90 Years of History and Entertainment
Celebrating our 90th Anniversary in 2019, the Byrd Theatre is celebrated in Richmond, Virginia as one of the Nation’s Grand Movie Palaces and today is both a State and National Historic landmark. The 1,200-seat Byrd Theatre is named after William Byrd, one of the founders of Richmond, and is one of the nation’s finest cinema treasures.
Unlike many opulent theatres that were built during the 1920s and 30s in the United States, the Byrd Theatre has survived the past 90 years largely unaltered in appearance or function, operating almost continuously since 1928 as a movie theatre. The first movie shown at the Byrd on Christmas Eve, 1928, was Waterfront, a silent movie with sound added. Patrons paid 25 cents for a matinee and 50 cents for an evening movie.
In 2007, a purchase agreement for The Byrd Theatre was reached with the Samuel Warren family by The Byrd Theatre Foundation, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation, with the express purpose of purchasing, restoring and preserving this theatre as a vital community resource. The Foundation works to integrate cultural, educational and community events into the Theatre’s programming.
Photos by Florence Womack
Photos by Florence Womack
An Architectural Treasure
The Byrd Theatre celebrated its 90th birthday on Christmas Eve, 2018. The theater’s screen has only rarely been dark during the years that have followed. However, Richmond’s grandest film theater has resisted alteration. It has adapted to changing practices in the film industry for 85 years without losing its focus on film, popular entertainment, and architectural and musical spectacle. The theater, altered only as needed to meet the demands of technology, has been maintained in near original condition throughout that time, in spite of the many changes that have been seen in the film distribution business. It is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The theater, named after Richmond’s founder, William Byrd II, is one of the nation’s most significant surviving movie palaces.
The theater was opulently outfitted with the most expensive fittings and up-to-date technology. The Byrd cost of about $900,000, equivalent to $13,000,000 today. Major features include:
- The auditorium is lit by an 18-foot-tall, 2 ½-ton chandelier. It contains about 5,000 Czechoslovakian crystals and 500 bulbs that alternate between red, blue, green and amber.
- The auditorium ceiling contains hundreds of concealed bulbs, which are designed to change color between red, green, and amber, in order to match the mood of the current film.
- The foyer and auditorium are clad in a variety of rich marbles and painted decorative plaster ornament.
- The color scheme is based in shades of red and gold.
- The foyer and auditorium contain one of the nation’s finest sets of theater mural paintings. These were executed by French-born, New York-based artist, Arthur Brounet.
- The projection room was equipped with Vitaphone, a sound system developed by Warner Brothers and two 35mm Simplex standard projectors.
- One of the first Carrier air conditioning systems in the city. The cooled air is drawn through three concrete tunnels beneath the floor and distributed through decorative grilles in the ceiling.
- The theater was equipped with a central vacuum cleaner system.
- The Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ is housed in two rooms located just above the stage, concealed behind the decoratively pierced screen. The organ has 17 ranks of organ pipes, a mandolin, chimes, sleigh bells, xylophone, and a full range of percussion instruments to use in connection with special effects in silent movies, such as bells, horns, and whistles.
Built by Walter Coulter and Charles Somma, the theatre was designed in the French Empire style by Fred Bishop, a Richmond architect. The decor was by the Brunet Studios of New York.
Rich Architectural Details
The architect made full use of the skill of master sculptor/plasterers like Ferruccio Legnaioli. Almost every surface of the theater is “enriched” with molded plaster carving: bead moldings, lamb’s tongue, bead-and-reel, acanthus, egg-and-dart, and palm-and-reed.
The eye is drawn by gilded details at key point: lyres at the first-floor niche keystones and inset in the spandrels of the proscenium arch, symbolizing the Fine Arts, and trophies made of torches and horns of plenty, symbolizing the abundance associated with the goddess Ceres. All of the moldings are either finished in a variety of metal leaf effects (silver, gold, or copper) or are polychromed.
Two box seats to each side of the stage contain visible adjuncts of the Wurlitzer organ: a grand piano connected to the organ console and a golden harp. The semi-circular boxes are framed by a set of secondary Ionic columns and include gold-finished balustrades topped with velvet. The lower portions of the walls are clad in a rusticated wainscot made of eye-catching Moroccan Rouge Flame marble with a highly polished surface. Each of the angled elements containing the box seats are flanked by tall fluted pilasters with idiosyncratic golden Corinthian capitals.
The subdivisions of the side walls each contain two stories of openings that provide views into a painted garden setting just beyond the theater’s walls. A shallow elliptical dome spans the entire auditorium. The paneled corners of the ceiling are filled with Greek-inspired foliage and ornate central rondels serve as air vents for the heat and air conditioning. The dome is divided by ornamented ribs into twelve textured plaster sections and surrounded by a molded crest of cartouches, cornucopias, and anthemions concealing continuous vari-colored cove lighting. The ribs support a circular plaster beam of matching shape. At each intersection is a pierced rondel, half of which exhaust heated or cooled air into the room below. The flat central field supports the ten-foot diameter main chandelier, equipped with four sets of colored lights to create special effects.
The interior decoration of the Byrd was executed by the Brounet Studios in New York, a well-known firm that specialized in theater and lobby decoration. Arthur Brounet (1866- 1941), a native of Le Havre, France, studied art in France, Germany and Italy at various times in his life. He arrived in New York at the age of twenty. He was listed in the census of 1890 as a “decorator of arts” and in a directory of 1892 as an artist. He advertised as early as 1896 in the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, notifying clients that he was a “designer in every style, Relief Work and Tapestry Painting,” located at 678 Lexington Avenue in New York. The Brounet murals were painted at the studio in oil on canvas, which was then adhered to the plaster substrate.
Foundation Board of Officers & Directors
- Steve Taylor, Chair
Council Policy Analyst, Richmond City Council and
Adjunct Professor Political Science, VCU
- Open, Vice Chair
- Susan Reed, Secretary
Architect, Dir. of Historic Preservation, Glave & Holmes Architecture
- Ben Cronly, Treasurer
Research Analyst, Skipjack Global Capital Management
- Ted Haynes, Immediate Past President
Senior VP Business Support Manager, Bank of America
- Robin Ashworth
Technical Writer, VA Dept. of Transportation
- Felicity Blundon
Architectural Historian, CMB Development
- Kevin Brandt
Founder and Principal, James River Capital Group
- Charles Donato
Community & Government Affairs, Dominion Energy
- Nancy News
Property Manager, Grady Management
- Michelle Partrea
- Frank Rizzo
Retired National Sales Manager, Reynolds Metals, Co.
- David Ross
Development, Government Relations & Management Consultant
- Beth Schulhof
Accountant, Harris, Hardy and Johnstone, P.C.
- John Spacek
Life Insurance Wholesaler
- Mary Ellen Stumpf
- Gibson Worsham
Architect, Glave & Holmes Architecture
- Stacy Shaw
- Damion Champ
- Becky Dixon
- Ushan Govender
- Lisa Rogerson