The Byrd Theatre: 1928 Movie Palace Faces Its Future

Thanks to a new roof the Byrd should be around for a while. Here’s a look at its recent past.

The ByrdBack in 2004, the new roof the Byrd Theatre is getting now — courtesy of an anonymous donor — was only a dream. In fact, before the Byrd Theatre Foundation entered the picture, the future of the 1928 movie palace looked anything but bright.

After some determined fundraising and lengthy negotiations the Foundation assumed ownership of the property in June 2007. That noteworthy accomplishment was due to the laudable efforts of two people, in particular — Bertie Selvey and Tony Pelling of the Byrd Theatre Foundation.

Selvey was a longtime supporter of TheatreVirginia, the live stage formerly in operation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1955-2002). After losing that stage, she soon saw that the Byrd was in trouble. Not wanting to lose another theater in her neighborhood, she founded the Byrd Watchers, a group of volunteers devoted to raising money to purchase and preserve the Byrd. Pelling, a retired Under Secretary from the UK Civil Service, has been the Foundation’s volunteer president since January of 2004.

“I need a cause,” explained Selvey.

In the 1960s and 1970s America’s cities saw unprecedented growth in their suburbs. New multi-screened theaters began popping up like mushrooms in shopping centers. More screens under one roof meant expanded customer options. In the process, single-screen houses without parking lots gradually lost their leverage with movie distributors.

That process undermined Carytown’s Byrd Theatre and urban cinemas everywhere. The list of darkened screens within Richmond’s city limits over the last three decades includes evocative names such as the Biograph, the Booker T, the Brookland, the Capitol, the Colonial, the Edison, the Loew’s, and the Towne.

Into the mid-1970s the Byrd continued to exhibit first-run pictures. With business falling off, the region’s distributors eventually decided it was no longer worthy of commanding exclusive runs of the most sought-after titles. By 1983 Sam Bendheim III, who managed the Neighborhood Theatres movie chain, could no longer justify keeping the Byrd open.

To the rescue came Duane Nelson, an assistant manager in the Byrd’s last days under Neighborhood’s auspices. Nelson, who had studied the development of historical properties at VCU, lined up a partner: Jerry Cable, creator of the Tobacco Company, in some ways the most significant restaurant in Shockoe Slip since the late-1970s. Together, in 1984, Nelson and Cable secured a lease and set about revitalizing the West Cary Street anachronism.

After a couple of years experimenting with a repertory schedule, Nelson and Cable parted ways and the booking policy changed to offering bargain-priced, second-run features. Thus the Byrd was saved from the wrecking ball, or perhaps being converted into a flea market.

Film-rental fees come out of box-office receipts in the form of a percentage; distributors generally take between forty and seventy percent. Consequently, most movie theaters, including the Byrd, lean heavily on revenue from their concession stands. On the other hand, by showing second-run movies the Byrd is not obliged to charge its customers the steep price of admission that distributors insist upon for first-run releases.

The $1.99 ticket scheme can be profitable as long as the crowds are large enough to buy plenty of popcorn. Naturally, the traffic this formula brings to the area pleases the Carytown retailers that surround the Byrd.

Although, under Nelson’s management the Byrd was taking in sufficient revenue to stay afloat on a day-to-day basis, putting away reserves to restore the building, remained out of reach. Eventually, even paying the rent on the building was difficult, at best. Then, just in the nick of time came the Byrd Theatre Foundation to once again save the Byrd from falling going dark.

The current manager Todd Schall-Vess, who also worked under Nelson, has continued with that basic second-run exhibition policy. On top of that flow of pop product, special events, such as live music shows, occasionally shoulder the movies aside; every spring the VCU French Film Festival takes over the Byrd for three days.

Currently, although Pelling and Selvey have little experience in the art of selling movies to the public, in truth, they join a long list of important players in Richmond’s movie theater history who had little in the way of credentials before taking the plunge. Keeping Schall-Vess as manager provided the theater’s new owners with some valuable experience and a measure of continuity.

Now that the roof will be secure, the other renovations planned — which will include repairs to the Mighty Wurlitzer and new seats! — can proceed. Of course, that will mean a lot more fundraising.

In 1928, as it was in Richmond, posh movie palaces opened in cities coast-to-coast. Few in those other cities have survived. As it has before, Richmond’s antique Byrd Theatre has somehow managed to imbue its newest stewards with enough of that same Roaring ‘20s optimism to keep the light on the screen.

Photo by: Jake Lyell

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F.T. Rea has been sharing his art, photographs, essays, and commentary with Richmond since 1972. You can see more from him at SLANTblog or Fan District Hub.

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