The 1300-seat Byrd Theater in Richmond, Virginia was built in 1928 and is both a state and National Historic Landmark. The Byrd is unique in that it has operated continuously as a movie theater since being built, and its interior has survived mostly unchanged for close to 90 years. The rich architectural detail of the Byrd Theatre is its greatest asset.
The movie house was designed by Richmond architect Fred Bishop in the French Empire, or Renaissance Revival style, a design known for its opulence and imitation of the gilded Opera Houses of Europe. The $900,000 structure in 1928 currency would cost upwards of $12 million to build today. A unique feature of the architectural design is the cantilevered balcony. The lack of vertical supports underneath the balcony means that no seat has an obstructed view. The shape of the balcony also contributes to the effect of superior sound in the auditorium, reducing front to back echo. The theatre when built was outfitted with two sound systems. The Vitaphone was new in 1928 and the Byrd pioneered in its installation and use at a time when the success of “talkies” was yet to be determined. A Wurlitzer Theatre organ accompanied the silent films.
The organ was installed by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company itself when the theatre was built. The “one-man orchestra” for silent films occupies much of the theatre. Four floors over the stage house the organ pipes, as well as the alcoves, which house drum, horn, xylophone and harp effects, all of which are manned by the organ. A vacuum blower for the organ is located in the basement, and the console is at the center of the orchestra console pit. Paintings and murals at the theatre recall a Rococo style. Hand painted murals and cameos decorate the lobby, the alcoves, the auditorium’s sidewalls and the opera boxes. The largest paintings depict themes of Greek mythology. An 18-foot tall Czechoslovakian chandelier hangs over the auditorium. The crystal chandelier is decorated with 500 lights. Two smaller, 7-foot chandeliers hang in the alcoves, and one in the lobby at over 8 feet tall. Throughout the theatre, décor reflects an abundance of crystal, crimson velvet, gold leaf, and marble. The mezzanine is adorned with plaster decorations and some of the original mohair-covered patterned chairs still exist. An arc lamp dating from pre-1953 still exists continues to light the theatre logo against the closed curtain.
History: The theatre is named after William Byrd II, one of the founders of Richmond, Virginia. The original name, the State Theatre, was already taken by the time construction was complete in 1928. The first movie ever shown at the Byrd Theatre was on Christmas Eve. The silent film with added sound was called Waterfront. The manager on opening night, Robert Coulter, would continue to work at the theatre through 1971, and it is said that his ghost still haunts the site today. In 2007, the non-profit organization Byrd Theatre Foundation purchased the movie house with a promise to preserve and restore the theatre, and to integrate cultural and community programming and events. Remarkably preserved, the Byrd theater has never been remodeled save for a few updates to the screens, projectors and sound system, as well as the concession area. Ray Dolby, creator of Dolby sound systems visited the Byrd in 2004 and was so impressed with the theatre that he donated the upgraded Dolby Digital sound system, which was installed in 2006.
Ongoing Programs and Education: The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ is played by house organist, Bob Gulledge, who trained under the Byrd’s most famous organist Eddie Weaver. Weaver manned the organ at the Byrd from 1961 through 1981. Regular Saturday evening organ shows, Holiday sing-alongs and silent movie nights all make use of the organ. While the Byrd theatre mostly plays second run movies at a cost of just $4, other film programs at the theatre include the Virginia Commonwealth University French Film Festival, which has shown at the Byrd since 1996, the James River Film Festival and the 48 Hour Film Festival. The Byrd is Richmond’s most popular site for film premiers and HBO, Miramax and Disney have all released films there. Live events include musical performances, comedy and talks and presentations. The theatre is available for rental and also hosts events for fundraising and public service.
2908 West Cary Street Richmond, VA, 23221, Phone: 804-358-3056
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