Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jake Wells: ‘Father of Richmond Movie Houses’

There are records of an exhibition of “moving pictures” having been presented at The Academy (the Mozart Academy of Music) at 103-05 N. Eighth Street in 1897. Built in 1886, that venue was generally considered to be Richmond’s most important and stylish theater, until it burned down in 1927.

It is said that in 1906 the Idlewood Amusement Park, which was across the street from the New Reservoir Park (later renamed Byrd Park) held regular screenings of “photo dramas,” open to the public for the price of a ticket.

George W. Rogers (writing for the Richmond News Leader in 1952) credited one showman, Jake Wells (pictured above), as having been the “…father of Richmond movie houses.”

Wells was a former-major league baseball player (1882-84). With his best days as a performer behind him, in the late-1890s, Wells — acting as player/manager of Richmond’s minor league baseball franchise in the Atlantic League — became a dashing figure in the local nightlife scene. He was one of the most popular men in Richmond.

When Wells suddenly lost that sports gig, his platform, 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,” as he called it.

The first venue thrived. A second version of the Bijou was built for Wells in 1905 at 816 East Broad, on the site of the legendary Swan Tavern. Occasionally, a short film was thrown onto a screen … eventually the films developed a following.

Films continued to play a larger role as time went on. With his brother Otto, Jake expanded into the Norfolk market, opening the Granby. In the early-1920’s the mighty Wells chain included 42 theaters sprinkled across the Southeast.

Eventually, Wells turned his back on what had made him a powerful man. He cashed in his movie theater interests to concentrate on becoming a real estate development tycoon. In 1927, caught in the grip of a nasty spell of melancholia, Jake Wells drove out to the countryside with a female companion, shot himself in the head — twice! — and died.

For more on Wells, the first baseman turned impresario, click here, and here. And, for you baseball fans, here’s a page with his Major League baseball stats.

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