More than a Movie Theater: Exploring Richmond’s Historic Byrd Theatre

At just over 90 years old, the Byrd Theatre in Richmond still isn’t showing its age. As both a state and national landmark, the theater is known as one of the nation’s only Grand Movie Palaces, but it’s far from a simple museum.

Byrd Theatre – Showcasing 90 years of Art, Entertainment, and Tradition

It was named after William Byrd, a prominent figure and founder in the city of Richmond, and the first movie that debuted at the theater was the silent film Waterfront, shown on Christmas Eve in 1928. Patrons paid 25 cents for a matinee and 50 cents for an evening movie. The Byrd Theater has operated continuously since that initial showing in 1928, with a full calendar of showtimes even today.

Although the regal furnishings are the ideal backdrop for silent movies and classic films, the Byrd maintains a purposeful mix of modern and classic movies to attract visitors of all ages and backgrounds. The Byrd Theater Foundation also weaves educational and cultural events into programming to further the arts and engage the Richmond community throughout the year. Their singular mission is to “restore and establish the Byrd Theatre as the premier community supported film center for Central Virginia.”

The Byrd Theatre – Keeping it Original

While many movie palaces have succumbed to alterations and updates over the years, the Byrd is one of the few that remains largely unchanged from its original construction and design. Theater construction for the Byrd cost about $900,000 in 1928, which equates to a whopping $13 million today. Its iconic architecture features an 18-foot chandelier with 5,000 Czechoslovakian crystals and 500 color-changing bulbs.

The foyer is an elegant display of marble finishes and intricate plaster ornaments, framing a set of famous murals that were painted by New York-based artist Arthur Brounet. An imposing Wurlitzer organ sits just above the stage, with an array of chimes, sleigh bells, organ pipes, and other instruments that served to enhance silent movies with live “special effects.” The organ first performed on Christmas Eve at the first showing of Waterfront. It has been in continuous operation ever since, with Bob Gulledge, the official theater organist, playing to open shows every Saturday.

A Richmond Movie Theater Event

The Byrd Theatre’s many events include a French Film Festival, a horror film festival, and sensory-friendly screenings of classic and modern films. New films are released every Wednesday on the theater website. Upcoming shows include holiday favorites like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, big-screen classics like The Bishop’s Wife, and new releases like The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

Owen Palmiotti is a writer and filmmaker from Northern Virginia who often travels to film festivals while promoting projects. Eventually, this travel took him to the Byrd Theatre when the Richmond International Film Festival accepted his film. Palmiotti shared, “The theatre is nestled in a vibrant community that supports the arts, food, and craft beers. My team enjoyed several days in Richmond and enjoyed the films and talented musicians. It was quite the cinematic experience to sit in a theater that has been around for almost a century. Also, I got to meet Danny Glover, which was truly amazing.”

Jill Evans-Kavaldjian, a local artist and owner of Garden Corner Studios in Lovettsville, Virginia went to the Byrd Theatre while a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She shared what made the theatre memorable. “The bronze doors and over the top details. The organ came up through the stage floor during silent movie shorts. And instead of the usual junk food, they actually had fancy bonbons and pastry. And it was affordable.”

A Cinematic Treat

Tickets start at just $3 for movies at the Byrd Theatre, making it accessible to a much broader audience. However, when when visitors walk into the theater’s breathtaking lobby and take their seats in the palatial theater, the experience becomes much more than just a movie. In short, it’s a journey back in time that spans 90 years of art, entertainment, and tradition at one of Richmond’s most stately landmarks.

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