(reprinted from a June 2004 piece that ran on Richmond.com)
by F. T. Rea
"Today was a good day," said Tony Pelling, referring to the $4,000 in contributions that had arrived on June 28th in the mail. That brought the total in the Byrd Theatre Foundation's growing kitty to $82,000.
"The City is making a grant for $150,000," chimed in Bertie Selvey.
The Byrd Theatre Foundation, with a 501(C)(3) status that makes donations to it tax deductible, has a clear mission: "... to implement and support the procurement of funds for the purchase, renovation, and ultimately the operation of the Byrd Theatre and to insure its continuation as a movie palace."
Pelling assumed the role of the foundation's president in January 2004. He and Selvey are two of 22 board members. Selvey also heads up the Byrd Watchers, a lively group of volunteers that stages fund-raising events -- auctions, concerts and you-name-it -- to benefit the foundation.
"We've started to negotiate with the heirs [the family that inherited the building]," said Selvey, with obvious satisfaction. She explained that several options are being discussed.
The foundation's reason for wanting to buy the Byrd Theatre as soon as possible -- with its 16-by-36-foot movie screen, its two-and-a-half-ton Czechoslovakian chandelier, its Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ and its 1,396 seats -- is that the current operator Duane Nelson is not in a position to guarantee the Byrd's future. Although Nelson, who has operated the cinema since 1984, generally takes in enough revenue in box office receipts and concession sales to get by day-to-day, he has not been able to put aside the kind of money it would take to stave off an emergency; let alone restore the 76-year-old cinema.
So, as it stands today, with any bad luck involving the Byrd's ancient equipment, or the roof, etc., and the screen could go dark. Hopefully, for the sake of the theater's regular audience for second-run movies, the foundation will get its ducks in a row before anything like that happens.
The total price tag to buy the building and equipment, then to restore it to its original splendor is $3.5 million. Among other things that would include a new roof, refurbished seats, new carpets, repairs to the pipe organ, a thorough cleaning, and putting its neon marquee back in place.
The Byrd Theatre, at 2908 West Cary Street, was built in 1928 for $900,000 by Walter Coulter and Charles Somma. During its initial four decades of operation the Byrd was considered to be the premiere movie house in Richmond.
In the '70s the Byrd fell onto hard times when national trends essentially moved the motion picture exhibition business to the suburbs in every town. During that time most of the Byrd's remaining counterparts, urban movie palaces built just prior to the Depression, closed. Many were destroyed.
Today the Byrd's Mighty Wurlitzer is one of only two still being played for American audiences on a regular basis; the other is housed in New York City's Radio City Music Hall. In addition to special events Selvey's Byrd Watchers have a number of plans to accommodate film buffs who want to hop on board the bandwagon to rescue and restore the Byrd.
Meanwhile, Pelling looks forward to seeing more good news arrive in the mail. Their optimism is both refreshing and contagious. The show must go on.