F.A.Q. About The Byrd Theatre
Q-I keep hearing about fund raising and The Byrd Theatre Foundation. Is the Byrd in trouble? Will it be closing?
A-While the Byrd is in no immediate danger of closing, times are uncertain for all movie theatres. The idea behind The Byrd Theatre Foundation is to guarantee that never happens and make certain The Byrd remains a community asset. If properly supported by the community, the Foundation will give the theatre more financial stability and allow us to undertake major restoration efforts such as repairing the seats without the financial risk of doing so as a strictly commercial operation.
Q-But the Byrd Theatre is a historical landmark-doesn't that mean that it already is protected?
A-No! The Byrd is listed on both the state and federal historic landmark registries, all that gets us is the plaques on the front of the building. (And we had to pay for the plaques!)
Q-So, now that the Foundation owns it, will the Byrd just be a museum?
A-Not at all. The Byrd is and will remain the Richmond’s Grand Movie Palace open as a movie palace and unique specialty venue. This is the best way for the most people to see her at her best.
Q-Any thought of converting it to a performing arts center?
A- Certainly not completely, though it gets suggested often enough. Consider this: The area already has several such venues and none of them open their doors anywhere near as often as we do. Not only is being a movie theatre the best way for the largest number of people to see us, it also is exactly what makes the Byrd unique amongst the handful of movie palaces left. It also would not be possible with acquiring a lot more real estate…there is no room for a full stage or dressing rooms!
Q-How is the fund raising going?
A-Slowly! To begin with, although the Foundation has existed almost 5 years, it has taken most of that time to negotiate the purchase of the building and that purchase was only made final in May of 2007. And most of the initial money raised was immediately consumed by our mortgage. It is a difficult time to be a non-profit in the US. We often repeat that we are a "victim of our own success." We clearly have recognition, business, and we are one of the most attended attractions in Richmond. On the surface, we aren't obviously in need of help. Of course, that's part of the point. Now is the time to protect The Byrd forever, because the amount of money needed to do so is minuscule compared to what it would take if the building ever closed and sat idle even for a year. And you don’t have go too far to find work that needs doing…our seats are old…so is our plumbing, wiring, bathrooms…the list goes on and on….
Q-Why not simply raise the price a buck or two? That would help raise money, wouldn't it?
A-Not really… understand that, even though the Foundation owns the theatre, the day to day operations are still for-profit, so that money wouldn't be considered donations to a non-profit organization. In fact, it isn't all ours; the lion's share of what is taken in at the Box Office goes to the distributors, the people who own the films we show. Higher prices don't translate directly to more money for us. And what is taken in at the theatre is subject to City admissions and state sales tax. Also there's the issue of competition: we don't compete with the first-run theatres as much as we do with video rental and home entertainment options. This doesn't leave a lot of leeway: when we were forced by distributor pricing practices to go from $.99 to $1.99 our business suffered an immediate 40% drop! (It’s no accident that there are so few independent theatres left.) And, perhaps most importantly, we want to remain a unique family bargain for the community and make certain that everyone can enjoy the Byrd.
Q-So you need to be non-profit to stay afloat?
A- Yes. Our daily business is currently just self-supporting and hopefully will remain so for a while. But it cannot support the mortgage or our future goals. The point is to create the ability to do some things which are impossible for an independent single-screen theatre to do and protect this historical icon from the uncertainties of business while we expand our educational and historical role in the community.
Q-Why don't you show more classic and old films?
A-We do show classics from time to time and will continue to do so in the future but past experience has shown them to be unprofitable on a regular basis because of TCM and DVDs and we have to stick to our second-run films which have supported us and kept us going for the past 25 years. While being foundation-owned will make it easier for us to have more special and "classic" movie events, our regular fare will probably remain current films.
Q-What was the Byrd Theatre before it was a movie theatre?
A-It was built as a movie theatre. It has never been anything else.
Q-Why does it have the Wurlitzer organ?
A-At the time it was built, a significant portion of the films the Byrd showed were still silent. Sound films were still considered a "new fad" and most industry "experts" were still certain the "novelty" would wear off and silents would become standard again. Every theatre of any size still had an organist who would provide mood music for the film and even sound effects.
Q-So the Byrd had a sound system when it opened?
A-Yes! In fact, it had two! It was the first theatre in the state to open as a sound theatre. There were other theatres which had added sound, but we had it on day one. The systems then were the VitaPhone brand system,(made famous by the film, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolsen) which consisted of phonograph records run in tandem with the films, and a Western Electric system.
Q-What was the first movie shown at the Byrd?
A-The Byrd opened on December 24, 1928 with Waterfront, a First National picture (not to be confused with the later On The Waterfront.) This movie was originally shot as a silent film and then HALF of it was re-done in sound to capitalize on the new "fad".
Q-I love coming to the Byrd, but why do I have to wait outside after I buy my ticket?
A-The Byrd is wonderful. But it is old. At the time it was built, movie going habits were different: people would buy a ticket at any time, go in and watch the film, a newsreel, maybe a cartoon and perhaps more than one film and they wouldn't leave till they had seen everything. Also, incredible as it seems now, there was no concession stand! Because of these factors, it wasn't considered necessary to build huge, cavernous lobbies. (or large bathrooms!) So now there is no space inside the building large enough for a crowd to wait without blocking the safe egress of the patrons inside the auditorium watching the film. Thus fire laws (remember, everyone exiting has to travel all the way forward or back, there are no side exits) insurance concerns and common sense prevent us from using any of our interior space as a waiting area.
Q-That’s fine with a crowd, but it seems silly if there are just a few people.
A-Perhaps, but since we can't see into the future, we have no idea how many will come before we are able to seat. Should we let the later 50 stare at the first 15 through the doors? The only fair thing is to make everyone wait.
Q-Why don't you show matinees during the week?
A-Because they simply don’t attract enough business to be profitable. Indeed, from a strictly profit standpoint, they are marginal on the weekends, but we want to continue offering them for our patrons who don’t want to visit at night.
Q-I love it when the organist plays the piano from the organ console! What about the harp? Does it ever get played?
A-The harp was brought in as decoration and came to us with a cracked soundboard, rendering it unusable as an actual instrument.
For additional answers please E-mail questions to: Todd Schall-Vess, Byrd Theatre General Manager, at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(emails requesting show times or schedules will not be answered)