Jake Wells had the looks of a matinee idol, an athlete’s physique and was a star on the …baseball field? Before Wells became a theatre mogul, he was a catcher and first baseman and the popular manager of the Richmond Colts.
During the fall of 1898, Wells entered Spence’s Trunk Store in downtown Richmond to purchase a leather strap to bundle baseball bats. He inquired about the store’s odd architecture. The store was the former Barton Opera House which failed as a "honky tonk" featuring disreputable entertainment. Upon leaving the store Wells commented there was money to be made with a "popular-priced Vaudeville." He quickly persuaded Spence to relinquish his lease, and reopened the building as the Bijou Family Theatre on January 9, 1899. Richmond’s first Vaudeville house was an immediate success and Jake Wells made the transition from baseball to "Mr. Clean Entertainment."
Norfolk was the first city Wells chose to expand his theatrical enterprise. Otto Wells, Jake’s younger half-brother, arrived from Pensacola, Florida, to open the Granby Theatre in 1901. Ten years later the brothers operated the largest theatre circuit outside New York, and by the early 1920’s Jake Wells was known as The Father of Vaudeville in the Southeast.
The brothers would eventually operate 42 theatres in nine states. In Norfolk, Wells operated The Granby, Academy, Colonial, Norva, Strand, New Wells and the American Theatre. Otto managed their entire theatrical enterprise from Norfolk with multiple ticker-tape machines that allowed him to calculate each theatre’s box office earnings.
Jake’s namesake, the New Wells Theatre, opened on August 27, 1913. The poured-in-place, steel-reinforced concrete structure was technologically advanced for the period. The New Wells’ ornate decoration made the theatre the flagship of Wells Amusement Enterprises, and continues today as a well preserved example of Beaux-Arts Classicism and National Historic Landmark.
The theatre originally had 1,650 seats with 12 boxes and three balconies. The top balcony served as a segregated balcony "For Negro Audiences Only," and with had its own entrance and box office. A system of stairs made inside access easy, allowing waiters from Wong Ping’s Chinese Restaurant to serve theatre patrons on the second floor roof garden before and after performances. The downstairs Trustees Lobby facing Tazewell Street housed Doumar’s first location in Norfolk.
That first year, Maude Adams flew across the stage as Peter Pan and Wells presented Ben-Hur complete with teams of horses on treadmills. Fred and Adele Astaire, Will Rogers, Billie Burke, John Drew, John Philip Sousa and Dorothy Gish all appeared on the Wells stage.
The brothers sold their Norfolk and Richmond theatrical holdings to their partners Wilmer and Vincent in 1926. While Otto remained in Norfolk, Jake devoted much of his time to building a ten-story hotel in Hendersonville, North Carolina, when the shocking news of his death reached Norfolk.
Days before his death, Jake was staying in his room at the Park Hill Inn. On the afternoon of March 16, 1927, concerned for his health, the inn manager talked Wells out of his room and persuaded him to go for a drive through the country. He asked that she pull over to pick some flowers. When the manager did so, Wells was reported to have said, "It can’t be long now," produced a pistol, and fired a shot below his ear. While the manager ran for help along the highway, she heard the second shot. His body was found slumped under a tree. A physician gave testimony at the official inquiry that Wells had suffered a nervous breakdown weeks before. His depression was severe and he alluded that Wells seemed to have worked himself to death.
The suicide sent shock waves throughout the Norfolk and Richmond communities. The Virginian-Pilot reported their phones were busy with community members’ expressions of sorrow and tributes. Hundreds attended his funeral at Sacred Heart Church. He is buried at St. Mary’s in Norfolk.
Otto Wells continued as a Norfolk business leader. During his 40 years in Norfolk, he purchased the Ocean View Amusements from the railroad and, like his brother, a baseball fan, purchased the Norfolk baseball franchise, winning two pennants. Wells also served as a director of Citizen’s National Bank. He continued to work on Ocean View properties and helped sustain the area following heavy damage from three hurricanes. Wells held many civic posts including President of the Bureau of Catholic Charities, Director of the Family Welfare Association, and Director of the Norfolk Chapter of the American Red Cross. Otto Wells died of a heart attack at age 66 in 1940.