The principal venue for drama in the post-Civil War city, the Richmond Theatre, was augmented in the 1870s by the cheaply-built, tabernacle-shaped Mozart Hall. Academy of Music, which was designed for concerts and lectures. The low side walls supported a vaulted wood roof. “A large audience has gathered for a discussion of the causes and treatment of yellow fever, which had swept through the South and Midwest the previous summer. Mozart Hall was a popular theater for entertainment as well as a gathering place for educational and political events” [Francis Simpson Blair entry, Encyclopedia of Virginia]. Lily Langtry appeared here in “An Unequal Match” and the Christine Nilson, known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” gave a concert, as did Emma Abbot and her opera company.
Interior of first Mozart Hall from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 7 December 1878].
|Plan of the Academy of Music from the 1924-25 Sanborn Map.|
Interior of the Academy of Music (from City on the James, 1893
Interior of the Academy of Music
At the same time, the audiences for conventional plays became more polite. Instead of a pit for the lowest paying customers overlooked by more expensive balcony seats, the pit was provided with comfortable seats and, transformed into the orchestra, became the most desirable part of the house. Otherwise theaters at the end of the nineteenth century retained a traditional horseshoe form and box seats surmounted by a "peanut gallery."
The former Barton Opera House, reopened by Jake Wells as the Bijou Theatre of 1899, from Richmond Virginia: The City on the James, Richmond Chamber of Commerce, 1902. This became the Colonial Theatre in 1905.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, “boosters” of Richmond became aware a need for entertainment venues. At that time, there were only two significant theaters in the city, the high-toned Academy of Music and Putnam’s Theater, an “illegitimate burlesque house in the city’s ‘red light district.”
The new Bijou Theatre of 1905 together with the Lubin Theatre of 1909 (later Regent, Isis, and Park) on Theatre Row.
Theaters advertised good ventilation, an asset in the humid Richmond climate. The circular openings across the tall frieze at the top of the Bijou’s facade were part of a convection exhaust design to remove heated air from the interior. Thanks to Jake Well’s championing of “clean entertainment,” the new Bijou and a few other vaudeville houses were given equal treatment with the Academy by theater reviewers and their advertisements mingled with those for plays and concerts at the Academy.
New Keith Theatre, Boston, 1893
Benjamin Franklin Keith, a small-time huckster who pioneered a clean version of variety in Boston in the 1880s and eventually, with his partner, Edward Franklin Albee, controlled the nation's top vaudeville acts by his death in 1910..
As the popularity and affordability of popular theatrical entertainment spread across the nation, increased capital became available for theater construction. Vaudeville theater owners were able to present a heightened level of seriousness to the public, rivaling that of conventional theaters and concert halls. The “founder” of respectable vaudeville, Benjamin Franklin Keith, opened the New Keith Theatre in Boston in 1894 to give new legitimacy to vaudeville performances. The theatre used the opulent styles of European opera houses to create a sense of vaudeville as spectacle. He employed marble, mural paintings, and gold leaf to transport the patron beyond the everyday experience of urban life. These theaters still, however, resembled earlier American (and traditional European) houses in the use of a central floor― now furnished with seats and called the orchestra― surrounded by stacked galleries and boxes arranged in a horseshoe form. Richmond vaudeville theaters like the Empire and the Lyric were not as opulent as the New York houses, but managed to add comparable features such as decorative sculpture that would help raise the local profile of popular entertainment.
From its base in Richmond, the Wells, Wilmer, and Vincent Corporation developed a large circuit of theaters across the South, emulating the success of powerful Northern vaudeville theatre barons. Most of their performers came via an agreement with the popular Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. In spite of difficulties in obtaining high quality performers in the South, Wells became a force at the national level. The transition from live entertainment to film took years, but the development of the feature-length film in 1913-1914 hastened the change. In the words of Eric Dewberry, Wells’ theaters “paved the way for the 'picture palaces’s' emergence in the region- a signal that film had become the preeminent form of popular culture and applying a coup de grace to the dominance of live theater” [Dewberry, 2010, 80].
|Empire Theatre (later Stand) exterior c. 1929 [Dementi]|
Empire Theatre interior today [Virginia Rep]
The Lyric Theatre, 1913.
Jake Wells constructed the Lyric
Theatre in 1913 at 9th and Broad streets to serve as the main venue for the
big-time variety acts controlled by the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. The
architecturally undistinguished exterior made little attempt at monumental
detailing, unlike like its predecessors the Richmond and Lyric theaters or its
successors among the city’s motion picture palaces. It was concealed behind an
office building built at the same time. The theatre and office section were
both designed by architect Claude Howell. The interior was more lavish than the exterior
and included a classic layout with two balconies wrapped around a central
orchestra, box seats flanking an arched proscenium, and lavish applied
At its opening on August 25, 1913, the Lyric featured a Keith vaudeville lineup of comedians, singers, blackface artists, trained dogs, and female acrobats. The Lyric charged evening ticket prices ranging from 15 to 75 cents. The show included a film newsreel for the week, produced by Pathe News in England [Richmond Times Dispatch August 24, 1913].
Interestingly, the Empire (by this time known as the Strand) had been purchased by 1921 by a group of African Americans associated with Richmond Planet newspaper editor John Mitchell, Jr. for $113,000 in cash [Monroe N. Work, ed, The Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1919-1921. Tuskegee Institute, 1922]. Although they probably hoped to develop it as a black community resource, they leased it to Jake Wells chiefly as a venue for white audiences. Under Jake Wells’ management (as the Strand), the theater did hold some private events for the black community organizations to which whites were invited [Dewberry 2010, 192].
In the light of their purchasing power and pent-up demand for access to popular entertainment, white theatre developers were quick to provide separate theaters for African-Americans. The Second Street area evolved at the turn of the century into a segregated business district catering to the African-American population, sometimes called “the Harlem of the South.” Nickelodeons on Broad and Second Street catered to black patrons at an early date, and white theater-owners provided vaudeville and films for segregated audiences in several downtown and later suburban theaters.
According to movie theater pioneer Walter J. Coulter, he was responsible for relocating the city’s first nickelodeon, the Dixie, from its leased storefront accommodations to a new site on Broad Street at Brook Turnpike soon after 1909 [Richmond News Leader, Dec 22, 1928]. At its new location, the Dixie became “the oldest and best located colored vaudeville and picture house in the city” [Richmond Times Dispatch 1 Aug 1913].
Amanda Thorpe, in association with Walter Coulter, built the Hippodrome Theatre on Second Street in 1914, which featured both vaudevillle and motion pictures. It appears to have been built to replace the Dixie as the flagship theater catering to Richmond’s African-American population, since Walter Coulter advertised the Dixie, a “colored vaudeville and picture theatre. . . now running and making money,” for sale at the same time that they were building the Hippodrome [Richmond Times Dispatch 1 Aug 1913]. The Hippodrome, for which the plans were drawn by Fisher and Rabenstein, Architects, featured a handsome pedimented facade. It was a major stop for popular entertainers such as Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong.
The Hippodrome in 1959
|The Hippodrome today (1914, rebuilt 1947)|
|The Empire -Strand Theatre reborn as the Booker T Theatre in 1933.|
As movies took over from vaudeville, the Strand Theatre, which had been damaged by fire in 1927, reopened in 1933 as the Booker T. It was operated as a movie house for African-American audiences by the Lichtman organization, District Theatres, Inc., based in Washington DC. The Little Theatre next door was reopened in 1936 by Lichtman as the Maggie Walker Theatre. By the late 1930s, Lichtman which operated at least four movie houses in downtown Richmond, including the Booker T., the Walker, the Robinson, and the Hippodrome [Edward F. Sinnott, Jr. papers, Virginia Historical Society].