Formerly a movie palace frequented by Shirley MacLaine, and once host to music greats like Johnny Cash, June Carter, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, the Northside’s Bellevue Theater has since fallen into disrepair. But one local recording group is hoping to fix that.
Northside’s Bellevue Theater was once a movie palace where Richmond local Shirley MacLaine went to see stars before she was one herself. Later it served as a Grand Ole Opry-style music hall featuring legends like Johnny Cash and June Carter. Now the marquee is covered with sheets of metal, the Depression-era carpet is rotting, and no one enters but the members of Samis Grottos, a gathering of Masons. But Aaron Reinhard, Evan Bateman, and Rip Ritchie of local recording group RVA Studios are trying to restore the theater to its former glory.
Built in 1932, the Bellevue Theater sits on MacArthur Avenue next to Dot’s Back Inn. From 1957 to the late 1960s the Bellevue was the location of the New Dominion Barn Dance, a popular country music radio show featuring the likes of Hank Williams and a young, beardless Willie Nelson. The New Dominion Barn Dance was the sequel to the Old Dominion Barn Dance which was broadcasted from the Lyric Theater located at 9th and Broad from the 1940s until it was torn down in the 1950s.
RVA Studios began renting the Bellevue Theater from Samis Grotto a few months ago due to the condition of their previous Scott’s Addition recording studio which Reinhard refers to as a “crappy 1,000 square foot cinder block box.” The two organizations had the mutual realization something should to be done with the building.
“It’s like a Ferrari and no one is driving it,” Reinhard says about the building and its vacancy. RVA Studios uses the old projection room upstairs to record (bands they’ve worked with in the past include The Milkstains, The Virginia Scots Guard, Nick Coward & The Last Battle, and Skeleton Breath). Reinhard describes the juxtaposition of modern recording equipment in the 30’s style projection room as “a time machine.”
RVA Studios emphasizes use of the rich, natural sound granted by the theater in its recordings. The shape of the theater favors acoustics, and the group is making use of it in a way that hasn’t been done since the performers of the New Dominion Barn Dance.
Instead of “recording drums in a small room…and then plugging it into a processor so it sounds like it’s in a giant room, we actually have giant rooms to play in,” says Evan Bateman the group’s sound engineer. They’re also working on building a plate reverb tank from drivers Willie Nelson sang through.
Reinhard speaks enthusiastically about plans to expand the the theater beyond recording to general community usage. “I don’t want to have this venue and just have bands…I want people to know what this is,” he says.
The group sees the potential for plays, children’s events, magic shows, and a low cost forum for student productions. The goal is to make the community aware of the venue’s history and to bring it back into the fold. Although they have not gotten much of a response yet, Reinhard hopes if they “paint the history across the whole place, and everyone can see what is,” people will want to use it.
Still, the circle is starting to grow beyond RVA Studios and the bands they record. Bateman’s girlfriend Stephanie Lebow uses the theater’s commercial kitchen for New Visions New Ventures (NVNV), a non-profit that helps female new business owners get on their feet. (“Join the commune!” Reinhard says about the idea.) The kitchen will be the site of NVNV’s “Breadwinners” program run by Lebow, and will serve as a place for business owners to bake their goods. The use of a commercial kitchen will enable the business owners to pass health inspections.
During my visit, the smell of biscuits being catered by NVNV fill the kitchen. One of the band members recording in the projection-room-turned-recording-studio traipses down the stairs and grabs one.
“All that I ask is that you take a flat one,” Lebow says.
RVA Studios has made progress by cleaning up the building and even putting in vintage popcorn and snow cone machines, but costly renovations are still a stark obstruction. The two most obvious needs are a downstairs bathroom and a new air conditioning system. Reinhard estimates the AC alone will run them more than a quarter of a million.
But when it comes to making plans, the group sees beyond the fact that many of the theater’s architectural details have been bricked over, the slanted theater style floor leveled, and the chandelier removed. Reinhard gestures up toward the sheets of metal defacing the theater. “[The Marquee] is still there but its covered up with ugly aluminum. All we have to do is rip the panels off.” he says. “But it’s still there, it never went away.”
For more information on RVA Studios and their work at the Bellevue Theater, stop by their Facebook page.
(Main image by Tony Lynch)