“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Richmond Theater- Part III- Vaudeville to Cinema- 1920-1940

This is the final part of a three-part overview of theater and theater architecture in Richmond. Part One can be found here and Part Two can be found here.

The “motion picture palace” has its roots in the vaudeville palaces that preceded it by as much as  two decades. Both the Colonial (1919) and National (1920) were more architecturally significant and luxuriously furnished than any earlier theaters in the city.

Colonial Theatre, Library of Virginia. The unusual curved ceiling of the lobby is
caused by the tiered seating extending overhead.

The interiors of each were treated with spare, restrained, Neo-classical forms. The Colonial was designed for Wells, Wilmer, and Vincent by Richmond architects Carneal and Johnson. An astylar facade covered with diapered stonework was topped by an Ionic cornice. A central bay held a tall blind loggia. The Colonial had no balcony but tiered seating that rose to the rear. Box seat on the sides were surmounted by Adamesque panels and the ceiling was given an elegant geometrical form and a shallow saucer dome to correspond. The Colonial and the National incorporated sophisticated use concealed lighting and other “effects.” The National had colored lights that could be combined to create dramatic interior shading [NR form]. 
Both the Colonial and the National differ from the design of earlier theaters in the city. Designed for use with film, they no longer exhibit the horseshoe shape typical of earlier buildings. Provision of a single, deep balcony without columns supports and extending over the lobby gave a less restricted view of the stage and better visibility and acoustics from each seat. Marble stairs gave dignity to the balcony seating. The provision of nearby theaters for the use of the African-American population and increased regulation meant that many of the new theaters were not designed with segregated entrances and seating areas.

The Bluebird, 1917 (the Grand
Theatre after 1933).
The pioneering “motion picture queen” Amanda Thorpe, together with W. P. Kline and Walter Coulter built a modest movie theater at 620 E. Broad Street in 1917. Coulter eventually purchased this theater, called the Bluebird, from his partners along with its sister Bluebird Theatre in Petersburg. The Bluebird specialized in first-run western films for many years [Richmond News Leader, Dec 22, 1928]. Like the Bluebird Theatre in Petersburg, this modest film theater, as seen in an historic photograph, looks like a reworked storefront. It originally had a large electric sign depicting a bluebird opening and shutting its wings.  Since there are no building permit documents preserved for this theater, details are sketchy. Coulter sold a half interest in both Bluebirds to Charles Somma and the two formed the Bluebird Theatre Company. Coulter and Somma were planning more costly investments to come, such as the Brookland and the Byrd. 

At the same time that vaudeville and film were developing side by side, theatre design, construction, and decoration became codified and even industrialized in step with the architectural era known as “the American Renaissance.” New approaches to engineering, fabrication, and assembly made possible the huge spans, complex details, advanced mechanical, electrical, and projection equipment, and “gangs” of decorative craftsmen who could bring a palace to a life in very short order. Theaters in large cities like New York and Chicago set the tone for smaller towns. The provision of “dry” modern cooling (instead of passing air over blocks of ice used at Richmond’s National Theatre in 1922 ), developed by the Carrier Engineering Corporation, was pioneered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York in 1925. Like the Rivoli (1917) and other earlier palatial theaters designed by New York architectural impresario Thomas W. Lamb, the National has restrained, elegant Neo-classical interiors, rather than the ornate Baroque interiors that he popularized in the mid- to late 1920s.

The National Theatre, built on the site of the Rex in 1923.
The National was designed by Richmond-based architect Claude K. Howell, who had previously designed a number of theaters across the South in connection with the chain of vaudeville and film theaters supplied by the Keith-Albee circuit, including Jake Well’s Lyric. It was developed by owners John Pryor and Frank Ferrandini in connection with the highly respected First National vaudeville and film circuit. The 1,300-seat National was generously planned and lavishly decorated. The deep-bracketed eaves of the “Italian Renaissance” facade sheltered terra cotta figural bas reliefs. The lobby, decorated with Adamesque reliefs, had a circular opening giving views of a second-floor dome. The building included a billiard parlor in the basement and a nursery theatrical office on the second floor. The auditorium has a flat, Adamesque form with a pilaster order surmounted by a frieze of bas relief panels. Three arcaded box seats symmetrically flank the elliptically arched proscenium. The flat ceiling carried on beams and supports a small oval dome. 

A key figure in the creation of Richmond’s many theaters, Ferrucio Legnaioli executed the decorative plasterwork for most of them. Legnaioli came to Virginia to execute ceiling designs of McKim Mead and White in Garret Hall at the University of Virginia. His work brought to life the designs of the Empire (1911), the Lyric (1913), the Colonial (1920), the National (1922), the Capitol (1926), and the Byrd (1928).
As the film industry developed, Southern theater magnate Jake Wells was squeezed by new distribution networks and the studio system. Although he sold thirty of his theaters to a national chain in 1919, he managed to keep chain theaters out of Richmond entirely. With the help of his partners, Wilmer and Vincent, he purchased the National. By 1925, Wells controlled the programming at all of the major movie theaters in Richmond, including the National. Unable to keep up the quality of the films and accompaniment at the National and other theaters, Wells reputation as a promoter soured. Under pressure from the city’s merchants, and faced by the announcement in 1925 that Loews intended to build a major theater in Richmond, Wells sold all of his shares in the Richmond theaters to Wilmer and Vincent [Dewberry]. His theaters ended up as part of the Paramount chain.

Neighborhood Theaters

The Brookland Theatre, exterior and interior, 1924
In the mid-1920s, the focus of the major movie theater chains on the downtown movie patron meant that local theater developers saw opportunities in potential movie-going in the residential suburbs.  By this time, the increasing popularity of movies meant that many grand theaters, particularly those in suburban locations, were designed exclusively for film. Even as the Loews and Paramount chains made their appearance in downtown Richmond, the provision of theaters for Richmond’s suburbs remained a local concern. According to a contemporary article, Jake Well, who controlled the downtown theaters, “hesitated and yielded to protests not to establish a motion picture house in the residential section in which the Brookland was built. Four suburban theaters were built in the 1920s.

In 1924, Walter J. Coulter and a new partner, Charles A. Somma, left behind Broad Street and vaudeville entirely. Their firm, the Bluebird Theatre Company, built the 574-seat Brookland Theatre, the city’s first neighborhood “movie palace,” in the streetcar suburb of Brookland Park. The small, but elegantly appointed theater was equipped with a Wurlitzer theater organ played by virtuoso Carl Rond, who would move to the greatest of the neighborhood venues, the Byrd Theatre, four years later. As the possibility of talking pictures became a reality, movie theaters were quick to adapt by adding sound systems. The theatre organ, needed to accompany silent films, would recede in importance, but a few, notably at the Loew’s and Byrd theaters, remained in use for concerts between the shows.

The Capitol Theatre, built in the city’s West End in 1926. I
nterior (above) and exterior (below)

A smaller, but no less elegant theater with a resident organist was built in 1926 across from Broad Street Station where it could serve the nearby residential sections along Monument Avenue and adjacent streets. It took the form of the city’s first atmospheric theater, which simulated the appearance of an outdoor courtyard. The exterior, designed by Richmond architects Carneal and Johnson for Neighborhood Theaters Inc., headed by Morton G. Thalhimer, was one of the most elegant sole-purpose movie houses in the city.  It showed the city’s first talkie movie [http://richmondtheatres.tripod.com].


The Venus Theatre, Hull Street, Manchester, 1926
The Venus Theatre (834 seats) was commissioned by Amanda Thorpe from Fred Bishop, who had designed the Brookland earlier for her previous associate, Walter Coulter and his partner, Charles Somma.  The Venus made motion pictures easily accessible to southsiders who lived nearby or along the streetcar line that passed through Manchester. The Venus had a expensive stone facade befitting a civic institution as much as a commercial establishment, lending moral seriousness to the daily matinee shows.

Loew’s Theatre, 1928, exterior above, and interior below

Richmond’s Loew’s Theatre, part of the Loew’s chain associated with MGM, was also built in 1928. It represented the first inroad of that theatre chain in the city. It was designed for theatre magnate by John Eberson as a representative of a new type of motion picture palace in which he specialized, the atmospheric theater, which simulated an exotic outdoor setting. The atmospheric theater, designed to represent an exotic courtyard in Italy or Spain, represents the perfection of the movie theatre as a new theater type breaking with the past. Air conditioned and lit by artificial stars, the artfully aged stucco walls and irregular skyline transported the viewer directly into an illusory stage set, supporting and extending the intimate physicality of the film image.  A massive theatre organ provided accompaniment to films until the advent of sound and continued in use for concerts between shows until c 1970.   

Mosque Theatre, 1926, Exterior at top and interior below

A few years earlier, in 1926, the massive 4,600-seat Mosque Theatre was introduced in the West End. It was built as a performing arts venue containing in a hotel/convention center by the Acca Temple Shrine and was designed by Marcellus Wright,Sr. in association with Charles M. Robinson and Charles C. Robinson. The theater was built in a Moorish or Middle Eastern style with elaborate murals, a large dome, and Moorish grille work. Also equipped with a Wurlitzer organ, the building began by showing movies on a regular schedule, but this did not continue for very many years.  Acquired by the city in 1940, the Mosque (now the Altria Theatre) served as Richmond’s principal municipal auditorium for many years, housing the city’s ballet, symphony, and opera performances.

Byrd Theatre 1928, exterior (above) and interior (below)
Just as talking pictures were introduced, the Byrd Theatre was opened as an architecturally elaborate film-only venue in the city’s West End in 1928 by the partnership of Coulter and Somma. It took its decorative program from European opera houses of the previous century, but as translated by big-city vaudeville and movie houses of previous years, like 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. 

Behind its restrained “Empire” facade, the Byrd’s interior was intended to astonish Richmonders accustomed to the cool Neo-classicism of the city’s principal theaters. Most viewers responded positively to the lavish lobby and auditorium: “from the moment of entering the lobby, wainscotted with Grecian marble in tones of brown and buff, with its bronze doors and stair railings, it unusually well-executed frescoes and its beautiful crystal fixtures, one is impressed with the feeling of luxury the promoters of this enterprise have tried to provide- not costliness merely, but beauty, comfort and refinement” [Helen De Motte, “At the Theatres: New Byrd is Place of Beauty,” Dec. 25, 1928].

Byrd Theatre Lobby
Like the Brookland, Coulter and Soma’s earlier effort in Brookland Park, the Byrd was designed by Richmond architect Fred Bishop. When it was built the Byrd Theatre was intended to impress. The architect emulated the best of French Empire theaters, seen through the reality of American commercial theatrical entrepreneurship. Because of the fully developed construction industries and decorative techniques that had evolved over the previous decades, Coulter and Somma were able to achieve an architecturally unified building that embodied the complexity, if not the delicacy, of its European models.

In a move seen at the time as similar in significance to the $1.8m sale of Jake Wells Richmond theaters sale in 1926, Coulter announced just before the opening of the Byrd that he had purchased Somma’s interest in the Byrd, the Bluebird, the Brookland, and another theater in Petersburg for more than $1m [“Local Theatre Sale Involves over $1,000,000: Coulter buys Sommas Interest in Richmond and Petersburg houses,” Richmond News-Leader, Dec. 22, 1928].

Large new theaters were built for many years after the financial crash of 1929. The first four neighborhood theaters were followed by at least eight more around the city in the 1930s. These include the Bellevue and Ginter theatres across from each other in Northside, the Robinson in the East End named for movie star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the East End Theatre on 25th Street, the Westhampton on Grove, the Westover in Forest Hills, the Carillon on Cary Street, the Lennox in Fulton (built in 1909 as the Star and rebuilt as the Lennox in 1948), and the Henrico in Highland Springs.  Many of these incorporated the new architectural detailing associated with modernism, particularly the modern or Art Deco forms.

Bellevue Theatre, 1937
Bellevue Theatre today

Ginter Theatre, 1937, closed 1939

The Robinson Theatre was built in 1937. The Moderne-
style building designed by Richmond architect,
Edward F. Sinnott served an African-American
community in Richmond's East End.


Henrico Theatre, Highland Springs, 1938

East End Theatre, 1938

Lee Theatre, West Grace Street, 1935

Westhampton Theatre, Grove Avenue, 1938

After the construction of the Byrd, Loew’s and the Mosque theaters on the eve of the Great Depression, there were no more grand, architecturally expressive theaters to take their place on the streets of Richmond. After the demolition of the Lyric in 1963, Richmond never built another stand-alone, purpose-built theater for stage plays and concerts. Instead, the city has relied on the rehabilitation of a small stock of existing, architecturally significant theaters that were built between 1910 and 1950 for stage plays, vaudeville and film. These fully functioning theaters include the Empire (Sara November Theatre), the National, the Mosque (Altria Theatre), Loewe’s (Carpenter Center), the Robinson Theatre (1937), the Henrico (1938), and the Hippodrome (1914/1945).
Post-War II theater and movie viewing became a much more personal experience. Architecture that prevented imaginative immersion in the program was avoided. The Virginia Museum Theatre (1955-2003) was an important venue, but it had no visible exterior and a purposely plain interior designed to draw maximum attention to the stage. The Richmond area has seen the creation of places for performance in other building types, such as rehabilitated taverns, department stores, and firehouses, or in shopping-mall movie houses. However, the grandest film theater of them all, the Byrd, has, from its suburban location, resisted alteration. It has adapted to changing practices in the film industry for 85 years without losing its focus on film, popular entertainment, and architectural and musical spectacle.  




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