Byrd Theatre looks forward to 80 more years.
Rosemary Dietrick, Contributing Columnist
Movie mogul Marcus Loew once said, “We
sell tickets to theatres, not movies.” Although the silver screen provided
the entertainment, Loew and fellow Hollywood impresarios of the 1920s knew
the big draw for moviegoers was the fanciful ambience of the ornate movie
In 1928, Richmonders found much to
“ooh!” and “aah!” about in the Byrd Theatre. Fortunately, years
later, movie fans can still experience the star power of a building that
steals the show.
The theatre’s splendor includes murals
in niches, ceilings adorned with gold leaf, and walls with an abundance of
Turkish marble. Necks crane to view the dazzling two-and-a-half-ton
Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier suspended over rows of red plush seats.
Two gilded opera-style boxes flank the
stage; the one on the left displays a grand piano, on the right is a harp,
each illuminated by a twinkling chandelier. An Austrian-style shirred
curtain of gold silk hides the movie screen. General Manager Todd
Schall-Vess says, “It was a rule in those days that the audience should
never have to look at a blank screen while waiting for the show to start.”
Schall-Vess thinks it was serendipity
that the theatre was built in 1928. It was a crucial time: Talking pictures
were on the horizon. Walter Coulter and Charles Somma, builders of the Byrd
(named for Richmond’s founder, William Byrd), outfitted the theatre with
Vitaphone, a new sound-synchronization system. However, silent movies were
still the norm so they cautiously installed both options for sound. “They
were on the cutting edge of this developing industry,” says Schall-Vess,
“because they could see the potential of a talking film like The Jazz
In the silent era, movies were indebted
to the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” The pipe organ provided special effects like
galloping horses, train whistles, thunder claps, and the all-important mood
music, synchronized to the action on screen.
The legendary Eddie Weaver held forth at
the keyboard for 20 years, in effect, the conductor of a one-man orchestra
because the organ was capable of producing the sounds of all sorts of
musical instruments. Byrd audiences delighted in singing old favorites, all
the while following the ball bouncing over the words on the screen.
Now patrons line up on Saturday nights
to hear Bob Gulledge’s concert before the two evening shows. In the Web
site’s video, Gulledge, a student of Weaver’s, speaks to the power of
the organ: “The music falls from the ceiling, surrounding you; the
audience feels the vibration in the floor.”
year 1928 also played a role in the design of the Byrd’s opulent French
Empire-period style. Such a lavish project — its cost $900,000 — would
never have been attempted during the following Depression years.
The 1,300-seat Byrd has been compared to
European opera houses, largely due to the work of two Richmonders: architect
Fred Bishop and sculptor Ferruccio Legnaioli. Unique is the cantilevered
balcony, giving every seat good sound and an unobstructed view. Legnaioli
was admired for his flamboyant rococo style of plasterwork that added to the
decor’s “wow” factor.
The sumptuous surroundings inspired
patrons to dress up for the show. Faded photos show moviegoers waiting
outside wearing coats, ties, and hats. The Byrd’s majestic spell affected
the deportment of the members of the Saturday morning Mickey Mouse Club,
even when they vociferously cheered or booed their favorite heroes and
Robert Coulter, manager of the Byrd for
43 years, was known to run a tight ship regarding rowdiness. Stories about
Coulter’s ghost abound. Vigilant as always, some say he’s been spotted
sitting in the balcony or at the back doors, checking on the locks.
Evening fare included a newsreel, a
cartoon, a comedy or drama, and perhaps
a travelogue. Ushers wore natty uniforms with gold braid.
To preserve the glamour for future
generations, the Byrd Theatre Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3)
corporation, plans to refurbish the state and national historic landmark.
Board member Bertie Selvey, who had previously been involved with
TheatreVirginia before its dissolution, instantly recognized the elegant,
old movie house’s need of restoration. She and other dedicated fans, whom
she dubbed “Byrd Watchers,” have spearheaded efforts to benefit the
recognition of her work on behalf of the theatre, James Madison University
honored her with the 2008 “Be for Change” award. (Selvey is an alumna of
the school.) “I had a cause,” she says. “The Byrd is an endangered
The foundation has already achieved two
major goals: It has been able to install a new roof and enter into a
purchase agreement regarding
the building. Future enhancements include the replacement of the
auditorium’s seating, a boon to the larger-framed 21st-century customer.
As funds become available, the group will address a long list of needs.
Among them are: electrical, plumbing and heating repairs, the updating of
handicapped accessibility, modernization of bathrooms, and new carpeting.
The “Mighty Wurlitzer” will have a top spot on the list. “To raise funds, we host a “Tour and
Toast” party, with champagne and hors d’oeuvres, several times
throughout the year,” says Bertie. “It’s an opportunity for people to
explore the theatre, learn the history, and see a movie.”
The Byrd offers second-run movies 365
evenings a year except for scheduled events, such as this year’s VCU
French Film Festival to be held March 27-29. Unlike the ’20s when the
price was 50 cents, it’s still a bargain at $1.99 a ticket. An integral
part of Carytown, an eclectic shopping area, the Byrd participates in
seasonal happenings like the New Year’s Eve festivities that attract
crowds to watch the ball “rise” on the top of the theatre’s roof.
Byrd was the venue for HBO’s premiere of its television series, “John
Adams.” Attendees included actor and producer Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti,
who played Adams, author David McCullough, and director Tom Hooper. Hanks was so impressed by
the theatre, he made a generous contribution to the foundation. To a packed house, Hanks proclaimed,
“This is a great hall!”