The Byrd Theatre Foundation officially took over operation of the theater on June 1 of this year. I got to know Bertie when I was researching the piece that follows, which I wrote for the April 2004 issue of FiftyPlus.
The Byrd Theatre: 1928 Movie Palace Faces Its Future
by F.T. Rea
The rising water posed a stark threat. Yet, the cliffhanger wasn’t flickering on the Byrd Theatre’s 16-by-36-foot movie screen.
No, the action was down in the depths of the cavernous building at 2908 West Cary Street. There, an underground spring had swollen out of the chamber that routinely contains it and was lapping at the base of a mammoth three-phase blower motor that circulates seasonally conditioned air throughout the building. The pumping system, designed to carry off excess water, wasn’t functioning because the electricity was out.
Hurricane Isabel’s wet fury had unplugged much of Central Virginia and most of Carytown.
Dissolve to a plot-twist a Hollywood producer would cherish: a generator and pump were located at the eleventh hour and the threatening water subsided.
“I can’t imagine what it would have cost to replace that motor,” said Todd Schall-Vess, the Byrd’s general manager, looking back at that time of peril.
The antique movie theater has dodged many such bullets during its 76-year history. Now, the good luck in the Byrd’s future will come by way of a little help from its friends, if it is to continue its remarkable run - which began the night of December 24, 1928.
A registered national landmark since 1979, Richmond’s Byrd Theatre was named after Richmond’s founder, William Byrd. It is one of the last American movie palaces - most of them built in the late 1920s - still in operation as a privately owned cinema. That it remains an independent operation with a single 1,396-seat auditorium makes its longevity all the more noteworthy.
Strikingly, it cost about $900,000 to build the opulent Byrd. Amenities included fountains, frescos, marbled walls, arches adorned with gold leaf, a richly appointed mezzanine, and red, mohair-covered seats. A two-and-a-half ton Czechoslovakian chandelier, suspended over the auditorium by a steel cable, dazzled patrons with thousands of crystals illuminated by hundreds of colored lights.
Four main players established the Byrd Theatre on what was then called Westhampton Avenue. Visionary owners Walter Coulter and Charles Somma set it in motion. They hired Fred Bishop as architect/contractor, as well as the manager, Robert “Bob” Coulter, Walter's brother.
They all had to be optimists. In placing such a plush cinema in a developing area far from the downtown theater district, they took an enormous risk.
The first feature presentation at the Byrd was Waterfront, a light comedy that used the experimental Vitaphone sound system; accompanying 78-rpm records had to be synchronized on the fly. The film starred the vivacious Dorothy Mackaill and elegant leading man Jack Mulhall. The program opened with organist Carl Rond playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In the mid-1930s, a change came about. Neighborhood Theatres, owned primarily by real-estate man Morton G. Thalhimer and managed by Sam Bendheim, Jr., assumed the running of the Byrd. Neighborhood was then in the process of establishing itself as the region’s dominant chain. With Bob Coulter staying on as manger, the Byrd served as the flagship of the Richmond-based chain’s operation until 1970, when it opened the Ridge Twin Cinemas in Henrico County.
A 1952 Richmond News Leader article on the history of Richmond’s movie theaters, written by George Rogers, offered, “Robert Coulter at the Byrd is the dean of managers.”
As late as the 1960s ordinary people still routinely dressed up to go to the movies. An evening’s show at the Byrd would include a newsreel, a cartoon, a comedy or travelogue, and a live set by the ever-popular Eddie Weaver at the Mighty Wurlitzer.
Rising up from a dark pit before the screen, Weaver worked furiously at the pipe organ’s console. By pushing various buttons, keys, and pedals, the maestro could also play a harp, a piano, drums and more - real instruments, some of them visible to the audience, up in the wings.
After a short set of rousing tunes, Weaver would descend back into the pit. Then, from the projection booth, the sweet chattering sound of one of two heavy-geared 35mm movie projectors could be heard pulling a leader through its gate. Presto! The ancient carbon-arc lamp would project a stream of light through the moving celluloid strip, and an image would burst onto the screen.
Today, the Byrd uses that same pair of 1953 Simplex projectors.
Weaver’s regular performances at the Byrd spanned twenty years, from 1961 to 1981. For the last seven years Bob Gulledge has been sitting on what was Weaver’s bench.
As for Coulter, he retired in 1971, at age 76, and died in 1978 - although according to his 2004 counterpart, Schall-Vess, a ghostly presence said to resemble Coulter has been spotted over the years, sitting in what had been his favorite chair on the cantilevered balcony.
In the 1960s and 1970s America’s cities saw unprecedented growth in their suburbs. New multi-screened theaters began popping up like mushrooms in shopping centers. More screens under one roof meant expanded customer options. In the process, single-screen houses without parking lots gradually lost their leverage with movie distributors.
That process undermined urban cinemas everywhere. The list of darkened screens within Richmond’s city limits over the last three decades includes evocative names such as the Biograph, the Booker T, the Brookland, the Capitol, the Colonial, the Edison, the Loew’s, and the Towne.
Into the mid-1970s the Byrd continued to exhibit first-run pictures. With business falling off, the region’s distributors eventually decided it was no longer worthy of commanding exclusive runs of the most sought-after titles. By 1983 Sam Bendheim III, who by then was managing the Neighborhood chain, could no longer justify keeping the Byrd open. As well, Samuel Warren bought the building.
To the rescue came Duane Nelson, an assistant manager in the Byrd’s last days under Neighborhood’s auspices. Unable to bear the thought of the screen going dark, Nelson, who had studied the development of historical properties at VCU, lined up a partner: Jerry Cable, creator of the Tobacco Company, in some ways the most significant restaurant in Shockoe Slip since the late-1970s. Together, in 1984, Nelson and Cable secured a lease and set about revitalizing the West Cary Street anachronism.
For five years they struggled with little success to establish the theater as a repertory house, facing the booking and film-shipping nightmares posed by offering a steady diet of double features for short runs. Recognizing that changes had to be made, the partners eventually parted ways, and the Byrd has been under Nelson’s leadership ever since.
Nelson’s role in shielding the Byrd from the wrecking ball, or from being converted into a flea market or some other less-than-appropriate use, is commendable. Over the last fourteen years his policy has been to offer bargain-priced, second-run features. And this strategy has resulted in a certain measure of stability.
Film-rental fees come out of box-office receipts in the form of a percentage; distributors generally take between forty and seventy percent. Consequently, most movie theaters, including the Byrd, lean heavily on revenue from their concession stands. On the other hand, by showing second-run movies the Byrd is not obliged to charge its customers the steep price of admission that distributors insist upon for first-run releases.
The $1.99 ticket scheme works as long as the crowds are large enough to buy plenty of popcorn. Because of the traffic this formula brings to the area, Nelson’s fellow Carytown retailers are smiling about the Byrd’s customary long lines.
The Nelson formula also includes special events. Live Christmas shows have featured high-kicking chorus lines, and every spring the VCU French Film Festival takes over the Byrd for three days. More than 16,000 tickets were sold for the 2003 series, which the French government formally recognized as the largest French film festival in the United States.
As Nelson sees it, the city itself provides some of the most frustrating obstacles for the Byrd. “We’re competing against [multiplexes in] the counties. Richmond’s theaters pay a twenty-five-percent utilities tax, a six-percent food tax, and a seven-percent admissions tax that they don’t have to pay.”
Nelson has company. Without exception, Richmond’s entertainment-industry veterans decry the seven-percent grab - off-the-top - that the city demands from ticket sales.
Still, the show goes on. And if the Byrd’s survival is to be assured well into the 21st century, it will probably be due to the efforts of people like Bertie Selvey and Tony Pelling.
Selvey was a longtime supporter of TheatreVirginia, the live stage formerly in operation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1955-2002). And now she is a driving force behind the Byrd Watchers, a group of volunteers that she founded to raise money for preserving the theater.
“I need a cause,” explained Selvey. “The Byrd is an endangered species.”
Why endangered? As Nelson admits, although the Byrd has been taking in sufficient revenue to stay afloat on a day-to-day basis, putting away reserves to restore the building properly - or perhaps withstand the next hurricane - remain out of reach. In recent years the current owners of the property, heirs to the Warren estate, have been quite flexible in their rental demands. But clearly, something needs to be done. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Nelson seems ready to pass the torch.
Rather than wait for a crisis, a group of supporters has devised a plan to secure the Byrd’s future. It calls for the theater to be operated by a not-for-profit foundation, thus putting it in a position to accept broader community support and to take advantage of some attractive tax advantages.
Accordingly, the Byrd Theatre Foundation was established. Its aim is to purchase the property and to assume responsibility for the theater’s management. Pelling, a retired Under Secretary from the UK Civil Service, assumed the role of the Foundation’s president, a volunteer task, in January of this year. Although he and Selvey have had little experience in the art of selling movies to the public, in truth, they join a long list of important players in Richmond’s movie-theater history who had little in the way of credentials before taking the plunge.
In 1928 posh movie palaces opened in cities coast-to-coast. Most have not survived. As it has before, Richmond’s Byrd Theatre has somehow managed to imbue its current stewards and a growing list of civic-minded contributors with enough of that same Roaring ‘20s optimism to keep the light on the screen.
A Grand Plan for the Byrd
The Byrd Theatre Foundation intends to purchase the Byrd Theatre. The ultimate goal is to restore the theater to its original splendor and to operate it much as it has been in recent years: playing popular fare, mostly as a second-run discount house. The price tag on that dream is $3.5 million.
The Foundation has its 501(C)(3) status, which means that donations are tax deductible. Once the theater is purchased, it will be owned and operated by the Foundation.
Immediate needs include a new roof, refurbished seats, new carpeting, repair of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, and a thorough cleaning. It is also hoped that the 1930s neon marquee will be restored. The estimated cost of these projects is $2.5 million.
Movie Theater Mania
There are records of an exhibition of “moving pictures” presented at The Academy (originally called 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 held regular screenings of “photo dramas.”
However, one showman, Jake Wells, has been credited with being “a theatrical proprietor, impresario and father of Richmond movie houses” (according to George W. Rogers, writing in the Richmond News Leader in 1952). Wells was a former-major league baseball player (1882-84), who had served as the manager of the city’s entry in the Atlantic League during the Gay Nineties.
In 1899 Wells opened the Bijou, on the northeast corner of 7th and Broad Streets. Offering family-oriented fare, the venue thrived. Encouraged by his success, Wells began to expand his influence. With his younger brother, Otto, he opened the Granby Theatre in Norfolk in 1901. Eventually they built a chain of forty-two theaters throughout the Southeast. A second version of the Bijou was built for Wells in 1903 at 816 East Broad, on the site of the legendary Swan Tavern.
By the early 1920s the feature-length movie had been established by Hollywood as a cash cow. Theaters were being built that were designed to be cinemas primarily, rather than multipurpose stages. America was caught in a veritable explosion of popular culture. The influence of national magazines was at an unprecedented level and commercial radio was booming. It was the Roaring ‘20s, and more theaters were needed.
The Byrd Theatre and the Loew’s (now the Carpenter Center) both opened in 1928. Most of their counterparts, styled after grand European opera houses, were also built just before the Depression. Coincidentally, at the same time talkies were revolutionizing the movie business.
The next thrilling episode of the Byrd’s story calls for a cast of thousands to stoke the wonder of the theater that puts the “town” in Carytown.