Picture Palace

Richmond's Picture Palace

The Byrd Theatre looks forward to 80 more years.


by 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 palaces.

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 Singer.”

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.”

 The 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 villains.

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 theatre. 

In 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 species.”

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.

The 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!”


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