The Byrd Theatre in Richmond, Virginia represents, both architecturally and decoratively, a culmination point in a long tradition, one that stretches back beyond the eighteenth-century origins of American theater. Play-houses since the 16th century have been given special decorative treatments in keeping with their importance in the civic realm. Relief sculpture and painted decorations referring to mythological themes ornamented the prosceniums and the fronts of box seats in European theaters. In the same tradition, the earliest theaters in the colonies undoubtedly made use of the decorative skills of the same painters who produced stage sets. In fact, the decorative arts are closely allied with those of the scene painter.
|Byrd Theatre, Auditorium Interior, photograph c 1928.|
The Byrd Theatre
In 1928, the Byrd Theatre opened just as talking pictures were introduced. It was an architecturally sophisticated film-only venue in the city’s West End neighborhood. Such an ambitious project represented a new scale of investment for the increasingly profitable partnership of Walter Coulter and Charles Somma. Fred Bishop, the architect, and Arthur Brounet, whose studio was in charge of the interior finishes, took their decorative program from French theaters and opera houses of the early to mid-nineteenth century, seen though the lens of big-city vaudeville and movie venues of more recent years. These were typified by the vast Chicago Theatre, built in 1921 to the designs of architects Rapp and Rapp in the “Neo-Baroque French Revival style” with elaborate mural paintings, or the 5,000-seat Roxy Theatre in New York conceived by film producer Herbert Lubin, Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, and decorator Harold Rambusch and completed in 1927.
The interior decoration of the Byrd was executed by the Brounet Studios in New York, a well-known firm that specialized in theater and lobby decoration. Arthur Brounet (1866-1941), a native of Le Havre, France, studied art in France, Germany and Italy at various times in his life. He arrived in New York at the age of twenty. He was listed in the census of 1890 as a “decorator of arts” and in a directory of 1892 as an artist. He advertised as early as 1896 in the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, notifying clients that he was a “designer in every style, Relief Work and Tapestry Painting,” located at 678 Lexington Avenue in New York. He was married and had three children, including Arthur G. Brounet, who would assist his father in installing the work at the Byrd.
Brounet worked with prolific theater architect Thomas W. Lamb in 1912 to provide the Egyptian-styled decoration, including murals, for the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre of 1912 in New York. The lobby of the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre contains one of the few surviving Brounet murals. It was part of a larger set of murals that decorated the auditorium in the “Egyptian” style.
Brounet found it unnecessary to compromise his Beaux-arts training to come up with suitable Egyptian themes. Instead, he adapted the theatrical allegories he was accustomed to produce for use on the dome, the “sounding board” and the fronts of the boxes at the Eltinge. The critic for the New York Times found the juxtaposition incongruous and remarked that “what the designer intended when he decorated the boxes with bacchanic figures wearing Egyptian headdresses and playing pipes can only be imagined.”
Other important theaters designed by Lamb for which the decoration was credited to Brounet include the Selwyn, on 42nd Street, and the Cort Theatre, for which he provided an eighteenth-century French interior. Brounet did aquatic-themed murals at Warren and Wetmore’s 1927 Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ, and was responsible for the decoration at many others, including the Prospect Theatre in the Bronx, the Keeney Theatre in Brooklyn of 1915 (with a foyer mural), and the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown, MD, in the same year. The Hanover Theatre in Pennsylvania, which he decorated in 1928, is still standing. His technically assured and carefully composed paintings are consistently in the mainstream of the academic tradition, even after the tradition began to falter in the second decade of the twentieth century. His work was capable of holding its own with the most accomplished architectural settings.
The Keeney Theatre in Brooklyn, NY. Proscenium mural by Arthur Brounet, [Architecture and Building, April 1915]. The theme appears to be another version of “The Coronation of Theatrical Art,” similar to the Prospect Theatre. “The decorations are well carried out and in fine materials. The color scheme is in rose, cream and gold with a large proscenium decoration. The entrance lobby is also highly decorated, containing another fine mural by Arthur Brounet over the entrance to the inner foyer.”
Brounet undoubtedly painted the Byrd’s murals himself and planned the color scheme of the interior. For his work in “decorating and mural work & tapestry” he was paid $16,000. This did not include the drapery, which came to $2,742, and the carpeting, which cost about $8,915, which his firm also supplied. His firm hired and sent to Richmond a “gang” of skilled decorative painters to execute the design in the months leading up to the opening.
Close examination of the design and execution of the overall painted decoration shows a commitment to detail and quality, as well as traditional methods of execution. The decorative paints and metals used were less costly, but gave a similar effect, to the most expensive materials, like gold leaf. Some of the architectural finishes have held up very well, while the inexpensive quality of others has meant that they have lost their intended effect (notably the use use of bronze powder paint as a substitute for metallic leaf in some areas). The murals were executed in oil on canvas in the New York City studio and shipped to the site.
Comparison of Arthur Brounet’s work with that of prominent contemporary muralists and with other projects executed by his firm indicate that he remained loyal to his training as an academic realist. His murals consistently employed classical subjects and traditional mythological themes well into the 1920s. He undoubtedly closely planned the allegorical and historical content of the pictures within the larger context of the era in which he had been trained.
The following illustrations show similar work embodying mythological and allegorical content from Arthur Brounet Studios:
Arthur Brounet, Mural in Lobby of the St. James Building, New York, built 1898 [empheralnewyork]
The Byrd Theatre’s Mural Program
The mural paintings throughout the Byrd were intended to provide allegorical content to complement the building’s interior architecture. In keeping with Beaux-arts concepts, the architect selected an architectural order, a historical period, a setting that accommodated a hierarchy of allegorical paintings, and a complement of decorative details that upheld film presentation as a legitimate form of drama.
It seems worthwhile to explore the theme of the murals to better understand the ways in which the theater responds to its purpose and setting. Examination of Brounet’s surviving decorative work has shown that his theater murals were often intended as allegories. and were, as well, given appropriate explanatory titles. At least one example made a positive reference to drama as an fine art. In this case, Brounet’s allegory seems to have appropriated some rather modern ideas appropriate to the prospective art of cinema.
|Byrd Theatre, Foyer Interior, photograph c 1928.|
The mural program is centered on the large triptych high on the wall in the two-story foyer. The foyer paintings, executed in oil on canvas, are in a long line of theatrical murals presenting the muses as patrons of the arts and the history of drama as an Dionysian celebration inherited from the ancient Greeks.
Melpomene, Arthur Brounet, Central Mural in Foyer, Byrd Theatre, 1928.
The mural was painted at the studio in oil on canvas, which was then adhered
to the plaster substrate.
The central mural in the upper wall of the Byrd’s foyer is the focal point of Arthur Brounet’s decorative program. It depicts the muse Melpomene ruling over the sacred mysteries that form the Greek origins of Western drama. The partially undressed figure is seated on a marble throne and wrapped in a red cloak. She holds in one hand a primitive and terrifying version of the tragic mask used by Greek actors, and in the other a palm branch probably representing fame. She has a poppy in her hair, perhaps representing the viewers’ forgetfulness of the outer world when under the influence of the imaginative power of the dramatic art. Framed by the setting sun, she appears ready to don the mask herself, as the revelers to either side perform the ritual that sets the stage for the evening’s celebrations. As we will see, she occupies the central position in a larger performance on a stage of her own.
Melpomene, Edward Simmons, Library of Congress, 1896 (above),
Melpomene, Paul Baudry, Grand Foyer, Paris Opera, 1874 (below).
A well-known mural in the Library of Congress by Edward Simmons shows a similar seated figure with a mask at her feet and flanked by putti, one of whom holds a wreath of ivy, associated with Dionysus. This mural shows the academic context in which the Byrd’s murals were painted. Somewhat earlier, another red-clad Melponene sat among her sisters in cove panels on the ceiling of the Grand Foyer of Charles Garnier’s influential Paris Opera. The sumptuous ceiling, completed by Paul Baudry in 1874, as well as the sculpture and painting that ornaments the rest of the state-sponsored opera house, was a distant, but potent source of the form and decorative scheme of the Byrd.
Gustave Boulanger, Bacchanal and Country Dance, Salle de Danse, Paris Opera (left)
and Instrumental Music, Proscenium mural, Casino de Monte Carlo (right). Both buildings
by Charles Garnier.
and Instrumental Music, Proscenium mural, Casino de Monte Carlo (right). Both buildings
by Charles Garnier.
According to one scholar, “the nineteenth century appropriated the figure of the maenad transmitted from Antiquity and filtered by the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, to become, in fact, a 'muse' of the new time and articulated around it a modern poetic. . . . they appear in the cycles of official decorations just as in the advertising posters or the illustrations of novels. . .The same artists can make the subject both pretext to a scene of licentious nudity, or the recreation of the glorious tradition of the ancient bacchanal.” Examples include the academic paintings below, showing dancing and exhausted revelers not unlike those seen in the foyer murals.
Bacchante and Satyr, Leon Palliere, 1862
Bertel Thorvaldsen, bacchante and satyr
The symmetrically placed panels flanking the central muse are not as immediately readable as was the center panel. The entire scene is set in a autumnal Arcadian landscape with a distant background of mountains seemingly lit up at sunset. Four partially clad bacchantes, two on each side, are dancing with satyr-like male figures, devotees associated with the abandonment of the worship of Dionysus, accompanied by the music of an double reed flute called an aulos, usually associated with worship of the god. The dancing trios are flanked by reclining female forms, wearing red cloaks matching the muse. Each is provided with an female attendant.
As we will see, the background is notionally part of the same landscape depicted in the murals in the auditorium. The overall composition contains five elements: the central muse, two groups of dancers, and the reclining figures and their attendants. It is noticeable that the outer figures to the left seem more wooden and less well painted than the lithe figures of the dancers and the lady on the right. Flanking columns or piers, partially visible, and tapestry hangings are shown at each side, suggesting that the scene is set on the stage of a Greek outdoor theater.
When Brounet sent the murals to Richmond, Charles Somma must have indicated that something about one of them was unsatisfactory. Arthur G. Brounet told Somma that “In reference to the mural now in your possession, upon my first trip to your job, will bring this back and make the necessary changes.” Might this account for the poor quality of the artwork on the bacchante in the left panel, if a part of it had to be hastily repainted? Was the original too risque for Richmond? Or was there some painted reference to Bacchus’ wine which Somma thought would raise questions during Prohibition?
Arthur Brounet, Byrd Theatre, flanking murals in the foyer, right (at top) and left (at bottom)
In the academic tradition, an idealized female figure is often employed to personify a concept or trait. The connection with Dionysus in the Byrd’s murals is emphasized by the partially clad bacchante reclining in an ecstatic pose on the left. She is wearing an ivy crown and holding a pine-cone-topped thyrsus, both symbols of the god’s presence. Here, the reclining bacchante represents the Dionysian contribution to drama. Above her, on a pedestal, is an archaic Greek-style amphora showing a horse and a man.
In contrast, the robed female figure on the right is holding an ornate lyre, such as accompanied the performance of epic poetry. Her alert pose and attitude are clearly antithetical to the figure on the opposite side. Her cool composure is assured by her attendant’s carefully wielded fan. A clue to her significance may be found in the lyre, her only attribute, which makes a conventional mythological connection with the god Apollo. Dionysos and Apollo were each associated with specific musical modes and instruments, as confirmed by standard surveys of classical art:
If Apollo’s delight was the melodious and restrained lyre, Dionysos’ instrument, at least by the 4th century BC, was the rousing, versatile, and dramatic aulos (tibia in Latin). The aulos was was a cylindrical pipe, sounded with a reed (a cross between the modern oboe, clarinet, and flute), and played in pairs.- not to be confused with the syrinx, the ‘panpipes’ associated with Pan, the rustic god of shepherds and fertility. It was played in all manner of Dionysian rituals- at the theatre (accompanying the chorus of an Athenian drama), Bacchic mysteries, and the symposium. . . The rhythmic fervor of cymbals, the tambourine, and drums could also be connected to Dionysos and his primordial realm.
Nigel Spivey and Michael Squire, Panorama of the Classical World
Nigel Spivey and Michael Squire, Panorama of the Classical World
While the ancients understood that Apollo and Dionysos, both sons of Zeus, were related in a symmetrical way, it was the philosopher Nietzsche who, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), articulated the tension between the antithetical forces represented by the sensual Dionysos and the rational Apollo as the source of tragic drama. It is inappropriate to read too deeply into a frankly commercial production like the Byrd Theatre murals, but the paintings do seem equipped with symbols enough to bear the weight of a Dionysian/Apollonian interpretation. Thus, the Byrd murals may be interpreted to present Melpomene as the allegorical figure of Drama in her especial manifestation as Cinema. She sits enthroned at the hinge between the wild abandon of the vaudeville tradition and the emotional control characteristic of the legitimate stage. The mural makes the controversial argument that film is the equal of live theater and that it is capable of making a similarly honorable contribution to the civic realm.
The Byrd Theatre at the time of opening in 1928 with organist Carl Rond at the keyboard
The theater was designed by the architect to allow either murals or fabric inserts in panels in both the foyer and the auditorium, but the owner made the choice to spend the substantial sums required to purchased a total of eleven paintings. These were placed where they would make the most effective contribution to the whole. In the auditorium, the murals included the six landscapes in the arches on the side walls and the two box seat or “organ arch” panels, as they were called in the mural specifications. In addition, smaller cartouches and panels around the room continued the theme of dance begun in the lobby. The pilaster capitals flanking the boxes were designed in a variant version of the Corinthian order, which incorporates a “cameo” of a heroic figure at the center of each. Since the cameos are not shown on the architect’s section drawings, these details may represent a collaboration between the muralist, the decorative plasterer, and/or the architect. They appear to have been painted on plaster at the theater.
As noted above, the auditorium is also ornamented with a series of grisaille medallions and panels. These were executed in an appropriately Neoclassical style. These have lost most of their power due to their darkening over time and the loss of a set of medallions that was included as part of the “plaster stage setting” that was removed in 1989. The group is dominated by a central panel on the beam supporting the dome and located over the front of the balcony. It consists of four female figures who are dancing around a central altar crowned by a flaming tripod.
Byrd Theatre, central panel on the beam above the balcony rail.
In keeping with the decorative program identified in the foyer murals, the ceiling panel appears to represent a stylized, Neo-classical version of the celebration of the dance around the altar of Dionysos in the center of the theater in Athens. This ritual was associated with the worship of Dionysus, out of which grew Greek dramatic performance. Corresponding paintings of dancers are found on the center of each of the five rounded projections on the front of the balcony.
These famous Neo-classical rondels of the muses Polyhymnia, Euterpe, and Terpsichore by Thorvaldsen are part of the visual ancestry of the four muses in the auditorium paintings. They closely resemble three of the four figures in the ceiling panel above, but the number of the figures and inclusion of the altar do not confirm the Byrd figures as muses.
The landscapes painted in the two boxes flanking the stage and behind the plaster filigree in the three arches on each side of the auditorium are intended to give glimpses into the continuous evening landscape that can be seen in the evocative backgrounds of the foyer murals. The only intrusive notes that seems to deviate from the Greco-Roman ornamental program are in the central arches on each side, where Maxfield Parrish-inspired castles have crept into the Arcadian twilight.
Three of the six archway murals
Murals in the backs of the box seats flanking the proscenium
Painting the backs of box seats to resemble a garden landscape may not have been part of the architect’s initial intention, since it seems to work against the architectural logic of the theater. The vistas in the backs of the box seats. as executed, however, serve to open the heavy sides of the proscenium and link the landscapes along the walls, and by extension even the terrain outside the theater, with the fantastic scenes projected on the screen. The murals in the boxes are the most unstructured and dream-like of any in the building, perhaps because only portions of them could be glimpsed from any one spot. Elements such as tombs, funereal urns, and memorial arches in both murals suggest the memories of heroic lives.
The painting on the right side of the stage contains a view down an allee of clipped shrubbery toward a circular structure like a heroic or imperial tomb, which is supported on a rusticated base and topped with an urn. In the foreground is a pool in which a statue or shadowed figure is bathing with her back to the audience beside a monumental funerary urn bearing the image of a hero or god. In the distance, in front of the tomb, stands an arch made entirely out of clipped vegetation. The mural on the left has a pool in the distance in which stands a tripartite triumphal arch topped with gilded sculptural figures and a heraldic crest, located on an artificial island. In front of the arch, a bronze fountain plays into a basin surrounded by a hedge. To the right in the foreground rises the corner of a tall Corinthian temple.
The Byrd has shown films almost continuously since it opened. Due to its meticulous preservation through the decades, the theater retains not only its dramatic marble and ornamental plaster interiors and historic Wurlitzer organ, but its historic paint scheme and valuable mural cycle. A careful restoration of the decorative finishes and murals is planned to be completed over the next three years.