Still Playing at the Byrd Theater after Nearly Ninety Years …Culture Watch
tags: The Byrd Theater
He was in his late twenties, short black hair, glasses, about 5’11” tall. He was with a woman. He walked through the lobby of the nearly 90-year-old Byrd Theater in Richmond, Virginia, and then raised his head and saw its cavernous size, its huge screen, glorious chandelier, that looks like the mammoth globe in the play Phantom of the Opera, Wurlitzer organ, its gorgeous original decor and the throng of movie lovers seated in front of him, waiting for the start of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, part of the classic movie series.
“Wow!” he said to his companion, his eyes wide. “Look at this!”
His first stunned reaction to the theater, one of the oldest movie houses in America, must have brought a smile to the face of Todd Schall-Vess, the general manager of the theater. “That’s the reaction of all first timers here,” he said, “It’s an immediate connection to the past and, well, sort of a discovery.”
Discovery, indeed. The Byrd, at 2908 West Cary Street, in the busy Careytown section of Richmond, opened its doors in 1928 and except for a brief seven-month period in the late 1970s, never closed them. Today, the theater, with its 1930s marquee, serves as an entertainment center to the city with a series of classic movies, second run features, documentaries, Family Classics, a Road Trips movie fest, a French Film Festival, Gene Wilder Retro and Bill Murray Festival and special film festivals, such as April in Paris, which features Casablanca, Moulin Rouge! and other films about the City of Lights. There's even an annual Richmond International Film Festival.
You want modern? The Byrd has modern. Last week it screened Baywatch, Alien: Covenant and Boss Baby. This week its’s Jaws and Dr. Zhivago. For the kids in Family Classics this week it’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
The Byrd looks for special events, too. On Halloween, every single year, the theater screens the silent movie Phantom of the Opera, with Bob Gulledge playing the movie’s score on the magnificent old organ. And every year, it is a big hit.
The Byrd, named after William Byrd, one of Richmond’s founders, looks great. “When movie houses are shuttered for years, they fall apart. We have continued running, so the place is in pretty good shape (the Byrd is replacing hundreds of seats this summer, though). We have a foundation that raises funds for repairs, too,” said Schall-Vess.
Which movies out of film history do best? No one can tell. “We booked a Gene Wilder movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, expecting just a mild response, but a week before the movie Wilder died and all of his fans poured into the theater. I think we had 800 people, a huge crowd. Sometimes we’ll book a film and find out that there are hundreds of followers of a particular actor in the film and they’ll pack the house. Generally speaking, westerns and musicals do well,” said Schall-Vess, who started working at the Byrd twenty years ago as a part-time projectionist and is now the head of the theater.
What does not work? The 1930s. “We’d all like the films from the ‘30s to work, but unless they are among the American Film Institute’s top 100, they don’t sell,” said the general manager.
What does work as far as classic historical films? “Anything from the 1940s to the early 1970s. Lots of followers. Big names from that era draw fans,” he added.
Why has the theater remained open all of these years when so many hundreds of similar large city theaters have closed or become night clubs, performing arts centers, flea markets or indoor malls?
“Good management but often just dumb luck,” said the talkative and colorful Schall-Vess, arms spreading wide in exasperation. “We were financially shaky in the early 1980s, but along came a boom in second run movies and the Byrd booked a number of them and that helped us with the comeback.”
There was a nationwide dispute between local theaters and the Walt Disney Company one year that lasted over twelve months. “Disney needed a theater and the locals would not provide it with one, so Disney showed all of its first run features here. The company also spent a tremendous amount of money promoting the films, and us, and that helped the Byrd. Disney really solidified our standing in the community,” said the general manager. “We benefited from the generation gap. People in their 50s and 60s come to see the old classics and then come back to see the other movies. We also get a lot of people who came here 40 years ago as college kids and come back today, with their grandkids.”
And there are the young people. The Byrd sits on the perimeter of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus and hundreds of students go to the Byrd. Tickets are cheap, just $4 or $5, there is a free parking garage right behind the theater and the neighborhood is full of restaurants, bars and shops – young people’s heaven.
Finally, after nearly 90 years, the Byrd has become a part of Richmond’s tapestry. “We are just part of the scenery around here and people come,” the general manager said.
“Good movies are just good movies," Todd said, explaining why young and old flock to his classics series, that showcases the best of Hollywood film history.
One thing that Schall-Vess does not mention, but I think is a major reason, is the wonderful community feel of the theater. Friends meet there, students double date, people have dinner and then see a film. People in the audience laugh out loud and cheer in the middle of films, something you do not see often. At the end of the evening’s film, everybody applauds and cheers. Schall-Vess personally introduces the classic movies, tells you a little about the making of the film and then picks a raffle winner’s name out of a container. The place is friendly with a capital “F.”
In its heyday, the expansive, 1,200 seat Byrd was not even the largest theater in town. “I think the Loew’s had 2,200 seats. The Colony and Capital each had about 1,200,” added the general manager.
Schall-Vess does admit that the unique theater is, in itself, an attraction. He nods his head that the nation is full of 16 and 20 screen cineplexes and that his huge old Byrd can only show one movie at a time. “We are different, that’s true, but the theater has a lot to do with its own success. I always answer that question with a quote from movie mogul Marcus Loew. He said “I don’t sell tickets to movies. I sell tickets to movie houses.”
How long will the Byrd last in Richmond?
Stop by in another ninety years and say hello.