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Pimp My Backstage: National Theater's Special Band Bait



Saunas, Jacuzzis, Foosball tables and a steam room are just a few of the amenities that promoters of Richmond's National Theater are planning to use to lure bands that otherwise might skip playing a gig in Richmond.

The former vaudeville theater, undergoing a $10 million renovation, is set to open in January with a capacity of more than 1,500, a new "floating stage," an upscale restaurant and a plush backstage area for musicians and their guests.

But the key to the National's strategy: Offer bands plush amenities that can't be found at other theaters. The investors renovating the National -- a group of local Innsbrook After Hours promoters and Norfolk investors — expect the National to become a Richmond version of the well-known NorVa music venue in Norfolk, which has built a reputation for attracting internationally acclaimed bands with a similar strategy.

It's all about the backstage. In addition to the Jacuzzi and sauna, the National will feature separate rooms for the headlining bands and their opening acts, a media room with video games and a big-screen plasma television, showers and laundry facilities.

The idea to create a venue of total comfort came from talking with bands and realizing they spend a significant amount of time on a tour bus without showers, entertainment or luxury, says Bill Reid, head of the Richmond group and co-owner of the NorVa. His venues attempt to compensate for the amenities lacking on the road.

The plan's paid off. Reid says the NorVa has generated $3 million in taxes in Norfolk in the last six years. He expects similar results in Richmond.

Tim Borror, who books tours for acts such as GWAR and Lamb of God, says most music venues don't offer luxury backstage accommodations like the NorVa. "Frankly, I've never heard a band say they didn't like the NorVa," he says, adding that the National will likely have a distinct advantage luring top-notch bands over other Richmond venues, such as the new Toad's Place.

"Luxury ranks fifth on the priority list," says Tony Foresta, frontman for internationally renowned thrash rockers Municipal Waste. But even Foresta, who stayed out of the backstage hot tub at the NorVa, says he didn't mind the basketball courts, Ping-Pong tables and billiards.

Joel Katz, the former director of the Carpenter Center, says the National's redevelopment is long overdue, but he expects some fallout. There will be fierce competition, he says: "It will be unusual if all [these style venues] can function."

It's not just the fancy backstage though. Nick Colleran at Acoustic First, a Richmond sound enhancement company that created the National's "floating stage," expects to offer acoustics similar to a recording studio. A "floating stage" involves three separate pieces of stage all covered in rubber to minimize vibrations from the drummer to the singer. The floating stage also allows band members to hear each other better, Colleran says, and dramatically enhances the quality of the sound.

Oh, and there's the free catering. Next door to the National, well-known restaurateur Johnny Giavos, owner of Kitchen 64 and Three Monkeys, is opening a new restaurant. The two-story restaurant will be located adjacent to and underneath the National with an elevator providing early access to shows for ticket holders.

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