Hot popcorn in hand, ease your way through the gilded double doors, into the auditorium, down the richly carpeted aisle. Sink into that yummy red plush chair and reflect on the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier glowing two stories above you. Peruse the marble and decorative plaster in various shades of scarlet and gold adorning the walls and ceiling. The lights dim, the movie starts. You are here to see … Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax?” Believe it or not, you’re in the right place. For an elevated cinematic experience, there is none better than the opulent Byrd Theater in Richmond’s Carytown neighborhood.
Built in 1928, and named after Richmond’s founder, William Byrd II, the Byrd Theater is an Old World movie palace that has been lovingly maintained to reflect the glamor of its time. Now both a State and National Historic Landmark, the theater has long resisted decorative “updates,” and has only been altered only to meet the technological requirements of showing today’s major motion pictures. Indeed, the Byrd regularly shows big screen classics, current flicks, and yes, even family favorites like “The Lorax.”
A swanky theater by any standard
Designed by Richmond architect Fred Bishop in the French Empire style with décor by Brunet Studios of New York, the Byrd Theater is characterized by lavish detailing throughout. The 1,200-seat auditorium includes orchestra, balcony, and box seating in luxe red velvet, surrounded by arched niches featuring murals of Greek mythology. Italian and Turkish marble in various shades of salmon and pearl punctuate both lobby and auditorium, as do gilded balustrading along the box seats and lobby balconies.
The auditorium’s dome-shaped ceiling is divided into 12 sections by ornamental ribs and layered with textured plaster. Hundreds of concealed bulbs within the ceiling provide a warm ambiance, augmenting the central chandelier’s glow. Ruched velvet drapes in gold are surrounded by the elaborate proscenium arch, also in gold and red plastering.
Façades throughout the theater are enhanced with ornamental flourishes, such as molded plaster carving, metal leaf effects, and polychrome. A vintage concessions stand with curved glass and gilded seams features prominently in the theater’s lobby.
The bill for the theater’s design and construction totaled $900,000 in 1928, roughly $13 million in today’s dollars.
The Byrd’s history
The first film shown at the Byrd was on Christmas Eve in 1928. This silent classic, “Waterfront,” had two showings daily, and was accompanied by music from the theater’s mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. Twenty-five cents got you into the matinee, and a whopping 50 cents was the price for the evening show. The first theater manager was Robert Coulter, who started in 1928 and remained in the position until his retirement in 1971. Now deceased, his ghost is said to haunt the theater to this day.
For the first few years, movie-goers had to rough it without concessions onsite. The theater’s lobby included a decorative fountain until around 1940, when the demand for treats and sweets prompted its removal. A small concessions stand selling candy replaced it.
By all accounts, the Carytown neighborhood was invigorated with the Byrd Theater’s opening. Consisting mostly of apartments and the odd shop, Carytown benefitted from the crowds attending theater performances. With increased commercial interest in the area, additional store fronts and restaurants soon opened, leading the way for the development of Richmond’s first strip mall in the 1930s, aptly named Cary Court. Further growth followed with the much larger mall-type development, the Carytown Shopping District, in the 1960s and ’70s.
In the 1980s, the Byrd enhanced its programing with the Rockettes-like Byrdettes, a high-kicking chorus line of dancers who performed on special occasions. Ushers and concession workers dressed in 1920s attire to complete the gilded-age throwback vibe. Eventually, this was abandoned, however, and the Byrdettes retired from the stage for good.
More recently at The Byrd
In 2007, the Byrd Theater Foundation was created by community members to purchase the building and preserve its legacy as a community institution. Programming today, in addition to popular films, includes second-run films, repertory films, film festivals, and other community events. Tickets are available at the box office or online and generally range from $3-6 per person.
Indeed, the Byrd is definitely worth a visit for that unique and luxuriant cinema experience. For more information including movie show times, visit them online at the Byrd Theater.