Discover The Historic Palace Theater

Home To A Thriving Center For The Arts in Cape Charles
There’s a certain magic about a movie theatre. One has but to settle into a seat to find themselves transported by a story that unfolds before them on the screen.  In Cape Charles, the Historic Palace Theatre, which is now home to a thriving arts community, experienced a dramatic rise, untimely fall, and incredible rebirth not unlike many of the movie classics it once screened.

A Grand History

The Historic Palace Theatre, which began as an elegant Art Deco movie house, first opened its doors in 1942 and was described as one of the largest and most ornate picture theatres between Norfolk and Philadelphia. Designed by Norfolk architect Alfred M. Lubin and constructed by an enormous team of architects, it was a true showplace, boasting terrazzo floors, walnut paneling, and huge hand-painted murals. Mirrors soared from floor to ceiling and its unique architectural elements dripped with Art Deco style. It hosted bustling crowds and blockbuster films. But as times changed in Cape Charles, its gilded era declined.

“The opening of the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel in 1964 dealt a blow to the theater, and by 1970, a weekend-only film schedule was implemented. The last film, “Titanic,” was shown in 1997.” — “Cape Charles’ Palace Theatre to Celebrate 75th Birthday,” Hillary T. Chesson, Delmarva Now 2/17/17.

But, as with most silver-screen heroes, the story of the Palace Theatre and the town of Cape Charles was far from over. It was, in fact, about to enjoy a triumphant ‘second act.’

A Thriving Home for the Arts

Today, the Palace Theatre is where magic happens, once again. In 1998, the theatre was purchased by Arts Enter Cape Charles, a non- profit visual and performing arts organization formed by Cape Charles resident, Clelia Sheppard, and a small group of dedicated art enthusiasts. It is now a powerhouse advocate for the arts on the Eastern Shore, through teaching, promoting, and performing. Soon after Arts Enter purchased the theatre, the enormous task of restoration began.

“The historic theatre underwent a tremendous renovation,” says Clelia. “It seats about 380 people. But it’s not just the building that is important. The building is beautiful once again, but it’s what transpires in the building that makes it so exciting.”  Now owned by Clelia and her husband, John, the theatre has become a home base for an array of artistic endeavors and is a hotspot of creative activity. Clelia, one of many driving forces who has helped art thrive in Cape Charles, shares more about how the theatre—and the arts—are alive and well in this very special town.

“It’s very rewarding to have an organization where so many people can enjoy the arts. That’s why we named our organization ‘Arts Enter,’ because we don’t want any doors to be closed to anyone.”

A native of Italy, and an Eastern Shore resident for more than 25 years, Clelia—herself a talented painter—is passionate about sharing the arts with the community. When she and her family first moved to the Eastern Shore in the 1990’s, she recognized a lack of opportunities for her children and herself in the arts. “There wasn’t much happening. I wondered, ‘where will my daughter learn to dance? Where will my children learn to play piano?’ My lifelong mission has been to create a place where people can realize their desires to be on stage or learn a discipline in the arts,” she says.

Decades later, the art that takes place within the walls of the Palace Theatre is inspiring and plentiful—with performances by ballet companies and jazz bands, symphonies, lectures, workshops, classes in dance, drama, music, sculpting, painting, and more.

“Of course, we also do a lot of entertainment on the stage,” says Clelia.  “We have brought in the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and other large events. We also do a film festival in the summer, Experimental Film Virginia, which is now in its eleventh year. It’s a two-week resident program where film makers come from all over the world to experience our small town of Cape Charles and the Eastern Shore and be inspired by it. The program culminates with a premiere of all the films. These artists are incredible…in only two weeks, they shoot, edit, and show their films,” she says.  “Originally, the Palace was a movie theatre…so, it has come full circle.”

“Now, we’re in the middle of preparing and rehearsing for Mary Poppins, the Broadway Musical,” Clelia says. “Last year, we performed The Music Man .”

The theatre also has special showings of movies. During Cape Charles’ beloved Festive Fridays, a holiday celebration that runs from Thanksgiving to Christmas, the Palace shows a film every Friday night. “Everybody’s shopping, the town is decorated, and then at eight in the evening, we show an old movie, and we’re packed to the brim,” Clelia smiles. “Yes, we could see the same movie at home but there’s something wonderful about experiencing an old movie in a historic theatre.”

A true hub for the arts, there is also a place where artists can showcase their work. Sitting alongside the Palace Theatre and accessible from its entrance lobby is Lemon Tree Gallery & Studio where more than 100 artists exhibit their work for sale. Founded by Clelia, Lemon Tree is an interactive space where artists exhibit and create, and where visitors can see an impressive variety of work. “Fridays at Lemon Tree” have become a community gathering event featuring live music and a cash bar year-round. During the summer months, Lemon Tree Gallery sponsors the popular event out on Strawberry Street.

“Sometimes at intermission, people will mingle and go in the gallery,” Clelia explains. “It’s amazing how many artists we’ve been able to accommodate, and most are from the Eastern Shore. There are so many studios and artists here,” she adds. “Cape Charles really is a stone’s through from all the bustle of a city such as Norfolk or Virginia Beach. Even Washington DC and New York are only a few hours away. It’s a good spot… the artists love it. Cape Charles has flourished.

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