“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.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Richmond Theater II- Diversification in New-South Richmond: 1870 to 1920

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

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].
 In 1886 a new Mozart Academy of Music was built, which eclipsed the Richmond Theatre as a venue for drama as well as music. This new theater was located on Eighth Street between Grace and Franklin on the site of the former Federal Reserve Bank Building, now the Virginia Supreme Court Building. It had similar interior arrangements to previous theaters in Richmond, but, it seems likely, with one important distinction. After the emergence of variety shows, American theater divided firmly into several streams, ranging between high-brow and bawdy. Instead of accommodating the tastes of the entire theater-going population, as did the old Marshall and Richmond theaters, the Richmond Theatre and the Academy of Music kept the more serious or high-toned works and the place supplied by the old farces and musical entr’actes found new homes in specialized "variety," and later vaudeville, theaters.
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." 

After the closing of the Richmond Theatre in 1892, the Academy of Music became the city’s principal venue for concerts, opera, and “legitimate” theatre, as opposed to popular entertainment, although it was deployed for a wide variety of production types after the turn of the century, in the midst of increased competition from vaudeville and film. Until it burned in 1927, the Academy staged performances by the leading actors and actresses of the day, including Maude Adams, Henry Irving, John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore, Eva La Gallienne, Otis Skinner, and Katherine Cornell [Nadine Wilson Ward, “Music and the Theatre,” in Richmond, Capital of Virginia: Approaches to its History (Richmond VA: Whittet and Shepperson, 1938)].  

The development of variety theater in the 1850s and afterwards showed a demand for theatrical entertainment made up of short, separate acts of singers, comics, and dancers. Variety first made its appearance in Richmond during the Civil War. When the Marshall Theatre burned in 1862, the acting company met in the vacant Trinity Church on Franklin Street, which had been renamed the Richmond Varieties. Interest in the largely disreputable variety productions would later contribute to the spread of “polite vaudeville” as a popular form of entertainment that linked the antebellum world of theatre with the twentieth century motion picture phenomenon. 

Just as in the eighteenth-century, the small size of cities like Richmond precluded their developing a resident theater company. Richmond just another stop among the other growing cities and towns of the region. Local venues depended on interstate “circuits” or interstate companies to provide traveling shows and acts. According to one account, during the period “from 1886 until the [First] World War, every city of any size and quite a few smaller towns throughout the State boasted of their theaters. Richmond and Norfolk were week or half-week stands. Dramas, comedies, farces, musical comedies and minstrel shows of varying degrees of merit made regular tours through Virginia.” [Thomas C. Leonard. “The Theatre and Its History in Virginia: Rise of Drama in State Traced by Writer” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9 October 1938].
As many as six small variety theaters catered to Richmond’s theater-going population during the 1880s, including Barton’s Grand Opera House at Broad and Eighth, Thomson’s Musee Theatre in the 900 block of East Broad, the Casino Theatre nearby, and the Pavilion Theatre near Broad and First. Broad Street, as Richmond’s “Great White Way,” remained the center of the theatre business [Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Celebrate Richmond Theater (Richmond: The Dietz Press 2002) 12]. These theaters, however, eventually failed, due to difficulties in procuring acts in the South, where audiences had little in common with humor and cultural expectations in the urban north.
Economic progress in Southern cities was hampered by historical factors involving transportation, social conservatism, racism, and lack of capital, among other problems.  Growing city populations like those in Richmond had no experience of widely available popular entertainment. Variety shows and motion pictures represent, to some historians, a principal way in which aspects of modernity were brought to the traditional Southern city. “The disparity between the venues‘ target audiences, the entertainment provided, atmosphere, and affordability was exceptional, and the absence of any moderate alternative kept many of Richmond‘s emerging middle class and new amusement seekers at home, starved for new outlets of entertainment. The Richmond Dispatch indicated that the city offered a theatrical drawing capacity of nearly 125,000 spectators, and other localities ―half the size of Richmond― supported [more than] two theaters” [Eric Dewberry 54].

 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.
Vaudeville in Richmond
Jake Wells, a former baseball player with the backing of two partners, helped transform the way that Richmonders understood entertainment and how they made use of the theater. In 1899, he opened a large, architecturally distinctive new venue, billed as “the Bijou Family Theater,” in the former Barton Opera House and introduced “polite vaudeville” to the city. Elsewhere in the nation, vaudeville had been derived from earlier forms of showmanship like medicine shows and burlesque shows into a popular and well-developed entertainment industry. While variety tried for a foothold in Richmond, lack of infrastructure and capital investment in the South and the strength of its traditional culture, made it difficult to sustain this type of mass entertainment.

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.”
Jake  Wells
Jake Wells assisted, locally and regionally, through his business and organizational energy, to the transformation of Southern theatrical habits during the period when popular entertainment was changed from variety shows appealing mostly to adult males into programs that attracted families. Eric Dewberry, in his excellent dissertation based around the figure of Jake Wells, has cast much valuable light Richmond’s theatrical history, some of which is incorporated here [Eric Dewberry, “Jake Wells Enterprises and the Development of Urban Entertainments in the South, 1890-1925,” diss, Georgia State University, 2010].

The new Bijou Theatre of 1905 together with the Lubin Theatre of 1909 (later Regent, Isis, and Park) on Theatre Row.
In 1905, Wells, with significant financial backing, built a new Bijou, a large and architecturally significant theater. He also transformed the previous Bijou, located on the same block, into the Colonial, the city’s first theater to combine vaudeville and film. Unlike the older theater, the new Bijou presented a highly ornamented facade encrusted with shallow balconies, applied sculpture, and electric lights. For all of its naive details, it looked much more like the Jefferson Hotel of 1893― the city’s grandest exercise in academic classicism― than the dowdy Academy of Music Theater of 1882 or the much older Richmond Theater, by this time hoary with age.

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.  
The seating prices at vaudeville houses were lower than those at legitimate theaters and the range of prices was tighter, but there was still a hierarchy of seating. Vaudeville appears to have appealed to customers from a wide variety of income levels, with a special appeal to white-collar workers. The boxes and orchestra were the best places and the gallery or upper balcony held the cheapest seats and the most raucous patrons. At this time, in both Northern and Southern cities, the highest seats were reserved for African-Americans [M. Alison Kibler, Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1999) 27-28].
Ticket prices for plays at the Academy of Music in Richmond were higher than for vaudeville, but varied with the fame of the performer. On 23 March 1899, the Academy reserved seats were $1 for a Lyceum lecture on “Manila and the Philippines. The Bijou, the Academy’s only competitor, was showing a number of vaudeville acts at a range between 15 cents and 50 cents. On Saturday January 5, 1905, Richard Mansfield in the title role in Beau Brummel commanded a wide range of ticket prices- from $3 in the orchestra to 50 cents in the gallery [while tickets to see Howard Kyle in “the Charming Poetic Drama, Mozart” on Friday ranged from 25 to 50 cents]. One the same day, Jake Wells’ Bijou was offering the “Scenic Melo-Drama, The Ninety and Nine, Introducing a Full-Size Locomotive in Flight Through a Forest of Fire,” presumably for a somewhat smaller admission scale [Richmond Times-Dispatch 31 December 1905].
Film Challenges Vaudeville
The first movie theatre in the city was the Dixie, a nickelodeon at 300 E. Broad, which was opened in 1907 by entrepreneur and “Picture Queen” Amanda Thorpe. Affiliated with her at the beginning of cinema in Richmond was the young Walter J. Coulter, whose theater experience began in Charlottesville working for vaudeville  theater owner with F. W. Twyman [National Exhibitor 20 Dec. 1928]. Coulter went on from this modest background to develop increasingly important Richmond entertainment venues, including the Byrd Theatre (1928) and the well-known Tantilla Garden ballroom (1934). As many as twenty small theaters had joined the Dixie on Richmond streets within the next two years. In 1909, the same team opened the Rex Theatre on the NE corner of Broad and  Seventh streets [Dewberry 2010, 84].
Wells’ Bijou wasn’t the only film/vaudeville combination theater in town. Siegmund Lubin (1852-1923), an early film pioneer, equipment manufacturer, and distributor, opened the small Lubin Theatre in 1909. Its exuberant appearance was typical of the more than 100 theaters that made up his east coast theater chain. His theaters tended to have cheaply made but very elaborate facades with inexpensively produced sculpture, ornamented with extensive bands of electrical lights. The ornamental elements of these kinds of theaters could be ordered from catalogs. The Richmond Lubin featured a semi-circular pediment flanked by female forms and surmounted by a large head emitting rays of light. The theaters featured, besides live acts, films made by Lubin’s studio in Philadelphia and (often pirated) films of other emerging studios.  
In 1912, the Bijou and Lubin’s, featured acts (such as a comedy sketch or blackface act, a comic song or dance, and a juggler or funmaker”) interspersed with film shorts, could be seen by purchasing tickets ranging in price from 5 to 10 cents. Jake Well’s Colonial and Empire theaters charged 10 and 20 cents and offered five acts and films with several short films [Richmond TImes Dispatch 16 June 1912]. The Bijou, which charged 5 cents for all seats at evening shows, might be seen as a harbinger of the single-rate movie theaters to appear in the next decade.

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]
Jake Wells was joined by other entrepreneurs looking for a profit from theatrical productions. The Empire Theatre of 1911 presented both legitimate theater and vaudeville, perhaps because the Academy of Music seemed out of date by this time. The Empire, opened by Moses Hoffheimer on West Broad, was the scene of appearances by well-known actors and companies. Contemporary advertisements show that it also featured film and vaudeville as early as 1912. Hoffheimer also opened a small motion picture theatre next door next door in 1912, called the Little Theatre [Library of Virginia, Richmond building permit files].
Like the Bijou, the Empire’s exterior, conceived as a triumphal arch executed in wood and stucco and flanked by winged figures, incorporated isolated classical details less as a considered design than as part of an applied advertising scheme. The pedimented window surrounds and the paired Composite columns supporting a pediment were outlined in electric lights bulbs. The interior was elegant, with a traditional horseshoe plan ornamented with Adamesque relief panels. The theater is said to have had an early air conditioning system supplied by blocks of ice, probably aided by the large circular ventilators seen open at the top of the house above the main cornice. The Empire closed and was reopened in 1915 under Jake Well’s control as the Strand Theatre, a vaudeville/film combination venue.
The construction and decoration of theaters for vaudeville and film was largely governed by commercial considerations. An article in Architecture and Building in May, 1911 detailed the design criteria for small and medium-sized motion picture and vaud-film houses. For the larger houses, heating and cooling should be provided by means of a “blower system of the plenum type.” This system, in which underfloor ducts exhausted the air through floor openings placed under the seats, was used in the Empire and in most theaters built thereafter. The writer advised that, “since the spectators will be passing in and out at all times,” the floor should not be stepped.” According to the author, “the exterior decorations are generally made very gaudy, in order to attract attention; and as a rule, this is one of the requirements fixed by the owners. . . and a highly ornamental proscenium is desirable.” Owners required brilliant exterior illumination, and the article recommended “outlining the mouldings with lights, spaced 8, 10, 0r 12 inches apart” just as at the Bijou, Lubin, and Empire. After WW I, as film increased its respectability as an art form, movie theater owners adopted more sober facades and more expensive and elaborate interior forms and decorations.
In 1908, Wells had entered into partnership with vaudeville promoters Sydney Wilmer and Walter Vincent.  By 1912, the Bijou, the adjacent Lubin’s Theater, the Empire, and the Colonial had become the city’s principal mixed “vaude-film” venues. During this period, however, Wells' dominance of the local scene made it possible for him use theaters interchangeably for stock theater, burlesque, and vaudeville, as he decided how he would respond to the changes in the larger entertainment industry. The resulting unpredictability produced some frustration. A local reviewer summed up the future of local theater at the end of the season of 1913-14:
It may, of course, be assumed that the Academy of Music [apparently closed] will be opened again in due time to road attractions of the higher class, but no other assumption may be relied upon with any degree of confidence. It is not certain which theatre will be occupied [next season] by Mr. Newing’s company [a stock company just ending a record-breaking run in the city]: probably the Bijou will again be its home, possibly the Colonial. If the Colonial is used as a stock house, in all probability the Lyric will offer popular vaudeville. If popular vaudeville is again presented at the Colonial, it is possible- not probable, but possible- that the Lyric will be utilized as the home of that artistic and elevating form of entertainment known as “burlesque.”  
If burlesque is not introduced, if popular vaudeville is shifted to the Lyric and the stock company is housed in the Colonial, what will be done with the Bijou? Nobody knows, except Jake and Otto Wells ad Mr. Neal, and they won’t tell [Richmond Times Dispatch 28 June, 1914].
Apparently, the stages of Richmond theaters were interchangeable. Burlesque was introduced by Wells at the Bijou later in 1914, and it caused a sensation. At the end of the run, Wells, weary of the complaints and investigations, was understood to have declared that it would not return. The Times Dispatch’s reviewer gave them a bitter send-off:
Gone will be the fearful dialect that formed the chief stock in trade of the men who formed triangle of slapstick comedians; departed will be the prima donna with the voice of a siren- a steam siren; no more will be seen the soubrette singer of adapted rags. And - woe! woe! - vanished from the groaning stage will be the sixteen maidens of the “beauty chorus” and all their bathing-girl and Salome costumes. Packed away in their little hand-bags will be their ball gowns, their fish-scale suits of armor and their red wigs; into their make-up boxes will go their gorgeous complexions, and hidden away in little chamois bags will blink unseen the near-glitter of their phony jewels. . . And the name of the Bijou shall be Ichabod, for its glory has nearly departed. [Richmond Times Dispatch 2 December 1914].
By 1915, Wells had converted most the theaters in his chain to strictly feature-film venues, where the newly developed multiple-reel film became the central item in the program that still included live music, either by an orchestra or a theater organ [Dewberry 2010, 113]. In 1916, his company controlled the Bijou, Isis (formerly the Lubin), Colonial, Strand (formerly the Empire), and Little theaters, all showing feature films, in addition to both the Lyric and the Academy of Music, which continued to show stage productions.

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 ornament.

Grand Opening of the Lyric Theatre, 1913
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].

Segregated Theaters

The first major theatre for black audiences in the nation was the Howard Theatre, built in Washington, DC in 1910. For Richmond, it appears likely that most theaters permitted African-Americans to be seated in balconies. Segregated seating was probably available at most Richmond theaters during the period leading up to the Civil War. The Amusement Theatre, under the direction of J. A. Allen, put on a minstrel show in the spring of 1853. Admission included Dress Circle (25c), Second Tier (12c), Centre Gallery (25c), Eastern Gallery (12c), and Colored Gallery (12c) [Daily Dispatch 3:197 (4 Junee 1853), p 3]. Slaves and free Blacks did attend plays at the Richmond Theatre of 1806, and probably sat in the gallery of the Richmond Theatre of 1863 after the Civil War. The Empire Theatre, built on the edge of the Jackson Ward neighborhood to house first-rate stage plays (although it was used for vaudeville as well from an early date), seated black patrons in the balcony after its opening in 1911.

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 was purchased, along with the Dixie, from Coulter (who had acquired full ownership) by Charles A. Somma in about 1918. He operated it until 1937 as part a local chain of African-American theaters. The Globe, which operated on Second Street from 1909 to 1955, was another important stop on the black vaudeville circuit. Somma owned several other theaters, including the Rayo and Fifth Street theaters and the Casino Theatre in South Richmond. Coulter and Somma went into business as the Bluebird Theatre Company after 1918 [The National Exhibitor, December 20, 1928]. Films and acts were booked by the Coulter-Somma Circuit, for which Somma arranged the productions at four Richmond theaters- the Brookland, Byrd, Hippodrome, and Globe [Yearbook of Motion Pictures, 1935].
The Hippodrome today (1914, rebuilt 1947)

The city’s practice of racial segregation was reinforced in 1926 by the Virginia Public Assemblages Act, which required the “separation of white and colored persons at public halls, theaters, opera houses, motion picture shows, and places of public entertainment and public assemblages.” By that time, few theaters in Richmond were permitting mixed race audiences in any form.

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].
This account is continued in Part Three, located here.

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