Jake Wells Called the Shots
Local show biz history always get my attention. The people of the cinema exhibition business are sometimes good copy, too. For example, here's a short piece on that same Jake Wells -- perhaps the most noteworthy player/impresario of Richmond's movie theater lore -- that I penned for SLANT in April 2005:
In a 1952 Richmond News Leader piece columnist George W. Rogers wrote about a significant figure in Richmond’s theater history, calling him, “... a theatrical proprietor, impresario and father of Richmond movie houses.” That was showman Jake Wells, who had been a big league ballplayer in the 1880s.
With his best days as a player well behind him, in the late-1890s the same Mr. Wells, as player/manager of Richmond’s minor league baseball franchise in the Atlantic League he became a somewhat dashing figure in the local nightlife scene. When he lost that sports gig he looked around town for what next to do. Imagining he had a future in show biz, Wells took the leap to create the Bijou at 7th and Broad Streets in 1899.
The instantly popular Bijou offered selected vaudeville acts that fit into Wells’ concept of “family entertainment.” And, occasionally, a short film was thrown onto a screen, then more. The first venue thrived. With his brother Otto, Jake expanded into the Norfolk market, opening the Granby. In the early-1920’s Wells’ chain included 42 theaters in the Southeast.
Eventually, Wells cashed in his theater interests to concentrate on becoming a real estate development tycoon. In 1927, in the grip of a spell of melancholia, Mr. Wells drove out to the countryside, shot himself in the head, twice, and died.
For more on Wells, the first baseman turned showman, click here. Here's a page with his Major League baseball stats.