Features and Columns · Movies

Movie Houses of Worship: Richmond’s Byrd Theatre

By  · Published on July 28th, 2013

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, we have an entry from our new newswriter Adam Belloto. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

The Byrd Theatre

Location: 2908 W Cary St, Richmond, VA

Opened: December 24, 1928

No. of screens: 1

Current first-run titles: 0 (just second runs here)

Bob Gulledge and the Mighty Wurlitzer

Repertory Programming: The majority of the Byrd’s schedule is its slew of second-run movies (two titles per week, one showing each per night), but other events make regular appearances. Saturday night is reserved for the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” a custom-made organ installed when the Byrd was first built. Bob Gulledge, the theater’s in-house organist, serenades audiences before both Saturday night shows with a medley of old-timey theater tunes (‘That’s Entertainment’ almost always makes an appearance). Saturday nights at the Byrd used to be even richer, with an extra midnight show specially reserved for classic movies. Sadly, this practice was axed back in 2007 due to low attendance. The classics still have a home at the Byrd, but no longer on a regular basis. Restorations show up on occasion: Metropolis screens tonight; a rare print of George Melies’ Robinson Crusoe showed up back in 2012. Every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the theater still plays It’s a Wonderful Life, complete with the Mighty Wurlitzer and a Christmas Sing-A-Long.

Special Events: The Byrd is the go-to host for any Richmond film event. Anything filmed in the city is bound to show up at this theater. John Adams and Lincoln would be the most notable, but the Richmond film scene is ever-expanding and local films and local events often find their way onto the Byrd’s marquee. More than a few film festivals make their home here: the Richmond branch of the 48 Hour Film Project (which invites local filmmakers to create a film in a single, frenzied weekend); the James River Film Festival, the Environmental Film Festival and the MIX/Richmond International Festival.

But the big daddy of all the Byrd’s festivals would be its French Film Festival, a massive four-day undertaking that finds the theater packed with premiere screenings, panels, special workshops and celebrations (all of which are similarly packed with locals, film students and plenty of actors, directors and other film professionals flown in from France). For a brief period, the area around the Byrd becomes a European city. Its streets are packed with tourists and vendors and culture that will all disappear in four days’ time.

Why I Worship Here: Well, the cheapskate in me loves paying two bucks to see something that would cost ten at the multiplex, but that’s not the real reason I go to the Byrd. The theater is a Richmond landmark, and it has been for close to a hundred years – open 365 days a year, be it rain, shine or tropical storm. A Saturday night at the Byrd is a Richmond tradition. You stand in a long line that stretches around the block, complain about the lumpy theater seats (although for the record, I actually find them more comfy than multiplex seats. Who knows what all the fuss is about?) and marvel at the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” When the theater’s homemade anti-littering PSA airs before the show, people cheer and act out the corny dialogue (if you’re curious, someone put a bootleg on YouTube). When the show’s over, the entire moviegoing crowd invariably lingers right outside the door, making the brief walk to your car a sudden and terrifying ordeal.

Some of that might not sound ideal, but it’s part of the Byrd’s charm. It adds character. Whereas any multiplex in any state would provide roughly the same experience, there’s only one Byrd. Plus (and I really should have mentioned this before), the theater is absolutely gorgeous. Its sheer size, its massive crystal chandelier and its original red-and-gold architecture – it’s sure to inspire awe the first time you see it with your own eyes.

Recent Screening of Note: Well, it’s not particularly recent, but that Robinson Crusoe screening from last year was seriously something to behold. The print had only recently been discovered and donated to the Cinémathèque Française. At the time, that was usually the only place to view it. The screening was a special gift from the Cinémathèque to the French Film Festival (during which is when it screened), and everyone in attendance heard festival founder Dr. Peter Kirkpatrick tell the story of its surprise discovery, the marvel of each hand-painted frame and even the the racist undertones inherent in Crusoe’s sidekick Friday. Then we saw the film, which did not disappoint. And a score provided by the “Mighty Wurlitzer” made this screening one of a kind.

The Byrd’s concession stand in 1941

Devotion to the Concessions: Unlike the rest of the Byrd, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about the concessions. Popcorn, candy and soda are all available in abundance, and at a lower price than expected for movie snacks. The concession stand itself is beautiful and fits right in with the rest of the theater. That’s a plus. Their insistence on providing sodas without lids is not.

Last Word: The Byrd may hold a special place in the heart of Richmond residents, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less special to those passing by. If you have the opportunity to see a movie here, take that opportunity. Even if the current second-run show isn’t worth the price of admission (like right now – the theater will be playing Pain & Gain all this week). And like so many other old movie houses, it could use a few funds. The Byrd’s not exactly falling apart, but they are in the middle of a major $5m fundraiser to get the theater back to its 1920s glory days. So take a trip, see a flick and drop a few bills in the donation box (the “Byrdcage”). I should probably do the same thing myself.

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