The Byrd Theatre named after William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, is a cinema in the Carytown neighborhood of Richmond. The theater — the first in Virginia to be equipped with a sound system — opened on December 24, 1928 to much excitement and is affectionately referred to as Richmond’s Movie Palace.
Construction and decoration
The theatre’s architect and contractor was Fred Bishop and is considered to be of a Empire style|French Empire period design. In 1928 the building cost $900,000 to construct (the builders were Walter Coulter and Charles Somma). Inside, the theatre contains orchestra seating (main) and cantilever balcony seating with 916 seats in the orchestra and 476 seats on the balcony. It is on only some Saturday nights that audience members can sit on the balcony by making a donation to the Byrd Theatre Foundation. The interior is also stunning due to the lavish design done by Arthur Brunet Studios, New York with imported Greece|Greek and Italy|Italian marble, eleven stunning Czechoslovakian Crystal Chandeliers, hand-sewn velvet drapes, oil-painted murals of Greek mythology, and the “mighty” Wurlitzer organ. In addition to all of the luxuries the Byrd has many other unique features. The theatre has a central vacuum system, a natural spring which used to supply water to the air conditioning system and to the front outside of the building.
The Wurlitzer organ of the Byrd Theatre is housed in four rooms on the fourth floor above the stage. The basement also houses a vacuum blower for the piano and an elevator room which raises the organ onto the stage for performances. Though there is a mechanical computer that aids the organist in choosing which pipes and other devices to use, all of the pipe work, bells, drums, and other effects are real and not electronic. The sound levels in the actual auditorium are controlled by large slats that open and close to control the volume and a sound chute that carries the sound from the fourth floor; however, the pipes are always played at their loudest level.
There is also a Lyon & Healy harp,a master xylophone, and a marimba in various alcoves in the Byrd. The organists that have performed on the organ are Carl Rhond, Welma Beck, Waldo S. Newberry, Slim Mathis, Bill Dalton, Harold Warner, Eddie Weaver, Art Brown, James Hughes, Bob Lent, Lin Lunde, and Bob Gulledge currently.
The Byrd Theatre opened for the first time on December 24, 1928. At the time, adult tickets were 50 cents for evening shows and 25 cents for matinees, while a child’s tickets was only 10 cents. On the opening day, the Byrd played the film Waterfront, a First National Film. In addition, the manager at the time was Robert Coulter who remained the manager until his death in 1971 (who is still rumored to haunt the theatre).
Though many other events have happened in the extensive history of the Byrd Theatre, today the theatre still shows movies 365 days a year, has not been re-modeled (with the exception of repairs and minor changes such as the installment of a larger screen and new equipment including a Dolby Digital sound system which was installed in November of 2006), and the organist still plays every Saturday night; nevertheless, some changes have been made. The Byrd now plays second-run movies for $1.99 per ticket with the exception of certain festivals such as the VCU French Film Festival that has been held there annually, has a concession stand, and in 2007 after five years, discontinued the playing of classic movies at midnight shows on Saturday nights due to dwindling attendance. The Byrd is also now under the operation of the Byrd Theatre Foundation and curator/preservationist Miles J. Rudisill, Jr.
As a result of its longevity, the Byrd Theatre was designated as a state landmark in 1978. This was followed in 1979 by it gaining recognition in the National Register of Historic Places.