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At Legendary Theater, Wall to Take Final Bow

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The Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, with her voice of “pearls and gold,” commanded $100 a ticket there in 1849. “Lanky Lugg” Joseph Jefferson, the man who created the famous role of “Rip Van Winkle,” got his start at center stage. And then there was the scurrilous Lola Montez, the Irish dancer and former mistress of the King of Bavaria, playing the lead role about her juicy escapades, in the capital of the South.

The theater, renamed Richmond Theatre in 1860, burned down in 1862 and was rebuilt and renamed the New Richmond Theater. Later, it became Greentree’s clothing store and most recently Cavalier Men’s Shop.

Now some local history buffs contend that a piece of the theater remains. Irving Greentree Jr., 89, says his father proudly told him the store’s back wall was that of the original Marshall Theater, built in 1818. It still stands, facing the back alley, he says.

Vincent T. Brooks, architectural records archivist at the Library of Virginia, says it’s nearly impossible to know if the old wall is that of the Marshall Theater or the one that was rebuilt.

“Part of the Marshall had to be incorporated into what became the Richmond Theater,” Brooks says, adding that the height of the back wall is higher in the Richmond Theatre than the old Marshall, so he isn’t sure.

Raoul Benoit, a local marketing specialist and part-time history buff, believes the wall is that of the Marshall Theater and would like to see it preserved. “I hate to see anything worth saving being torn down,” he says.

Whether it is worthy of preserving may be moot. In a letter to Benoit, Marc Holma, architectural historian in the state department of historic resources, says an engineer concluded the wall was “potentially an original wall of the Marshall Theater,” but a wall wasn’t enough to register the property in the National Register of Historic Places. So the issue was dropped.

Holma couldn’t be reached by press time.

Memories of great theater and scandal, however, remain. While John Wilkes Booth never gained all the fame he wanted for his acting abilities, though he performed here as part of the Marshall Theater stock company from 1958 to 1959. But he eventually became infamous at a theater farther north. — Scott Bass

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