In the heart of Richmond’s eclectic Carytown stands the historic Byrd Theatre. The Byrd Theatre was built as one of the Nation’s Grand Movie Palaces and stands today as a nostalgic reminder of days gone by. The Byrd is now a State and National Historic Landmark. Built in 1928 the Theatre opened on Christmas Eve, 1928, the feature film was Waterfront, a silent movie to which sound had been added. But before the screen lit up, patrons were treated to a performance of the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, perhaps as famous as the Theatre itself.
The Byrd seats 1300 and, for the most part, looks as it did when it opened. Modifications have been made to accommodate up-to-date screens and a concession area has been added to the lobby. Designed by Richmond architect Fred Bishop and named for Richmond founder William Byrd II it has operated almost continuously since it first opened. Visitors to the Byrd are treated to paintings, marbled walls and gold leaf arches that was completed by the Brunet Studios of New York. Suspended over the seats in a Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier that would cause even the Phantom of the Opera to be envious. The chandelier weighs two-and-a-half tons and contains over 5,000 crystals that sparkle to the light of 500 multicolor lights.
When it was built no expense was spared and the construction costs reached $900,000. Translated to today’s economic terms that’s nearly $11 million.
The Rudolf Wurlitzer Company designed and installed the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. Installed when the theatre was built it was intended to serve as a one man orchestra to accompany the silent movies of the day. Long time Richmonders recall that the organ was played from 1961 to 1981 by Eddie Weaver. One of the thrills of attending the Byrd remains watching the organ rise from the orchestra pit just prior to the screening of the film. Today, Bob Gulledge is the current organist. Gulledge studied with Eddie Weaver.
The Byrd Theater Foundation purchased the Theatre in 2007 with the purpose of restoring one of the nation’s finest historical cinemas. Sadly the Byrd has been struggling through the difficult economic times. The Foundation is working diligently to raise the necessary funds for restoration and preservation.
Still a bargain at only $1.99, the Byrd offers second-run movies, and they’re worth the wait. On Saturdays, you can still catch a performance of the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ prior to the film. A state of the art sound system donated by Ray Dolby, creator of the Dolby sound system in 2004 brings patrons high quality sound.
More reliable than the legendary Ukrops, the Byrd is open 365 days a year, no matter the weather, but make sure you check the schedule before you plan your visit.
This New Year’s Eve a Carytown tradition returns when a giant, illuminated ball, created by Todd Schall-Vess, the Byrd manager, rises on top of the Byrd Theatre. You can enjoy an evening of fine dining at one of Carytown’s many restaurants, then stroll over to watch the ball rise at midnight.