Q-I keep hearing about this fund raising and the Byrd
Theatre Foundation. Is the Byrd in trouble? Will it be
A-While the Byrd is in no immediate danger of closing, times
are uncertain for all movie theatres. The idea behind The
Byrd Theatre Foundation is to guarantee that never happen
and make certain the Byrd remains a community asset. If
properly supported by the community, it will give the
theatre more financial stability and allow the Byrd to
undertake major restoration efforts such as repairing the
seats without the financial risk of doing so as a strictly
Q-But the Byrd Theatre is a historical landmark-doesn't that
mean that it already is protected?
A-No! The Byrd is listed on both the state and federal
historic landmark registries, all that gets us is the
plaques on the front of the building. (And we had to pay
for the plaques!)
Q-So, now that the Foundation owns it, will the Byrd will
just be a museum?
A-Not at all. The Byrd is and will remain the only genuine
movie palace open as a movie palace 365 days a year. This
is the best way for the most people to see it at its best.
Q-Any thought of converting it to a performing arts center?
A-No! Certainly not completely, though it gets suggested
often enough. Consider this: The area already has several
such venues and none of them open their doors anywhere near
as often as we do. Not only is being a movie theatre the
best way for the largest number of people to see us, it also
is part of what makes us unique.
Q-How is the fund raising going?
A-Slowly! To begin with, although the Foundation has
existed almost 5 years, it has taken most of that time to
negotiate the purchase of the building and that purchase was
only made final in May of 2007. It is a difficult time to
be a non-profit in the US. Also, we often repeat that we
are a "victim of our own success." We clearly have a good
business and one of the most attended attractions in
Richmond. We aren't obviously in need of help. Of course,
that's part of the point. Now is the time to protect the
Byrd forever, because the amount of money needed to do so is
minuscule compared to what it would take if the building
ever closed and sat idle even for a year.
Q-Why not simply raise the price a buck or two? That would
help raise money, wouldn't it?
A-Not really, understand that even though the Foundation
owns the theatre, the day to day operations are still
for-profit, so that money wouldn't be considered donations
to a non-profit organization. In fact, it isn't all ours;
the lion's share of what is taken in at the Box Office goes
to the distributors, the people who own the films we show.
Higher prices don't translate directly to more money for us.
Also there's the issue of competition: we don't compete with
the first-run theatres as much as we do with video rental
and home entertainment options. This doesn't leave a lot of
leeway: when we were forced by distributor pricing practices
to go from $.99 to $1.99 our business suffered an immediate
40% drop! And, perhaps most importantly, we want to remain
a unique family bargain for Richmonders.
Q-So you need to become non-profit to stay afloat?
A-Yes and No. Our business is currently basically
self-supporting and in all likelihood will remain so for a
while. The point is to create the ability to do some things
which are impractical as a commercial operation and protect
this historical operation from the uncertainties of business
and, at the same time, expand our educational and historical
role in the community.
Q-Why don't you show more classic and old films?
A-We try to from time to time and hopefully will do more in
the future but past experience has shown them to be
unprofitable in the long run because of TCM and DVDs and we
have to stick to our second-run films which have supported
us and kept us going for the past 25 years. Being
non-profit will also make it easier for us to have more
special and "classic" movie events. Our bread and butter
will probably remain the current product.
Q-What was the Byrd Theatre before it was a movie theatre?
A-It was built as a movie theatre. It has never been
Q-Why does it have the Wurlitzer organ?
A-At the time it was built, a significant portion of the
films the Byrd showed were still silent. Sound films were
still considered a "new fad" and most industry "experts"
were still certain the "novelty" would wear off and silents
would become standard again. Every theatre still had an
organist who would provide mood music for the film and even
Q-So the Byrd had a sound system when it opened?
A-Yes! In fact, it had two! It was the first theatre in
the state to open as a sound theatre. There were other
theatres which had added sound, but we had it on day one.
The systems then were the VitaPhone brand system,(made
famous by the film, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolsen) which
consisted of phonograph records run in tandem with the
films, and a Western Electric system.
Q-What was the first movie shown at the Byrd?
A-The Byrd opened on December 24, 1928 with Waterfront, a
First National picture (not to be confused with the later On
The Waterfront.) This movie was originally shot as a silent
film and then half of it was re-done in sound to capitalize
on the new "fad".
Q-I love coming to the Byrd, but why do I have to wait
outside after I buy my ticket?
A-The Byrd is wonderful. But it is old. At the time it was
built, movie going habits were different: people would buy a
ticket at any time, go in and watch the film, a newsreel,
maybe a cartoon and perhaps more than one film and they
wouldn't leave until they had seen everything. Also,
incredible as it seems now, there was no concession stand!
Because of these factors, it wasn't considered necessary to
build huge, cavernous lobbies. So now there is no space
inside the building large enough for a crowd to wait where
they don't block the safe egress of the patrons inside
watching the film. Thus fire laws (remember, everyone
exiting has to travel all the way forward or back, there are
no side exits) and common sense prevent us from using any of
our interior space as a waiting area.
Q-That's fine with a crowd, but it seems silly if there are
just a couple of people.
A-Perhaps, but since we can't see into the future, we have
no idea how many will come before we are able to seat.
Should we let the later 50 stare at the first 5 through the
doors? The only fair thing is to make everyone wait.
Q-Why don't you show matinees during the week?
A-Because they simply don't attract enough business to be
profitable. Indeed, from a strictly profit standpoint, they
are marginal on the weekends, but we want to continue
offering them for our patrons who find it difficult to visit
Q-I love it when the organist plays the piano from the organ
console! What about the harp? Does it ever get played?
A-The harp was brought in as decoration and came to us with
a cracked soundboard, rendering it unusable as an actual
For additional answers please E-mail questions to:
Todd Schall-Vess,General Manager, Byrd Theatre @