If you’ve driven up Market Street recently, then you may have noticed that Wheeling’s iconic Victoria Vaudeville Theater, known colloquially as the Victoria, has received a little facelift! Being the sole survivor of the five original downtown live theaters, the Victoria is a prized piece of Wheeling history, beloved by a community that has rallied multiple times over the last century to ensure it remains in good condition.
Not familiar with the history of this historic theater? Let’s take a look back…
Built specifically for Vaudeville performances, the Victoria Theater has stood on Market Street in Wheeling for over 115 years, making it the oldest operating theater in West Virginia. The 750-seat theater originally opened in 1904 and had a grand reopening in 1908 after some interior enlargements and additions. It was named after a young local girl, Victoria Robinson, whose father owned a jewelry store on Main Street in Wheeling at the time and was friends with George C. Schafer, the theater’s original proprietor.
Victoria Theatre, 1971. Courtesy of the Ohio County Public Library, Wheeling WV.
Victoria Theatre, 1987. Courtesy of the Ohio County Public Library, Wheeling WV.
The grand opening show on October 5, 1908 featured a Parisian act, ‘Martynne the Mirror Dancer’—a mimed comedy routine where one actor imitates another as if they are a reflection. (The most famous example of this gag is the mirror scene from the 1933 film Duck Soup starring the Marx Brothers.) Although the Victoria’s opening night acts, which also included acrobats, performing dogs, and accompaniment from a six-piece orchestra, seem tame to us in 2022, the show could not be advertised in the local Wheeling newspapers at the time, as vaudeville performances were considered inappropriate and likely to attract rough crowds. Since opening, many famous faces have graced the stage at the Victoria, including Katherine Hepburn, Red Skeleton, Lawrence Welk, George Burns, and W.C. Fields.
In the 1950s, the theater was converted into a cinema by the Cinemette Corporation, until the popularity of the multi-screen movie theater in the Ohio Valley Mall in St. Clairsville rendered the Victoria no longer profitable as a cinema. The theater was then purchased in 1989 by well-known businessman Stanley Klos (of Klos Tower) who poured a whopping $700k into the business, restoring and repairing the entire building. He hired a plaster worker to restore the ornamental interior plasterwork, repainted it with Victorian pastels by color matching to the best of his ability, and installed new carpeting, curtains, lighting, emergency sprinklers, and heating and cooling systems.
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Klos rented out the theater on an almost daily basis for plays, ballets, performances, lectures, conferences, and even Sunday services. There was a small stage in the theater’s post-show lounge, the After Glow Room, intended for comedy performances. The “Victoria Comedy Club” only had one show before the theater sold to the current owner, Earl Brown, in 1995. Earl runs the theater as a local variety show with performances roughly once a month, with the next one being Saturday, August 13, 2022.
The Victoria is a Victorian-style theater with many design influences borrowed from the Beaux-Arts, an architectural style that came to prominence in the United States after the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and remained popular until the Great Depression. This style of architecture emphasized intricate detailing, ornamentation, and grandiosity, giving buildings within the style a distinctly palace-like and elaborate feel. Some notable Beaux-Arts features at the Victoria include the repetition and symmetry in the ornamental plasterwork, classic Greco-Roman columns with ornate capitals placed in pairs, the various fleur-de-lis, medallions, and ribbon motifs, and ornate opera viewing balconies on either side of the stage.
Thanks to the City of Wheeling’s facade improvement grant program, the Victoria is currently receiving some improvements to the exterior of the building. These improvements include a fresh exterior paint job, complete replacement of all of the lightbulbs on the underside of the awning signage, new windows and mended window frames for the connected storefront, and new tin panels under all of the windows. The owner, Earl, says the restoration and upkeep of the vaudeville-era theater is a constant, ongoing feat, but one that he’s happy to continue.
So, next time you find yourself on Market Street, take a glance up at the Victoria Vaudeville Theater and admire its long history made possible by its dedicated caretakers and consider checking out an upcoming show! Follow the Victoria Theatre on Facebook for information about upcoming performances.
• Ellery McGregor is a Wheeling transplant from Los Angeles, California. She works remotely for a marketing team in LA and now moonlights as an author for Weelunk. She earned her undergraduate degree in English from California State University Long Beach in Long Beach, California. Since moving to Wheeling over a year ago, she has spent her time helping her family restore an Italianate Victorian row house in Centre Market, picnicking at Heritage Port, and marveling over having actual seasons.