Byrd Theatre History

80 Years of History and Entertainment

The year 2008 marks the 80th birthday of the Byrd Theatre, which was built in 1928 in Richmond, Virginia as one of the Nation’s Grand Movie Palaces and today is both a State and National Historic landmark. The 1300-seat Byrd Theatre, named after William Byrd, one of the founders of Richmond, is one of the nation’s finest cinema treasures.

And unlike many opulent theatres that were built during the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, the Byrd Theatre has survived the past 80 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. This was a comedy with Dorothy MacKaill and Jack Mulhall. Patrons paid 25 cents for a matinee and 50 cents for an evening movie. Today patrons pay $1.99 for a 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 plans to integrate cultural, educational and community events into the Theatre’s programming while still offering movies at reasonable prices.

An Architectural Treasure

The Byrd Theatre is an architectural treasure chest adorned with paintings, marbled walls, gold leaf arches, a richly appointed mezzanine, and some of the original patterned mohair-covered seats. An 18-foot, two-and-a-half ton Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier suspended over the auditorium contains over 5,000 crystals illuminated by 500 red, blue, green and amber lights.

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.

The cinema visionaries who built and designed the Byrd outfitted it with two sound systems. One of these was Vitaphone, a relatively new sound synchronization system commercially developed by Warner Brothers. “The Jazz Singer,” generally acknowledged as the first talking film, was recorded using this system. At that time, though, it was uncertain whether “talkies” would continue to be popular and a significant number of the films distributed were still silent so the Byrd also had a Wurlitzer Theatre organ. In 1953, the original 35mm Simplex standards were replaced by the current Simplex 35mm projectors, which are still used daily.

In 2004, Ray Dolby, who created the Dolby sound system, toured the Byrd and was so impressed with the theatre that he donated a Dolby Digital sound system, which was installed in 2006. Just as in 1928, the Byrd has state-of-the-art sound technology.

The design of Grand Movie Palaces in the 1920s and l930s was reminiscent of the opulent European Opera Houses and the Byrd was no different. No expenses were spared in its design and construction with a cost of about $900,000. In today’s dollars that amounts to almost $11 million. And some architectural details simply cannot be duplicated. Sometimes in the dimly lit theatre, the delicate architectural details are easy to miss.

Rich Architectural Details

The murals in the lobby and alcoves were hand-painted in a New York studio. The cameos and other paintings are a mixture of acrylic and oil. Most of the largest paintings have a Greek mythology theme. The auditorium recalls a French opera house in the elegant and flamboyant Rococo style expressed in an abundance of marble, crystal, gold leaf, crimson velvet, and elaborate plaster decorations. The basic colors are amber and gold with a red velvet accent. The color scheme and detail are continued in the mezzanine and the balcony.

Along the top of the auditorium’s sidewalls in the niches are six hand-painted murals. The large murals on each side of the stage form a background to the opera-style boxes, which display a piano and harp. Everything in the Byrd Theatre is big although it may not appear that way. The two chandeliers in the alcoves are about seven feet tall while the main chandelier is 18 feet tall. The main chandelier was assembled on site. It would never fit through a door. All of the chandeliers have four light circuits, red, blue, amber and green. (The green only functions in the main chandelier) All of the other lighting in the theatre is red, blue and amber. The main lobby chandelier is over eight feet high with clear white bulbs.

Unique in 1928 was the cantilevered balcony. If you are seated in the back of the orchestra level, you may notice that there are no supports holding up the front of the balcony or blocking your view. The balcony’s weight is distributed between the front of the theatre and the back wall of the auditorium. The Byrd is an excellent music hall with the shape of the balcony acting as a large sound wedge that greatly reduces the front to back echo. Every seat has good sound and an unobstructed view. The Byrd Theatre is equipped with a central vacuum system having a total of 12 inlets covering all seating levels and lobbies. Although a technological marvel for its time, it is no longer functional. The Byrd Theatre has never been remodeled with a few exceptions involving the stage area to accommodate up-to-date screens and the lobby to make room for a concession area.