On the night of December 26, 1811, Richmond’s elite gathered at the city’s recently built theater located on Broad Street in the chic Shockoe Hill neighborhood. Nearly 650 people had gathered to see the Richmond premiere of “Raymond and Agnes: or, the Bleeding Nun.” The night ended in tragedy when the stage caught fire from a chandelier and raged out of control. Poorly ventilated and with few exits, the theater trapped many fleeing patrons, some of whom leaped out of second story windows. By the end of the evening, the theater lay in ruins and more than 70 people had perished. The next year work began on Monumental Church, to be built as a memorial on the site of the tragedy. Richmond City Council banned all public entertainment during the months after the fire. A new theater was not erected in the city for several years.
Theater is not normally associated with tragedy beyond that of Shakespeare. The Richmond theater fire continues to be one of the city’s best known stories, and Monumental Church is a haunting historic site. The city’s theater history, though, did not end in 1811. The rest of the 19th century saw the rise of a variety of theaters that provided entertainment for Richmond’s residents.
Please Enjoy the Show: Images of Richmond Theater explores Richmond’s 20th century theaters. Whereas Richmond has always had entertainment venues, the 20th century saw major technological and social changes that affected the local theater industry more than ever before. The new century brought motion pictures, first silent and then with sound. The post World War II period underwent changing living patterns and the desegregation of public facilities. These events affected how and where theaters were built, what they produced, and who could patronize them.
These photographs show a selection of Richmond’s theaters, professional and amateur actors, and memorable events and personalities that have helped to define the city’s cultural environment.
The 1811 theater fire may have subdued Richmond’s taste for live entertainment briefly, but during the rest of the 19th century an assortment of performance halls operated throughout the city. Some of these theaters provided high brow performances by local and traveling professional troupes. A succession of theaters at Broad and 7th Streets (Marshall Theater and then Richmond Theater) provided this type of entertainment from 1818 to 1896. In contrast, the Theatre Comique, later Putman Theater, at 1313 West Franklin Street, was known for its burlesque and vaudeville acts.
By the turn of the 20th century, Richmond’s main performance space, the Richmond Theater, had closed. A new generation of theaters now fought for residents’ attention and money. These included the Mozart Academy of Music (later Academy of Music) and City Auditorium for serious plays, and the Lyric Theater for vaudeville and comedy. In 1897, Richmonders saw their first motion picture. Beginning in 1907, Amanda Thorpe charged patrons a nickel to see a film at the Dixie Theater, Richmond’s first nickelodeon. This new competition prompted the city’s playhouses to combine silent features with their live acts.
By the 1920's theaters increasingly were converted from playhouses to movie houses or were purpose-built as opulent movie palaces. Movie theaters experienced a golden era through the 1940s. Patrons frequented them to relax and to stay informed via newsreels.
After World War II, changing living patterns pushed the growth of Richmond’s suburbs. Theater owners adapted by opening venues in these outlying neighborhoods. Theaters also were increasingly part of larger chains, some local and others out-of-state. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's desegregated Richmond’s former white-only theaters, although the rapid migration of white residents to the suburbs hurt theater attendance in the city center.
Art house and foreign films not screened in the big theaters became the focus of small movie venues during the late 20th century. A resurgence of professional, live theater during the 1960s resulted in the renovation of a number of existing theaters or the conversion of other buildings into performance spaces. Today, theaters hosting live performances outnumber movie theaters within Richmond’s city limits.
In the years after the 1811 theater fire tragedy, a new Richmond Theater opened at North 7th and East Broad Streets. Later renamed the Marshall Theater, the theater was noted for its managers, including the infamous John Wilkes Booth and popular actor Joseph Jefferson. The theater was also the venue for singing sensation Jenny Lind, who performed in December 1850.
The Marshall Theater was destroyed by fire in 1862. On February 9, 1863, another theater, called the Richmond Theater (shown above), opened its doors. This new Richmond Theater opened its first season with William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Owner Lizzie Magill and manager Robert D’Orsey Ogden had the starring roles of Rosalind and Duke Frederick.
Prominent actors to take the Richmond Theater’s stage included Edwin Booth, Frederick Warde, and Mary Anderson. During the 1870s, Gesangverein Virginia, a local German singing group, also produced operas there.
In March 1896, the Richmond Theater was demolished to make way for a retail building that housed the Globe Shoe and Clothing Company, then the Meyer Greentree Company. Today the site is part of the Spottswood W. Robinson, III and Robert R. Merhige, Jr., United States Courthouse.
The Mozart Academy of Music opened in January 1886. In September 1899, the theater, already considered an “old” playhouse, reopened after extensive remodeling with a shorter name, the Academy of Music. For nearly 40 years, the Academy of Music was the center of Richmond’s performing arts community, serving as the city’s preeminent playhouse and one of the best on the east coast. Local troupes performed alongside nationally known performers.
Some notable celebrities to appear on the Academy’s stage included Sarah Bernhardt; a 17-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; baseball player Ty Cobb; Richmond native Charles Gilpin; and Maude Adams, the original “Peter Pan.” The Academy’s largest production was its April 1905 staging of “Ben Hur,” which included 350 people and 8 horses.
The Academy became the first Richmond venue to use new Cineograph moving picture technology in 1897. Among the movies shown at the Academy was the controversial silent movie “The Birth of a Nation” by W. D. Griffith. The movie ran for a week in October 1915 and received much interest, both from those attending the film and those protesting its positive portrayal of white supremacy.
By the 1920s, the rising popularity of movies signaled the Academy’s decline, which was accelerated by a fire that destroyed the building during the early morning of February 19, 1927.
The City of Richmond originally built the City Auditorium to serve as a public market for the growing western end, the Fan District. This market would be the city’s third, after the 17th Street and 6th Street markets. Marion John Dimmock designed the market building, which was completed in 1891. Its distinctive cupola, or skylight, resembled Les Halles, the Parisian market that opened in the 1850s.
From the beginning, the new West End Market’s sales were disappointing. By the early 1900s, the city envisioned the market as a public auditorium. In 1907, local architects Nolan and Baskervill remodeled the building with a stage, benches and other amenities. Later renovations included improving the building’s acoustics by closing the cupola and adding a lower ceiling.
From 1907 to 1942, the City Auditorium hosted music performances, operas, famous orators and plays as well as various religious and secular conventions. The 1928 opening of the Mosque Theater, however, signaled the decline of the City Auditorium, which saw many of its bookings move to its new neighbor. By 1946, the City Department of Public Works was using the building as a storage garage.
Today City Auditorium has a new life as part of Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Cary Street Recreation Center. Used since 1981 as VCU’s Cary Street Gymnasium, the City Auditorium is being integrated into an expanded sports complex that will serve what is now Virginia’s largest student population.
The Lyric Theater opened in 1914 as a venue for traveling and vaudeville acts. Vaudeville is a type of theater that consists of short acts such as slapstick comedy, acrobatic performances and musical numbers. The Lyric interspersed silent movies among these performances.
The Lyric and adjacent office building were financed by the estate of Joseph Bryan (1845-1908), publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond News Leader. The three-story building seated 1,200 people.
During the 1930s, the Lyric was home to the local Richmond Theatre Guild and continued to host various out-of-town performers into the 1940s. In 1948, the Lyric became the WRVA Theater, which produced the popular radio show, “The Old Dominion Barn Dance.” Sunshine Sue hosted the “Barn Dance” until 1957. WRVA then reorganized the show and moved it to the Bellevue Theater on MacArthur Avenue, where it was produced until 1964.
After the departure of WRVA, the Lyric provided stage space to various local performance groups. In 1963, the building’s owner, the Life Insurance Company of Virginia, finally demolished the theater and erected an office building. Today, the Virginia General Assembly Building stands on this site.
During the early 20th century, the north side of East Broad Street between 7th and 9th Streets developed into “Theater Row.” A variety of performance venues provided plays, vaudeville acts and motion pictures. The many drinking establishments in the area also created a reputation for attracting unsavory characters and illicit activities.
Former Richmond baseball manager and entrepreneur Jake Wells opened the Bijou Theater in 1899. Formerly the Barton Opera House, the Bijou provided “polite vaudeville” meant for family audiences, differing from Theater Row’s generally seedy reputation. One notable celebrity appearance was that of escape artist Harry Houdini, who performed there in 1900.
In 1905, the Bijou closed, only to reopen down the block at 810-816 East Broad Street, the former site of the Swan Tavern and the Richmond Planet newspaper. The new Bijou operated until 1933. It closed for renovations and reopened as the Strand Theater for movies until 1938.
In 1909, the Lubin Theater, another vaudeville and movie venue, joined Theater Row. The Lubin changed frequently, becoming the Regent briefly in 1916 and then the Isis from 1916 to 1929. The Isis was renovated in 1929 and then showed movies as the Park Theater from 1938 to 1953. Today the Library of Virginia occupies the former sites of the Bijou/Strand and Lubin/Regent/Isis/Park Theaters.
Jake Wells closed the original Bijou Theater in 1905 and reopened it as the Colonial Theater, another vaudeville and movie theater. When the City of Richmond condemned the building in the late 1910s, Wells demolished the theater and rebuilt it as an opulent movie palace. The new Colonial Theater opened in 1921 and operated until 1981. Wells claimed that the 1,900 seat movie theater was the largest in the south.
A rival to the Colonial was the National Theater, located down the block at North 7th and East Broad Streets on the site of the old Rex Theater. From 1923 to 1968, the National produced live shows. It was then refitted as a movie theater and operated as the Towne Theater until 1983.
By the late 20th century, the Colonial, National/Towne and nearby State theaters stood vacant. Demolition loomed when in 1991 the preservation group Historic Richmond Foundation (HRF) purchased the buildings. HRF then sold both the Colonial and State Theaters to the City of Richmond. In an interesting preservation measure, when the Colonial Theater was demolished in 1992, its front façade was incorporated into the new Theater Row office building that stands in its place today. The State Theater was completely demolished.
The fate of the National/Towne Theater was different. After the 1991 purchase, local lawyer and HRF volunteer Jim Whiting spent the next decade painting and repairing the interior of the theater. In 2009 RIC Capital Ventures purchased the building and converted it into one of the premier live music venues on the East Coast, The National.
Theater Row also was home to the Broadway Theater, which stood adjacent to the Colonial Theater on its western side. The Broadway, a movie theater that seated more than 600, operated from 1919 to 1933. It later showed films as the State Theater until 1981. Historic Richmond Foundation purchased the State in 1991 when many of Theater Row’s buildings were considered for demolition. During the construction of the Theater Row office building, the State, deemed architecturally insignificant, was completely demolished.
The Empire Theatre’s history began on Christmas Night 1911, when the vaudeville venue and playhouse opened for business. Designed by Scarborough and Howell for owner Moses Hofheimer, the theater had decorative plasterwork by local sculptor, Ferrucio Legnaioli, who did work in many local theaters, such as the National and Colonial. The theater was known for its excellent acoustics and seating design. Next door to the Empire was Richmond’s first purpose-built movie theater, the Little Theater, later renamed the Maggie Walker Theater.
The Empire was direct competition to Jake Wells’s Theater Row. When the Empire’s vaudeville acts did not succeed as hoped, Hofheimer sold the theater, which reopened in 1915 as the Strand Theater.
A 1927 fire damaged the Strand’s exterior façade, and when the theater reopened in 1934 as the Booker T. Theater, the building’s new exterior was without its elaborate plasterwork. The Booker T. catered to African American customers and showed movies until 1974. During the 1970s, Theatre IV, a children’s theater company, began to perform in the building, which it now owns and operates as the Empire Theatre. Today the Empire Theatre is Richmond’s oldest theater.
In 1919 Walter Coulter and Amanda Thorpe opened the Bluebird Theater. Thorpe had opened Richmond’s first nickelodeon, the Dixie Theater, in 1907 and later operated the Rex (later the site of the National), the Colonial and the Hippodrome theaters. Thorpe was unusual for her work as a female entrepreneur in the tough world of show business. By 1938, the Bluebird was renamed the Grand Theater, which operated until 1963. Today the Bluebird Theater site is part of a large office building.
Another theater venture by Walter Coulter and Amanda Thorpe was the 1914 construction of the Hippodrome Theater in the African American neighborhood of Jackson Ward. The Hippodrome was predated by the Globe, which had opened down the street several years earlier. Together the Globe and Hippodrome provided Jackson Ward residents with vaudeville acts, plays, singers and movies. For much of its history, the Hippodrome was owned and operated by Charles Somma.
From the late 19th to the mid 20th century, Second Street was the hub of commercial activity in Richmond’s black community and considered one of the most significant centers of African American entrepreneurism in the United States. Although the heyday of the Hippodrome was during the 1910s and 1920s, the mid 20th century brought renewed activity to the theater as a musical venue. During this period, the Hippodrome showcased nationally known performers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and James Brown.
In 1945, a fire damaged the Hippodrome. Repairs to the building refashioned the exterior façade in the Art Deco style. By then, the Hippodrome was strictly used as a movie theater. Before the desegregation of public facilities in the 1960s, the Hippodrome was one of the few Richmond movie theaters open to African Americans. When the Hippodrome closed in 1967, a long period of uncertainty began for the building. During recent decades, the theater has been used intermittently as a church and for community events. The building is now vacant, although its current owners, the Stallings family, have redevelopment plans.
Richmond’s only continuously operating movie palace is the Byrd Theatre on West Cary Street. This area was mainly residential before it became part of the Carytown shopping district. The Byrd’s owners Walter Coulter and Charles Somma opened the theater on Christmas Eve, 1928 with a screening of “Waterfront.”
Architect Frederick Bishop designed the 1,396 seat theater. The lush Rococo interior furnishings, with plasterwork by Ferrucio Legnaioli resembled an Italian opera house. A giant chandelier in the dome dominates the auditorium, which is lined with murals and decorative alcoves. The original proscenium (the space located between the curtain and the orchestra) had ornate arches that were later removed to enlarge the theater’s movie screen.
The 1930's to the 1960's was a booming era for the Byrd, which showed movies for children and adults alike. Its popularity began to wane in the 1970's, and by the 1980s, the theater had changed formats to show second run and classic movies. Today the Byrd continues this format, in addition to hosting movie premieres and various film festivals, most significantly Virginia Commonwealth University’s annual French Film Festival. The theater also is the current home of Area 10 Faith Community on Sunday mornings.
Since 2007 the Byrd Theatre Foundation has owned the theater building, although the movie operations remain a for-profit enterprise.
The North African and Spanish styled Mosque Theater was originally envisioned in 1918 by Clinton L. Williams, potentate of Acca Temple, Ancient Arabic Order, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Williams thought that the civic organization needed to increase its meeting space. After retiring in 1922, he spent the rest of his life planning and raising funds for the construction of the Mosque.
Designed by Richmond architects Marcellus Wright and Charles M. Robinson, the Mosque was meant to be a civic center for the city. In addition to a stage and seating for more than 4,000, the building had amenities that included bowling alleys, billiard rooms, swimming pools, bedrooms and a banquet hall.
Public performances and movies began in 1928. The costs to run and maintain the building were enormous, and the theater was never profitable. Revenues declined during the early 1930s. In 1935, the Mosque’s mortgage holder, New York Life Insurance Company, took possession of the building.
In 1940, the City of Richmond purchased the Mosque. Renovations and modernizations of the theater occurred in subsequent decades, although complaints about the deteriorating condition of the theater occurred from the 1950s onward. In 1994, major work began to upgrade systems and restore the building’s interior and exterior. At the end of the project a year later, the Mosque reopened as Richmond’s Landmark Theater.
1928 was a big year for entertainment in Richmond. In addition to the Mosque and Byrd theaters, Loew’s Theater opened in downtown. Located in Richmond’s retail district, Loew’s neighbors included department stores Miller & Rhoads, Berry-Burk and Thalhimer’s. Owner Loew/MGM built the new movie palace with Spanish and Mediterranean inspired architecture. Interior furnishings included murals and a star-studded sky in the auditorium, designed by John Eberson.
The theater’s first screening was the silent film “West Point,” which starred William Haines, who had lived in Richmond during his teens. Armand Doyle, Jr., a 15-year-old newspaper carrier, bought the theater’s first ticket.
Like many of Richmond’s movie theaters, Loew’s saw major success from the 1930s to the mid 20th century. Even the theater’s ban on movie concessions until the 1950s did not deter its popularity. Following the decline of downtown’s retail corridor in the late 1960s, Loew’s lost revenue and finally closed in 1979 with a kung-fu double feature, “Kung Fu Fighter” and “Revolt of the Dragon.”
In 1979, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra purchased and moved into the Loew’s Theater. Soon thereafter the recently formed Virginia Center for the Performing Arts Foundation began to fundraise to convert the former movie theater into a performing arts center. The Virginia Center for the Performing Arts opened on May 5, 1983.
For more about Loew’s more recent history, see the last photograph in this exhibition.
In addition to the larger playhouses and cinemas downtown, Richmond’s surrounding suburbs had their own theaters. In Northside, the Bellevue (1937-1965) and Ginter (1937-1939) theaters competed for moviegoers on Rappanhannock Avenue, today MacArthur Avenue.
The Art Deco-styled Bellevue was part of the powerful theater chain owned by Morton G. Thalhimer, Neighborhood Theatres, Inc. (NTI). NTI owned a number of area theaters, including the Capitol on Broad Street and the Westhampton on Grove Avenue. Rivals to NTI opened the short-lived Ginter Theater across the street from the Bellevue, but the theater only lasted two years.
Today the Bellevue Theater is the Samis Grotto Shrine. The Ginter Theater building is gone and is now the site of Once Upon a Vine wine and beer shop.
Richmond’s Dogwood Dell amphitheater in Byrd Park is an example of a natural performance space in Richmond. The dell, or a small wooded valley, adjacent to the Carillon had long been used for children’s theater productions during the summer months. The land’s gentle slope and shade made it a natural theater.
In 1956, Richmond’s Department of Recreation and Parks spent $30,000 to convert the space into a 2,400 seat amphitheater by adding terracing, parking, lights and restrooms. Dogwood Dell and the Carillon, which had exhibition space, were intended to be part of a Richmond Civic Center that would also include a future (although never built) Federated Arts Center.
As a city-operated performance space, Dogwood Dell has hosted all types of performing arts groups but is best known for its annual Festival of the Arts, a free summer-long series of performances and art exhibits begun in 1956. Every summer, the Festival of the Arts showcases music, drama, dance, storytelling and art for Richmonders young and old.
The Capitol Theater was located near the William Byrd Hotel and Broad Street Train Station (now the Science Museum of Virginia). A failed real estate deal made Morton B. Thalhimer the theater’s owner. When the Capitol opened in 1926, it was first in what would become Thalhimer’s successful local theater chain, Neighborhood Theaters, Inc.
The Capitol’s debut feature was the silent film, “The Waning Sex.” In 1927 the Capitol installed new Vitaphone technology and became the first theater in Richmond to screen movies with sound. The Capitol was a neighborhood theater that attracted residents from the Fan and Museum District areas. In 1984, the Capitol Theater was sold and demolished to make way for a parking lot at the William Byrd Hotel.
Customers in this photograph may have thought they were in line for the adult film “Devil in Miss Jones,” but they would actually see the 1941 romantic comedy “The Devil and Miss Jones.” The Biograph Theater provided free admission to this film in a humorous response to a Virginia court’s decision to ban theaters from showing the movie.
The Biograph Theater opened in 1972 as an art house and foreign film theater. The theater was a franchise of the Washington, DC, based Biograph Theater and was located down the street from the Lee Art Theater (today VCU’s Grace Street Theater). Although it had a tough beginning, the Biograph found success with long runs of X-rated and cult films such as “Deep Throat” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” until it closed in 1987. Today the Biograph building is the Hyperlink Café.
The Theater Community
At the turn of the 20th century, Richmonders had a variety of options when they wished to spend an evening at the theater. Adults could go to the Richmond Theater for a Shakespearean production starring local actors or those traveling through Richmond. Parents could take their children to the “family vaudeville” at the Lyric Theater. A group of friends could hear a popular orator, such as William Jennings Bryan, at the City Auditorium. Teenagers could spend their pocket money at one of the nickelodeons that screened new motion pictures.
Richmond’s theater community saw tremendous changes throughout the 20th century with the introduction of new technologies. Although movies were shown during the late 1890s, it during the 1920s that they gained broad popularity. Live theater now competed with movies, and companies went out of business or reduced their traveling circuit.
By the 1930s, live theater was thought to be nonexistent in Richmond. The “little theater” movement, however, stepped in with amateur productions. The Little Theatre League (later Richmond Theatre Guild), Richmond Civic Repertory Theater, Richmond Summer Theater, Catholic Theatre Guild and others provided year-round live productions that served as an outlet for those Richmonders who wished to express their creativity.
Community theater was prevalent from the 1930s through the 1950s. The 1960s saw the development of professional companies. Dinner theater, such as the Barksdale Theatre, Barn Dinner Theater and Swift Creek Mill Playhouse combined an evening’s meal with a play. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts operated its Virginia Museum Theater (later TheatreVirginia). Both amateur and professional children’s theaters provided entertainment and education for the region’s youth.
The golden era for movie production ended after World War II. National chains began to dominate mainstream movie houses while local venues screened movie classics and cult favorites, as well as premiered new features and hosted film festivals.
Today Richmond’s theater community continues to grow with the creation of new professional companies, such as the Firehouse Theatre Project and the African American Repertory Theatre. Movieland, which opened in 2008, is the city’s first new movie theater in decades. Finally, the 2009 opening of Richmond CenterStage provides new rehearsal and performance spaces for many of Richmond’s local performing arts groups and will accommodate audiences from the all parts of the city and beyond.
During the first decades of the 20th century, Richmond’s theater scene was waning. Local theaters increasingly screened motion pictures, and the traveling theater companies that performed routinely in town were disappearing. Observing this lack of theatrical options, locals in the art community joined what would become a nationwide “little theater” movement. These amateur theaters spread throughout the United States and focused on experimental theater techniques with artistic, non-commercial goals.
Adair Pleasants Archer formed The Little Theatre League in 1917. The League disbanded briefly during World War I but reopened in the spring of 1918. When Archer died soon thereafter, Louise Burleigh took the reins as League director. Members included Jennie Ellet, founder of St. Catherine’s School, and writer James Branch Cabell. Artists Nora Houston and Adèle Clark lent their studio as a rehearsal space to the League prior to its residence in a workshop at Floyd Avenue and Laurel Street.
The League performed at its workshop and various venues in town, including Belvidere Hall, the Academy of Music, the Woman’s Club and the Broadway Theater. In 1933, League director Margaret Underhill staged a production of “The Bleeding Nun” at the Valentine Museum. It was the first staging of that work in Richmond since the Richmond Theater’s fateful production in 1811 that ended in fiery tragedy.
The Richmond Theatre Guild succeeded The Little Theatre League in October 1935. The Guild continued to operate in the spirit of “little theater,” using amateur actors, although some staff was paid. The Guild performed mainly at the Lyric Theater. In 1937, the Guild celebrated the opening of its new headquarters at 801 East Broad Street, where it operated for several more years.
Leslie Banks, who with his wife Rose donated these photographs in 1961, worked for the Guild as its artistic director. Banks had begun his theater career working backstage for The Little Theatre League and would spend his life working for and supporting Richmond’s theater community. His theater lighting company provided technical support for many productions seen by Richmonders.
Some theatrical groups in Richmond are based out of churches and produce performances with religious themes. While one may think of traditional Christmas pageants held yearly at churches or public venues, the Catholic Theatre Guild had a year-long presence in Richmond’s theater community.
Father O’Kane formed the Catholic Theatre Guild in 1938 after being inspired in Europe by “Passion Plays,” dramatic performances representing events associated with the Passion of Christ. In 1939, Father O’Kane wrote the passion play, “When Pilate Judges,” which was staged that year. The play was later renamed “Richmond’s Passion Play” and was produced every year until 1956. In addition to the annual passion play, the Guild produced secular plays throughout the year.
In 1940, the Guild opened a studio at North 3rd and East Broad Streets. During World War II, this space was converted into the first Catholic Stage Door Canteen in the United States. The Guild used this workshop until 1956, when it moved to a building in Linden Row at 112 East Franklin Street. Secular performances were generally held at the Woman’s Club. The Guild continued its performances until it disbanded in 1959 due to lagging finances and volunteerism and the rise of professional theater troupes.
Richmond’s schools, universities and civic organizations were involved in the amateur theater community during the 1930s through the 1950s. Ever-present in the theater community, Leslie and Rose Banks led Richmond Summer Theater at St. Catherine’s School during the 1950s. The Richmond Civic Repertory Theater also operated out of Richmond College (later the University of Richmond). Other clubs, such as the Woman’s Club and Beth Ahabah’s Sisterhood provided creative outlets to their members with theater departments that staged productions.
The Barksdale Theatre was born in August 1953 in nearby Hanover County, Virginia. Legend goes that six young actors, David and Priscilla (“Pete” and “Perkie”) Kilgore, Muriel McAuley, Patricia Sharp, Tom Carlin and Steward Falconer, wished to form a professional theater troupe and bought the historic Hanover Tavern that summer. Working day jobs to pay the mortgage on the property, the new Barksdale Memorial Theatre (named after Barbara Barksdale, a college friend who had died from multiple sclerosis) initially focused on restoring the circa 1723 tavern.
The Barksdale opened for public performances in 1954 with its first play, “Gold in the Hills.” To lure patrons to Hanover, the founders introduced food service, creating the nation’s first dinner theater. Richmond theater was volunteer-driven during the 1950s, making the Barksdale the only professional theater troupe with paid actors at the time. The Barksdale was also distinctive for allowing integrated audiences in defiance of Jim Crow laws prior to desegregation.
In 1990, the Barksdale’s owners sold the tavern to the Hanover Tavern Foundation and moved the theater to Willow Lawn Shopping Center. After 10 years of further restoration by the Foundation, the Barksdale returned to the tavern in 2006 to produce plays in addition to its regular Willow Lawn series. Barksdale Theatre is now managed by local children’s theater company Theatre IV.
The nation’s first professional theater housed within an art museum opened in 1955 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). Robert Telford was the theater’s long-time theater director. Virginia Museum Theater prided itself on pushing theatrical and social boundaries in its productions while also staging crowd-pleasing musicals. When Virginia’s segregation laws forbade white and black actors to share the stage, the theater secretly cast black actors Carl Lester and Mary Jo Washington in its production of “You Can’t Take It With You.” On the play’s opening night, the audience’s fierce applause signaled its approval.
In 1984, Virginia Museum Theater formally separated from the VMFA, although it continued to rent the museum’s facility. A year later, the organization changed its name to TheatreVirginia and was successful until the 1990s, when revenues began to decline and logistical problems arose with the museum. The theater hoped to find a new home in the proposed Virginia Performing Arts Center and went into hibernation in 2002. By the time that plans had been finalized for Richmond CenterStage, TheatreVirginia had dissolved.
Richmonder Vienna Cobb Anderson was one of the many actors to take Virginia Museum Theater’s stage. Anderson studied acting at Yale and toured with the Barter Theatre of Virginia in Abingdon, Virginia, before joining Virginia Museum Theater during the 1960s. Among her roles was Eliza Doolittle from “Pygmalion.” She later became an Episcopal priest and created colorful clerical vestments, wall hangings and banners that reflected her theater background. Today, the Reverend Doctor Anderson lives in Richmond.
The Mosque was originally designed to accommodate a variety of non-performance functions, including recreational activities, lodging, meetings and conventions. This photograph shows an automobile trade show held in the Mosque’s ballroom in 1960. After the City of Richmond purchased the Mosque in 1940, the City promoted the Mosque as a major space for conventions, with seating for meetings of up to 4,000 people.
Renamed Richmond’s Landmark Theater in 1995, the facility’s uses are now more limited than originally planned but still include local and national events such as school commencements, fashion shows, plays, music and dance performances, and the Richmond Forum speaker series. While owned by the City of Richmond, the Landmark is now managed by RPAC Inc., which also operates Richmond CenterStage.
Richmond has had several children’s theater organizations. In September 1926, the Community Recreation Association and the Federation of Mothers’ Clubs began a series of theatrical productions at William Fox Elementary School. The popularity of the plays, which were staged at Miller & Rhoads department store and WRVA Theater, helped to create the Children’s Theater of Richmond, Inc., after World War II.
Then managed by the Junior League of Richmond and the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, the Children’s Theatre used both professional and amateur actors, often casting children and young adults in roles. Performances occurred at Northside’s Scottish Rite Temple and Dogwood Dell until the organization was dissolved in 1986.
Today Richmond’s major children’s theater is Theatre IV, which was founded in 1975 by Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway. As Virginia’s first professional theater for youth audiences, Theater IV produces plays at the Empire Theatre, which it owns, as well as outreach programs in regional schools. Although always a children’s theater, Theatre IV began to provide adult programming during the late 1970s. Today, Theatre IV regularly tours the United States and now manages the Barksdale Theatre.
Larry and Jenny Brown are shown here rehearsing with students from the Janie Porter Barrett Learning Center to perform their original production, “Take a Giant Step.” The project was a partnership among Barksdale Theatre, the Barrett Center and the School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC). Larry Brown, an instructor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, and his wife Jenny Brown, an actress and SPARC instructor, managed the student production at the state correctional facility for boys.
SPARC was founded in 1981 by Jeri Culter-Voltz to provide youth in the Richmond community with training in the performing arts. During its almost 30 year history, SPARC has grown to over 20 satellite locations throughout Virginia. SPARC offers classes and camps as well as opportunities for young actors, singers, poets and playwrights to participate it a variety of annual productions and competitions.
One of the Byrd Theatre’s most memorable features is its “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ. Installed during the theater’s construction, the custom Rudolph Wurlitzer organ rises and lowers from an orchestra pit in front of the stage. In addition to traditional organ tones, the Wurlitzer has many sound effects designed to accompany silent movies. These effects and the organ’s huge pipes are stored in various rooms above the stage. The Byrd is one of the few theaters in the country to have an original organ.
Eddie Weaver, a popular piano player in Richmond, manned the Byrd’s Wurlitzer beginning in 1961. He also played at Loew’s Theater, Miller & Rhoads’ Tea Room and at local events such as the Miss Richmond Pageant. Weaver was a part of the Byrd experience until his retirement in 1981. Bob Gulledge, who studied under Weaver, is the Byrd’s current organist.
The creation of Barksdale Theatre and Virginia Museum Theater during the 1950s marked a move in Richmond from “little theater” to professional companies. The Barn Dinner Theatre and Swift Creek Mill Playhouse were part of this movement. Both were dinner theaters that attracted playgoers by mixing food and drama.
The Goochland-based Barn Dinner Theatre opened in 1963 under the management of Howard Wolfe. Housed in a converted barn, the theater had a stage “in the round,” about which the audience sat. Rather than entering from a curtain, actors would stand on the stage, which would rise and lower between scenes. The theater changed owners in 1977 and briefly became the West End Dinner Theater before closing in 1980.
Swift Creek Mill Playhouse was founded on December 2, 1965, by Dr. Louis Rubin, a Petersburg optometrist, and Warner J. Callahan, a former director of Virginia Museum Theater. The Playhouse’s first production was the musical “Carnival!,” which it reprised in 1973. Dating to 1633, the Swift Creek Mill is believed to be the oldest grist mill in the United States. Today, called Swift Creek Mill Theatre, the playhouse continues to produce musicals and plays.
This photograph shows a line of customers waiting to see the play “I Have a Dream” produced by the American Revels Company at the newly reopened Empire Theatre. In 1977, the theater, then the Edison, was converted back into a playhouse and given its original name. Local theater and musical groups, including the Richmond Symphony and the Virginia Opera Association, began a succession of residences in the refurbished theater. Since 1986, Theatre IV has owned, operated and restored the Empire, Richmond’s oldest theater.
In 1984, the animated science fiction film “Futuropolis” premiered during two sold-out nights at the Biograph Theater. Moviegoers dressed in space age costumes mixed with others in formalwear. The directors Steve Segal and Phil Trumbo, as well as stars from the movie, attended the opening night on April 13. Segal, an animator, had attended Virginia Commonwealth University and went on to work in Hollywood. “Futuropolis” is now considered a cult classic.
The opening of the Virginia Performing Arts Center in the former Loew’s Theater in May 1983 was seen as a major step in reviving Richmond’s declining downtown commercial and cultural district. Soon renamed the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, the space was shared by the Richmond Symphony and other local and traveling groups. During the 1980s and 1990s retail on East Broad and Grace Streets continued to disappear, yet the Carpenter Center continued to operate.
By 2000, various factors, including a burgeoning arts district, the new Greater Richmond Convention Center and renewed interest in urban living sparked conversations about a larger performing arts complex that would incorporate the Carpenter Center. The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation formed in 2001 to begin fundraising for this project.
The performing arts center project made frequent headlines as stakeholders clashed over plans and funding sources. By 2005, despite considerable progress, the Foundation acknowledged that it had not met its fundraising goals and scaled back the plan. Renamed Richmond CenterStage, the reduced project focused on renovating the Carpenter Center and adding a playhouse. In September 2009, Richmond CenterStage opened. It provides rehearsal and performance space to local groups that include the African American Repertory Theatre; Elegba Folklore Society; Richmond Ballet; Richmond Jazz Society; Richmond Shakespeare; Richmond Symphony; School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC); Theatre IV/Barksdale; and Virginia Opera.
Two Theaters Reborn
In October 2008, the vacant Robinson Theater on Q Street in northern Church Hill reopened as the Robinson Theater Community Arts Center. Built in the 1930s with help from its namesake, world renowned entertainer and Richmond native Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Robinson Theater screened movies for the neighborhood’s African American residents until it closed in the 1960s. The reopening of the Robinson Center in 2008 marked a new beginning for this local gathering place, which will serve as a community resource for residents.
The Carpenter Center (Loew’s Theater) reopened in September 2009 as the Carpenter Theater within Richmond CenterStage. This almost decade long project to create a downtown performing arts center for all Richmonders saw countless rounds of debate as different stakeholders fought to control the project’s scope and vision. With the opening of Richmond CenterStage, residents will have the opportunity to see a wide array of local and national performers in the city’s newest auditoriums and rehearsal spaces.
Richmond has witnessed the rebirth of two of its theaters during the last two years. The sizes and scopes of these projects differed immensely, but they share common threads. Both projects brought historic buildings back to life to entertain, challenge and bring joy to audiences of all backgrounds. Time will tell what success the Robinson Center and Richmond CenterStage will have in strengthening Richmond’s performing arts community and citizen involvement. The hope is that these venues will be part of a rich future in the city’s cultural life.
Meghan Glass Hughes — Curator/Director of Archives and Photographic Services
Kristi Austin — Museum Technician
Richard Klemm — Operations Assistant
Jackie Mullins — Registrar/Collections Manager
Ken Myers — Director of Operations and Capital Projects
Ed Ragan — Historian
Suzanne Savery — Director of Collections and Interpretation
Tesni Stephen — Museum Technician
Brianna White Gaynor — Museum Technician
Katherine Poole — Intern
Images — Richmond Times Dispatch Photograph Collection, The Valentine Richmond History Center