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Revising the Script

The Byrd Theatre Foundation has a bold new plan to restore one of America’s last great movie palaces, but will anyone listen?

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Bertie Selvey was inside the Byrd when she looked up and saw sky.

"I thought, 'What is going on here?' Wood had rotted in the roof, there was an 18-by-32-inch hole in the attic," she says. "Employees were dumping buckets of water over the side of the theater."

Selvey was convinced that the roof — at the time 20 years overdue for repair — was ready to crash down and take out the first few rows.

A longtime member of the fundraising board of TheatreVirginia, which staged works at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Selvey says that it was heartbreaking to watch that company fall apart in the early 2000s.

"There was a performance one night and the next night it was gone," she recalls. The following week she went to a movie at the Byrd Theatre and found a new cause.

Widely known as the city's must-see, historic cinema palace, the Byrd has changed little since opening its doors Dec. 24, 1928, with a showing of the silent film "Waterfront." On that night there was a vertical marquee sign out front and a fountain in the lobby instead of a concession stand. Most everything else in the gloriously baroque, 1,400-seat, French empire theater remains the same — much of it in dire need of restoration.

Selvey contacted Tony Pelling, a retired undersecretary from the United Kingdom civil service who'd helped save the Barksdale Theatre. Duane Nelson, the Byrd's manager at the time, had been looking for help too. And soon the nonprofit Byrd Theatre Foundation was formed in 2002, with Pelling as its first president.

The volunteer board of the Byrd Theatre Foundation today announces its fundraising goal necessary for a complete restoration — yes, including the seats — of the historic landmark by 2017. The board, which recently expanded to 12, includes: Grant Mizell, Colleen Flynn, Jaclyn H. Witthoefft, Richard Cross, board president Gibson Worsham, James Loving, Melissa L. Savenko, Edward “Ted” K. Haynes, Paula V. Rhodes and Becky Dixon. Not pictured are Diane M. Carrone and David Martin. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • The volunteer board of the Byrd Theatre Foundation today announces its fundraising goal necessary for a complete restoration — yes, including the seats — of the historic landmark by 2017. The board, which recently expanded to 12, includes: Grant Mizell, Colleen Flynn, Jaclyn H. Witthoefft, Richard Cross, board president Gibson Worsham, James Loving, Melissa L. Savenko, Edward “Ted” K. Haynes, Paula V. Rhodes and Becky Dixon. Not pictured are Diane M. Carrone and David Martin.

Pelling worked full time for six years to get the foundation off the ground, helping negotiate a purchase agreement of the building from the Warren family in 2007. Selvey served on the board and organized a fundraising arm, the Byrd Watchers. But it wasn't until she contacted her friend's husband, Frank Lennon, chief executive of the Brink's Co., that she could rest easy sitting in the first few rows.

"I got advice from him on how to raise money and eventually asked if I could practice on him," she says. "That led to the foundation receiving over $200,000 to fix the roof."

But landing the kinds of big bucks reserved for venues such as CenterStage and the Altria Theater has never been easy for the Byrd foundation.

Pelling says he approached deep-pocketed donors who told him it was the job of the Carytown Merchants Association to make the Byrd succeed.

"The fairy godmothers and godfathers of Richmond are attached to supporting live entertainment and they believe that cinema is commercial and should pay for itself," he says. "But the Byrd is the history of cinema and an architectural glory."

Frustrated, Pelling left the board to take care of family in the United Kingdom, and Selvey grew disillusioned with the board's direction, leaving with three other members.

"It started out fun, then it became not so friendly," Selvey says. "Their hearts were in the right place, but you have to have connections and people who can knock on doors."

All the while, Richmond filmgoers, like the natives in "King Kong," continue chanting for their one true wish: new seats.

Original mohair-backed seats in the Byrd can be found in the balcony. The Byrd’s restoration plan culminates with all seats being restored and updated for modern audiences — with only the original end caps remaining. The foundation’s board president, Gibson Worsham, says the group may consider selling the old seats to raise money. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Original mohair-backed seats in the Byrd can be found in the balcony. The Byrd’s restoration plan culminates with all seats being restored and updated for modern audiences — with only the original end caps remaining. The foundation’s board president, Gibson Worsham, says the group may consider selling the old seats to raise money.

The Byrd's badly worn seats offer little comfort or legroom, and clearly were "not designed to accommodate the greater American," as Pelling once remarked. So the clamor was understandable when a few months ago, thanks to the Byrd's longtime affiliation with the French Film Festival, the main theater for the Cannes Film Festival offered a donation of 2,000 used seats.

Calling an emergency meeting, the foundation's board researched the proposal and unanimously turned it down, saying it was cost-prohibitive and didn't fit the group's overall restoration goals, which rely on stringent conditions for historic tax credits.

Today, after years of growing pains, the Byrd foundation board is ready to reveal those goals in more detail, a plan fittingly called Journey to the Seats.

The aim is to raise approximately $3.5 million in the next two and a half years — combining that with $1.5 million already raised to replace the boiler, acquire a digital server and make repairs to the organ and air conditioning. The entire restoration project (see sidebar) must be completed within 60 months from the official beginning of the restoration in 2012 to receive the tax credits.

"We feel confident we can do the project by that [2017] window," says new President Gibson Worsham, an independent historic architect. "It's relatively straightforward and not like the Landmark where you're putting in new systems."

"We're just restoring what's there," he continues. "The main thing is rewiring all the electrical, replumbing and rehabilating the bathrooms and adding handicapped bathrooms — and finally, the seats."

Worsham envisions the Byrd remaining one of the country's last great, single-screen cinema palaces, and as the plan states, focusing on "regional leadership in cinema history education and the promotion of film as a contemporary art form."

It isn't a question only of raising the money for restoration, he adds, but also of how to stay viable. But with specific details on how to raise the money still vague — and looming deadlines — the all-volunteer board has its work cut out.

 

The Byrd plays host to a number of special events, one of which was Style Weekly’s premiere in 2010 of the lost D-film tax write-off, “Rock ’N’ Roll Hotel,” shot at the Jefferson Hotel in the early ’80s and featuring Judd Nelson. Proceeds of the showing benefited the Byrd foundation. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Byrd plays host to a number of special events, one of which was Style Weekly’s premiere in 2010 of the lost D-film tax write-off, “Rock ’N’ Roll Hotel,” shot at the Jefferson Hotel in the early ’80s and featuring Judd Nelson. Proceeds of the showing benefited the Byrd foundation.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, the mutant Toxic Avenger is raising his mop in triumph, standing in front of the Byrd orchestra pit next to Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman. The pair is about to lead a question-and-answer session before an audience of some 150 moviegoers who've just guffawed through the Virginia premiere of "Return to Class of Nuke 'Em High: Vol. 1."

The gorgeous theater around them is indeed a magical place, featuring imported Italian and Turkish marble and a 2-ton Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier hanging overhead with more than 5,000 colorfully illuminated crystals. It's still the place where the sirenlike Byrd girls work in the lobby, the Mighty Wurlitzer organ plays on Saturday nights, and you can make out in the balcony next to the ghost of former manager Bob Coulter from the original Coulter and Somma families that built the theater — if you're into that sort of thing.

"This is such a beautiful room," Kaufman begins, echoing the sentiments of actors such as Tom Hanks and Crispin Glover, and the chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, former Sen. Chris Dodd, who have experienced the stunning state historic landmark. Kaufman quips that it's strange to be in such a lush environment for his latest low-budget film consisting mostly of blood-and-boob shots and a lead actress physically assaulted with her pet duck.

Kaufman, a Yale grad who worked on Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre" — filmed at the Jefferson Hotel — later launched the career of "South Park" creator Trey Parker by releasing his feature debut, "Cannibal! the Musical." Today he's thanking Richmond filmmakers Drew Bolduc ("The Taint") and Michelle Lombardi for working on the visual effects of his new film.

"Drew's brilliant. He may just be the next Trey Parker," Kaufman says earlier in the lobby, between signing autographs for punk fans with mohawks, some wearing T-shirts that say, "I'm Tromatized!" At the other end of the lobby, the Virginia Production Alliance, which rented the theater for the showing, hands out brochures extolling the virtues of filmmaking in the state.

This is just one example of how the Byrd Theatre is programmed by manager Todd Schall-Vess, a jack-of-all-trades who for 15 years has invested plenty of blood and sweat into keeping the Byrd viable on a day-to-day basis. Some have described him as curmudgeonly, but he's a quick, natural storyteller and the heart of the place.

Schall-Vess was the guy forced to leap over patrons when the power went out just before Tom Hanks' big speech during the local premiere for the HBO miniseries "John Adams." And the guy who got called to pump out water during Hurricane Isabelle, when power on that side of Carytown was out for a week.

"By the time they got a generator and pump, the water had come up to the doorway in the boiler room, on its way to the blower motor," he recalls. "That would've been it. I can't imagine having the money to fix that."

He's the main employee of 1928 Limited LLC, a separate for-profit organization created to run the theater's daily operations, which mostly involve showing second-run films for $1.99 from 6:30-11 p.m. The nonprofit foundation and 1928 were legally separated so the foundation could focus on fundraising and preparing for the historic tax credits. It also allows for legal matters to be handled separately, such as in 2012, when the foundation had to settle a lawsuit for $750,000 with an organ repairman who fell and lost sight in his right eye.

"There was a time when this theater was a flagship, first-run theater and was cared for like one. But over the years it's become a dinosaur," Schall-Vess says. "The reason they don't build big, single-screen theaters is that they don't make money. So the amount of care that has been lavished has diminished to, at best, a custodial level for a lot of years."

The Byrd is not just an affordable venue where numerous film festivals draw locals and tourists. There are also sensory-appropriate shows for autistic audiences, a local burlesque troupe that stages a Christmas show, important community moments of healing (anyone who experienced the collective mourning at the Harvey family memorial will never forget it), the Area 10 Faith Community Church regularly meets on Sundays — it's even the place where Richmonders first met Nutzy the Flying Squirrel.

The Byrd Theatre’s manager, Todd Schall-Vess, has been a significant presence for the last 15 years, even though his relationship with the board has been contentious at times. “I have stayed for so long because I believe in the Byrd and what it represents to the community,” he says. “It’s a physical manifestation of an ideal, not just a historic building.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Byrd Theatre’s manager, Todd Schall-Vess, has been a significant presence for the last 15 years, even though his relationship with the board has been contentious at times. “I have stayed for so long because I believe in the Byrd and what it represents to the community,” he says. “It’s a physical manifestation of an ideal, not just a historic building.”

Schall-Vess views it as continuing a legacy of community involvement that goes back through the decades, such as in 1951, when former theater manager Bill Coulter allowed teenage polio patients from the Medical College of Virginia to roll their stretchers into the Byrd for special film showings.

"God forbid if Todd ever left, they would have to replace him with two to three people," says Keith Martin, a former managing director of the Richmond Ballet who's now a distinguished theater professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where he teaches a course in nonprofit management and cultural policy. "Look at all he does for so many groups. He's got the biggest heart."

Martin, whose parents met each other on a blind date at the Byrd in 1940, says you can't compare the Byrd to other nonprofit performing arts centers in Richmond.

"They're not a producing entity," he says, "they're a presenter, and they open their doors to anyone and everyone looking for a place for community programming."

It's more difficult to raise money for a bricks and mortar project when you aren't creating art, he says, because the Byrd story becomes more difficult to tell potential donors. And that's not to mention the nationally toxic environment for the nonprofit sector in the arts, he says, citing budget cuts and diminishing support from local, state and federal governments.

"I believe the organizations best positioned for success are staff driven and board supported in partnership. Look at the Richmond Ballet," he says. "Stoner [Winslett] is a visionary but her partnership with the board of trustees made it successful. … That kind of institutional memory and continuity of leadership is extraordinarily rare."

Schall-Vess used to serve on the board of the Byrd foundation, but says he was removed for fear that there would be the perception of a conflict of interest.

"That seemed like a huge mistake," Selvey says. "There was a lot of contention and he was finding out about things [opportunities for grants] well after he should've known. It's a complicated mess. … I left with a lot of sadness."

Both Schall-Vess and the board are very careful what they say about each other, but their symbiotic relationship may be key to the Byrd's survival.

 

Nearly 30 years overdue for repair, the Byrd finally got its roof fixed in 2007. This was largely because of former foundation board member Bertie Selvey, who used personal connections to raise more than $200,000. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Nearly 30 years overdue for repair, the Byrd finally got its roof fixed in 2007. This was largely because of former foundation board member Bertie Selvey, who used personal connections to raise more than $200,000.

Pelling likes to recall a remark made to him by longtime projectionist and handyman, Bill Enos, who died in April: "He said the Byrd is a very strange place, it survives despite the best and worst intentions of its owners."

Former president and current board member Melissa Savenko notes the public's common misconception that the foundation receives its money from the Byrd's second-run movies. "That money from tickets, concessions and rentals goes to [the company] 1928," she says, "which in turn pays a lease to us as the landlord."

Being able to book the theater and keep it open is an art form, and Schall-Vess seems to have it down, even though rising distributor percentages can suck up what little profit is available.

The most important delineating factor for his programming choices is how much money the films made in their first run, he says. "I always make it painfully affordable for local independent filmmakers to show their films here," he says. "But I do much better with films Hollywood has spent millions promoting."

He offers a tour of the building starting in the lobby, which leads upstairs and through the projector room — which feels equal parts like small museum and steam-punk fantasy. Heading back downstairs, along the orchestra aisle and backstage right, past the boiler to a musty concrete opening, you can overlook an underground spring breached during the 1927 excavation. No, the water was never used for air conditioning, Schall-Vess says — that's the Byrd's most popular myth.

Looking down, the 30- by 30-foot retention pond certainly "doesn't resemble the underground canals of the Paris Opera House," as Schall-Vess jokes. Instead it's more like the ghostly hull of a half-sunken ship.

"I tell people if they have romantic notions, by all means hold onto them" Schall-Vess says, before wiping his brow and bounding back outside, where he later points out a special-needs teenager across the street, who lives in the neighborhood.

"He's here every day," Schall-Vess says. "We like to look out for him."

 

The Plan
More details on the Byrd Theatre's renovation goals, plus ways you can help.

 

During a recent Wednesday night meeting, about half of the foundation's 12 board members gather in the RE/MAX Commonwealth office next to Sticky Rice on Main Street. You get a sense of enthusiasm and uncertainty.

The all-volunteer board members, most joining since 2010, come from backgrounds that include real estate, advertising, banking, public relations and marketing. They have no staff and have been meeting much more frequently than the usual monthly meeting. They may be tired from their regular full-time jobs but remain upbeat.

President Gibson Worsham says the foundation spent the last few years expanding and recruiting board members from different backgrounds. It's considering hiring a part-time staff member for administrative help. Each board member also is required to make a yearly contribution, mostly for grant purposes.

"The previous board was not ready to start fundraising," says Richard Cross, director of Fahrenheit Finance and a former vice president at Best Products, who serves as the board's chairman of development. "We just got to that point about two years ago."

This might help explain the lack of headline-worthy fundraising between 2007, when the roof was repaired, and 2011, when the foundation received its first major grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, which provided a $250,000 matching grant challenge that the foundation met.

Grant Mizell, a 31-year-old marketing specialist, is the new vice president and one of the most passionate new members of the board. He was asked by a former member to join based on his background and personal connection to the room: Mizell was married in the Byrd last year — "We created a modified Playbill, had popcorn, I came up on the organ as she was coming down the aisle," he says. "Everybody loved it."

When Mizell started, he says he immediately felt the board wasn't visible enough. The longstanding reason cited by Savenko was that the Byrd had a strong brand, so there was no reason to push the foundation brand separately.

But after being accepted by Virginia Commonwealth University's Create-A-Thon program, which offers free advice from undergrads to nonprofits, the board had what Savenko describes as a "transformative" moment. It convinced members to pursue a higher profile.

"We have a lot of integrated initiatives in the works," Mizell says, including social media and blog outreach that he hopes will keep the restoration project visible and transparent for the public. "We're trying to treat this as a start-up. … Small grants can win as Obama made famous."

The most star-studded event in Byrd Theatre history occurred during the Comcast premiere of the HBO miniseries “John Adams.” Crowds swelled in the street while actors Tom Hanks and Paul Giamatti attended — only to have the power go out before show time. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The most star-studded event in Byrd Theatre history occurred during the Comcast premiere of the HBO miniseries “John Adams.” Crowds swelled in the street while actors Tom Hanks and Paul Giamatti attended — only to have the power go out before show time.

Randy Wyckoff, chief executive of First Freedom Center, works with nonprofits going through transition and has visited with the foundation, but can't discuss confidential details. Savenko says he encouraged it to do more board development. Speaking generally, Wyckoff says nonprofits like the Byrd foundation mostly need professional fundraising assistance and deep pockets.

"Boards have life cycles related to issues — they're energetic and interested but not necessarily experienced in raising millions," Wyckoff says. "It takes time to find those people with skill sets and I think that's still the phase they are in."

"I'm fairly inexperienced, this is my first board," Mizell says, noting the unique relationship created by the board-business setup. "I believe our long-term plan would be to have a unified theater with operations."

New marketing director Colleen Flynn says that one of her first questions when she joined the board was about outreach to notable arts patrons such as Altria and Genworth. "It's always being discussed," she says, "but the previous board spent most of its time doing the base work to where we can now approach the big donors. … Also we're a community theater, so we really want that community support."

Records show that total individual donations peaked at $118,782 in 2008, but mostly have hovered around an average $50,000 in the past three years.

The value of a percentage of the tax credits can be pledged as a piece of equity, according to Savenko, to raise loans for the project instead of coming up with cash. But on top of the restoration money, the board still must pay off the building with the Warren family by 2017. The original loan amount was $1.2 million, with the current balance at $1.11 million. To date, the foundation has paid $332,891 in interest and $89,981 in principal.

For other movie palaces across the country, conversion from a single-use theater to a multipurpose performing arts venue has been the means of salvation. But the Byrd's constricted stage depth — go back 15 feet and you're in the city-owned alley — and lack of backstage dressing rooms or storage space makes this a nonstarter for now.

"There's not a place to put a bag of popcorn," Worsham says. When comedian Margaret Cho filled the Byrd in 2008, her dressing room was her tour bus parked outside.

Worsham emphasizes that the historic movie palace will remain dedicated to showing film. But he speculates that there might be ways to become more flexible, such as extending a portable stage apron that would allow more musical and theatrical events and bringing in temporary lighting and sound setups.

"The building has this capacity to be an incredible musical instrument," he says.

 

One of the Byrd’s longest-running partners has been the French Film Festival, the largest and most important French of its kind in the United States. Co-founders and co-directors Peter and Françoise Kirkpatrick hope to meet soon with the foundation to discuss plans for the festival during the restoration process. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • One of the Byrd’s longest-running partners has been the French Film Festival, the largest and most important French of its kind in the United States. Co-founders and co-directors Peter and Françoise Kirkpatrick hope to meet soon with the foundation to discuss plans for the festival during the restoration process.

The Journey to the Seats plan will shut down the theater for several months toward the end of the restoration and reopen with a big splash in 2017.

The co-founders of the French Film Festival, Peter and Françoise Kirkpatrick, say the festival needs to be included in talks about the closing. In a recent email to Style, the Kirkpatricks write that they view the festival and its sponsors "as major stakeholders in the Byrd's future."

"With these stakeholders in mind and due to calendar-specific schedules with the French film industry as well as academic and financial timetables within the Festival operates," it continued, "coordination of construction and restoration need to work around the dates of our event thereby assuring the noninterruption of the annual Festival which takes place at the end of March."

Martin says he found it odd that the Byrd didn't accept the Cannes seats, which seemed like a wonderful opportunity to align itself with the "luster and cachet" of an internationally known entity, but acknowledges that he didn't know all the details. Judging by online comment sections, others also were confused.

The board says the offer was thoroughly vetted over 10 days, and Savenko adds that if people don't understand why they couldn't use the Cannes seats as a stopgap measure, they don't understand both the tax credits and other associated expenses.

"At the end of the day, it was going to be a significant out-of-pocket cost to us," she says. "For instance, the French Film Festival was going to pay the estimated $100,000 transportation cost but they wanted credit on future rentals of the theater which would've been a significant loss for 1928."

Recalling the early days of the board, Pelling says there was a lack of interest from the city in helping restore the Byrd as a tourist attraction that was frustrating. He says he's gone to mayors, governors and senators looking for help, and recalls one former mayor, whom he declines to identify, saying that he "didn't care if [the Byrd] got knocked down" by a wrecking ball.

"When you think of the money spent on CenterStage, they should've squeezed something out of that for the Byrd," Pelling says. "CenterStage appeals to the elite who enjoy symphonies and ballet, and it's dark half the year. The Byrd is one of the few venues that is multicultural, multirace, multi- all sorts of things, open year 'round. Yet the city is not interested because it's not downtown."

The city hasn't exactly been unresponsive. The Byrd no longer pays real estate taxes after former councilman Marty Jewell shepherded it through a now-closed waiver for nonprofits.

The last time the Byrd asked for help from the city was in 2013 in the form of a restoration grant — to be shared with the Brookland Theatre in North Side — from general fund money, which was turned down.

"Perhaps that was naïve," Savenko says, "but at least we tried."

For now the Byrd foundation must nail down the precise costs of the restoration and finish raising $20,000 more by the end of June to receive a challenge grant of $250,000 from the Cabell Foundation.

But most important, it needs to find ways to effectively tell the story of one of the oldest continually operating theaters in the United States — and to the right people.

"I just hope the Byrd finds a champion," Martin says from his academic perch in North Carolina. "Richmond has a knack for addressing the most pressing needs, and now I think it's the Byrd's turn." S

Editor's note: The print version of this story misspells Brookland Theatre.

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