalled. “I didn’t know what it was before he explained that it was just the music with no words on the recording. He told me they had at this party the CDs of Elvis’ music and that I would just have to put the voice in with mine.
“After I went to see it for myself, I knew I had to go buy one of those machines and those CDs,” he said. “And then my wife made me an outfit like one of Elvis’, and I started doing little shows for this group and that group in the early 1990s because they really seemed to enjoy it. I can sing Elvis pretty well.”
So well that he started performing in public in the early 1990s, paying tribute to what he refers to as the “older Elvis.” Presley passed away at the age of 42 in August 1977.
“After one of my performances someone suggested that we buy a theater in Wheeling and do the same shows for much larger crowds. They always told me that if I did that, I would pack the place,” Brown said. “So what do I do? I started looking to buy a theater in Wheeling because I loved singing his songs so much.
“At that time, the Capitol Theatre wasn’t for sale. It would be a few years later, but not then, so I continued until I found that there were two more theaters,” he continued. “There was the Victoria, and there was the Court Theater. I looked at the Court, but I didn’t think it was really conducive for stage work because of the way it was constructed for movies.
“And at that time the Victoria was being restored, and I really didn’t think the owner would even think about selling it. But I was surprised. It was for sale, and we came to see it. When I first walked in, I knew I had to have it. I knew because of the sound inside that this is where I wanted to perform as Elvis.”
Brown, who still dons the signature sideburns The King made popular in the 1970s, insisted he doesn’t have just one favorite Elvis Presley song.
“I am asked that question all of the time, but I really don’t have one favorite Elvis song,” Brown insisted. “But I can tell you I love to do ‘Hurt’ because I have that voice, but there are so many great ones.
“Elvis recorded over 600 songs during his short life, so it’s really impossible for me to choose just one,” he continued. “The one that I’m known for is ‘How Great Thou Art’ because I do it just like Elvis did.”
The Bigger Stage.
Initially, Brown was very excited when he was informed the Victoria Theater was for sale, but his dream was dashed when he learned the asking price was $750,000. For reasons he was unable to recall, the Browns called back several months later.
“That’s when the owner said he would reduce the price as long as he didn’t have to pay any fees to the real estate people, and that’s was fine with us,” he explained. “So we purchased the theater for $350,000 and took care of all of the fees that were involved with the transaction.
“Once we purchased it in May 1995, we poured in several thousand dollars to finish the restoration that the previous owner was doing,” he said. “Once we did that, and we started having the shows, and the dream was coming true for me and my wife in downtown Wheeling.”
The Browns’ goal in the beginning was to present performances that featured what he refers to as, “the big five” – country classics, blue grass, gospel, music from the 1940s and 1950s, and comedy. Although Brown now only hosts a handful of shows each year, he continues to illuminate the marquee each evening.
“One of the things that was important to me was the marquee, and that was a very expensive project because it had not been addressed for a lot of years,” he said. “When it is working properly, it really, really looks good during the day and during the evenings, and I do have it on most of the time because it seems as if there are people finally fighting for downtown Wheeling again.
“But when I first got into it, I had no experience at all with theaters, so I had to do a lot of research if I was going to do it the right way,” he admitted. “But we figured out what we needed to do with the stage, the lighting, and the sound so we could do the best shows possible.”
This past week Brown met with representatives with roofing companies, and he continues the constant maintenance of the marquee because of damage caused by both the weather and by vandals.
“There have been some issues with water, so I’m getting all of that fixed, and we have some storms here that haven’t done any favors for the marquee out front,” he explained. “And for some reason, there have been people who have tried to damage the neon on it. Why someone would want to do such a thing is beyond me, but I get it fixed, I can tell you that.
“I am in the process of getting the basement fixed up, too. Once we’re finished down there it’s going to be a very nice place. I know once it was used as a billiards hall, and it’s been used as a club in the past, too,” he said. “I love this building, and I’ve been fighting for this building for 20 years now, but it amazes me when people tell me that they didn’t even know the Victoria Theater is here. But it’s here, and it will be here as long as I’m alive.”
The Show Must Go On.
Brown lost his lifelong love seven years ago when Nina, whom he met when they were just 17 years old, passed after issues with congestive heart failure.
Earl, too, has experienced health issues, including a recent bout with diverticulitis.
“I had never been the hospital in my life until that, and the doctor said after the surgery that it was a good thing I was there because I might not have lasted much longer,” he explained. “When I had the tests done the doctor told me that there was no cancer but that I did the diverticulitis issue.
“So I went to a doctor in Morgantown who does only colon surgery, and in the end I had to have eight inches of my colon removed after six hours of surgery,” Brown said. “First time in the hospital, and it was a doozy.”
He’s healed, though, and he’s now back to work on his historic theater. Brown currently has two shows scheduled for the stage of the Victoria Theater on Nov. 7 and on Dec. 13 for his annual Christmas show.
But could there be more performances in the future?
“I get asked about the use of the theater pretty often, but that was never something I considered seriously because that’s not why I bought it in the first place,” Brown said. “But I’ve started leaning toward it more recently because of all of the hard work that’s been put into it over the years.
“I have had other shows in here but, far too often people make what’s supposed to be entertainment far too loud for anyone to really enjoy, in my opinion. They didn’t understand how the theater was built and that there’s really no need to turn up the volume as loud as they have,” he continued. “But we’ll see. It’s definitely something I’ve started thinking about.”
Today the storefront on the left of the Victoria Theater sits empty after serving as the home to a jewelry store and a hot dog shop that housed LVL machines soon after the state of West Virginia legalized the industry in 2001. But Brown soon moved the machines to a Marshall County location, and the space has remained empty since.
That may be why Brown is currently involved in a dispute with officials of the city of Wheeling concerning the classification of the business license he needs to operate the theater without the LVL machines.
“Someone with the city continues to insist that we are a private club, but we are not a private club,” Brown said. “Were we when the LVL machines first came out? Yes, of course we were then, but the machines are not here any longer, so that means we no longer need that more expensive license.
“Can I pay the extra $400 for that license? Of course I can, but it’s the principle,” he continued. “I am working with my councilman, Don Atkinson, so I am hoping we can get that resolved soon so we can move past it and continue doing what we do here.”
His dressing room rests in the basement with more than 10 Elvis Presley costumes, and his voice has remained true to The King. There have not been as many shows as produced in the past, but Brown loves that he owns this piece of classic Americana that has offered many dedicated entertainers the chance perform on his stage.
“And this theater will keep going until I die, but after that I don’t know,” Brown admitted. “I have three children, but none of them have expressed any real interest in owning it and operating it.
“I really don’t have an answer to that question because until my wife passed away, I never thought about death,” he said. “Before the issues that I have had with diverticulitis, passing away just wasn’t something I’ve considered because I’ve had a lot of fun living.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)