Suffolk Center’s new Outdoors @ The Center event space will host live music this summer on Thursdays. Photo courtesy of Suffolk Center.   

By Jeff Maisey

“You can have it all in Surprising Suffolk.”

That was the branding slogan televised and promoted on signage far and near in 1974. There was more to Suffolk than Planters Peanuts and railroad tracks, and it was time for Tidewater residents to take note. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the now defunct “Surprising Suffolk” campaign and the city’s historic downtown is once again experiencing a revival with restaurants lining its Main Street, storefronts and building facades getting a makeover, the award-winning Nansemond Brewing Station drawing daytrippers from Virginia Beach, and a new Art Park opening at the end of Saratoga Street. 

Anchoring this Renaissance is a renewed revitalization of Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. 

The stately building served as Suffolk High School from 1922-1990. After sitting empty and in disrepair for a decade, it was reborn and reimagined in 2006 as Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. 

The Hampton Roads region is rich in cultural and performing arts centers. Chrysler Hall (Norfolk), Ferguson Center for the Arts (Newport News), and Sandler Center for the Arts (Virginia Beach) can accommodate 1,500 to 2,200 seated patrons. These venues are programmed with internationally touring music entertainment, traveling Broadway productions, A-list comedians, national dance tours, and the like. 

The American Theatre, in Phoebus, holds just over 350 seated people, and yet it served a unique position in the performing arts community under the programming of Michael Curry in breaking new performers in the market. Les Ballets Trockadero and sitarist Anoushka Shankar are two examples who would return to the region to perform in larger venues and presented by Virginia Arts Festival. 

Added competition vying for bookings include Attucks Theatre and the Harrison Opera House. 

The roughly 500-seated Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts has always been in a challenging position in the market. Covering the expenses associated with promoting entertainment with name recognition is daunting. 

Recently hired executive director Tom Yannuzzi and creative director Rick Byrd are optimistic they’ve formulated the best niche for Suffolk Center by positioning it as a true community focused visual and performing arts space that is active year-round.  

In making upgrades to the Suffolk Center, a capital campaign was launched. A consultant opined they’d be lucky to raise $1 million. 

That’s when the Birdsong family — George, Mac and Warren — took up the fundraising challenge, which resulted in $4.5 million in funding for the Suffolk Center. For the family, the effort was deeply personal. 

“I graduated high school here, and it is exciting to see it transform from the old Suffolk High School to the cultural arts center,” George Birdsong noted.  

Although the original transformation started in the early 2000s, the building still needed a tremendous amount of repairs to prepare it for its next century of serving the community. Mac Birdsong pointed out that “one of the benefits of being on the Suffolk Center’s Board for the past twelve years was that I really got to see how run down the building had become. The building was really in bad shape.”

A significant part of the new repairs included replacing every window throughout the 100-year-old building and painting the entire building white with a Tnemec paint, which helps seal the external walls to prevent water intrusion. Although many folks were hesitant about painting the old brick, “it is amazing to see how beautiful the white building has turned out,” stated Mac Birdsong.

Suffolk Center wants local residents to “live, laugh, and learn” at the venue. 

On the learning side, Suffolk Center offers educational opportunities that include a series of summer camps including Art Camp (June 17-21), Storytelling & Movement Camp (June 24-28), Theater Camp (August 5-9), and STEAM Camp (August 12-16). 

The multi-level Suffolk Center has two visual art galleries upstairs. The former gym, built down into the below ground level, is reimagined as Downstairs @ The Center where everything from poetry slams, dinner theater productions, open mic nights, ballroom dancing, and nightclub-like jazz club settings are a perfect fit. The space can be used for weddings and other ceremonies. 

The main performance space — Birdsong Theater — has received a big upgrade in its sound and lighting systems as well as wider seating in the center orchestra section. Patrons can experience all these on May 18 when The Hit Men of Country take the stage and serenade with some of Nashville’s most familiar songs. 

Hungry for more? 

The former cafe at the Center also benefited from the influx of funding and is returning as Arts Kitchen. The nouveau American restaurant is owned and operated by popular chef Ed Beardsley, who also operates the mid-century modern designed gem of a diner Mod Olive on Main Street in downtown Suffolk. 

Arts Kitchen will spill out onto the newly created Outside at The Center. This attractive patio and well manicured lawn space features cafe tables and a fire pit. A short stage is equipped with electrical outlets for local performers to use. Every Thursday this summer, Outside at The Center will feature local musicians. Shot Glass Romance Band opens the series on May 30.    

Tom Yannuzzi is passionate about getting the arts community actively involved. Hurrah Players, for example, have been bringing a performance to Suffolk to expand its audience based beyond its Norfolk headquarters. Yannuzzi is seeking others to partner with, whether theater groups, dance studios, gospel organizations…you name it. 

The former gift shop space at Suffolk Center is also getting a new direction — as more of a space for working visual artists that can also sell their works directly to visitors. 

This is something marketing director D’Arcy Weiss understands very well. Weiss worked in a similar position at d’Art Center in downtown Norfolk. Art opening receptions as well as thematic wine/beer tasting events, seasonal celebrations and other festivities are ways to attract new audiences to Suffolk Center — her expertise.  

Suffolk Center has a strong team in place and seems poised to carry on the tradition of serving the community. 

George Birdsong pointed out that the Center has always been here for the community, and “we want it to continue bringing the arts to downtown Suffolk.”

The arts and people.