A Grand Old House (Written 9/15/1992)
by Carly Trader
Serene grandeur. That's what the Byrd Theater brings to mind. While
stores and buildings all around it have changed or even been destroyed
over the last half century, the theater is almost exactly the same as
when Richmond architect-contractor Fred Bishop built it in 1928.
Untouched by modernization (if you don't count the bottled Water and
gourmet treats sold at the concessions), the theater is one of the last
of the great movie palaces.
"In those days, movies weren't that good [in quality], so they had to do
something to get people in here," explains Miles Rudisill, the Byrd's
historian. "They didn't sell tickets to the movies, they sold tickets
to the theaters."
When the Byrd was first built, Cary Street, then called Westhampton
Avenue, was part of a residential area, and the theater, even then, was
a gem, grand and ostentatious, in the style of the great movie houses.
The original crimson velvet drapes, hand-sewn with gilded leather
appliques, still hang in almost every doorway. And grandparents who
take their progeny to the Byrd might recognize the gold and maroon
mohair seats they sat on as kids.
Most any native Richmonder has early memories of becoming absorbed in
the ambience while waiting for the movie to start, pondering the faux
windows with painted canvasses behind them, plaster urns spilling
foliage, and the huge, tinkling chandelier with 400 lights in four
colors and more than 5,000 Czechoslovakian crystals. The dazzling
fixture was designed specifically for the Byrd and assembled on site
during construction. Consequently, there is no door opening large
enough to remove it from the building.
Before a youngster could soak up all that, the piano and the harp in the
alcoves by the stage magically, melodically came to life, all on their
own, as if ghosts were playing them. Then there was Eddie Weaver and
his organ (snicker), rising out of the stage. Parents sang to the great
old Wurlitzer, one of the last of its kind, and kids hooted. And those
who were too young to read just followed the bouncing ball. When they
got a little older, they threw popcorn from the balcony. And later,
well, many a first kiss was had in the Byrd balcony.
Like any institution, there is plenty of lore surrounding the Byrd. But
perhaps the most famous story of the grand old movie house is the one
about the man who had a heart attack and died in his seat while watching
a film. Story goes, it was some 60 years ago. To avoid causing a
commotion, two ambulance attendants quietly walked down the aisle to
where the man was sitting, slipped one of his arms over each of their
shoulders and walked the body to the lobby. Not one minute of the movie
Although it can't accommodate the crowds that the new multiplexes can,
the Byrd is still a major contributor to the vibrance of Carytown.
Operations Manager Duane Nelson estimates that the theater draws over
8,000 people a week, with its 99-cents ticket prices and its second run
shows, to what is now the most successful commercial district in
Even without any significant changes from its original '30s glory, the
Byrd still manages to impress patrons. In fact, the theater is growing
in popularity. "People are realizing when they're gone, they're gone
forever. You can't go out and build another one," explains Rudisill.
Fortunately, our Byrd remains a wall-preserved gem from a bygone era,
protectively nestled in Carytown.
SEPTEMBER 15,1992/INSIDE RICHMOND