JIM JOHNSON shared this disturbing article on one of our most beloved theaters. Jim noted that this theater was on the 1992 Richmond Conclave itinerary.
Byrd Theatre’s financial pressures mount
Credit: ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES-DISPATCH
The Byrd Foundation barely has raised enough money for the theatre’s mortgage payments but not enough for improvements.
Published: July 26, 2010
The cash that gets slipped into the bird cage at the Byrd Theatre hasn’t piled up quickly of late.
Donations to Richmond’s grand movie palace in Carytown slowed with the economy and stalled plans to upgrade the 1928 theater’s famously cramped seats and antiquated bathrooms.
But patron discomfort may be the least of the beloved Byrd’s problems.
Yesterday morning, someone broke into the theater and cleaned out the bird cage, which probably held less than $100, said General Manager Todd Schall-Vess. A bigger problem was the damage to the theater doors, which may cost $1,200 to fix when the bills come in.
The theater was open as usual yesterday with church services in the morning, two film festival shows in the afternoon and two regular shows last night.
“It’s a shame that there wasn’t more donated money to steal,” Schall-Vess said. “It would have been sequestered somewhere else. The sad thing is, they didn’t get away with much because there wasn’t that much to take.”
To make ends meet, the nonprofit Byrd Theatre Foundation, which began paying a 30-year mortgage on the property in 2007, reworked its deal this spring so it’s paying only interest on the $1.2 million loan. The arrangement is for one year — “at this point,” said Bill Barrett, president of the volunteer board.
“Just like any poor homeowner, you do what you can and the rest you put off until you win the lottery,” he said.
For the first time since 2006, the foundation is not planning an annual fundraising gala this year.
Bertie Selvey, a longtime board member who resigned in frustration early this year, said she never has been more worried that financial pressures may force the Byrd to close, threatening the ornate plaster that makes it an architectural wonder and removing a key anchor from Carytown. The 1,350-seat theater primarily shows second-run movies, but it also accommodates independent film festivals and other community events.
Selvey said the Byrd desperately needs a benefactor or many more people in the community to realize what’s at stake.
“It’s not just fixing it up — it’s saving it,” she said.
Barrett said he’s hopeful, with a dedicated board and several grant requests pending. He said the foundation is working on a campaign to attract sponsors to underwrite the costs of about 1,150 new seats. For $500, the sponsors also would receive one of the Byrd’s original seats. Overall, the foundation estimates that $750,000 to $1 million is needed to upgrade the seats and bathrooms.
The Byrd Theatre Foundation was established in 2002 to buy and preserve the theater, but five years passed before it was able to finalize a purchase agreement with the heirs of Samuel and Irma Warren, longtime owners who restored the theater.
While making mortgage payments, the foundation also has been able to secure donations to replace the Byrd’s leaky roof and to repair its Wurlitzer pipe organ. Other improvements have upgraded the projectors, re-anchored the chandelier, and repaired the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and electrical systems.
Like many nonprofits, the Byrd has felt the squeeze of a weak economy, and it has struggled to make its case to would-be donors. The theater was a tough sell in a more-robust economy, said Tony Pelling, who served as the foundation’s president until 2008.
“People expect film to be commercial, yet we don’t expect the ballet to be commercial. We don’t expect the symphony to be commercial,” he said.
Not owning the theater outright has been another obstacle for the foundation. “People don’t like giving money to a continuing mortgage,” he said.
Schall-Vess said the Byrd’s plight is further complicated because it’s operated partly as a business, which covers staff salaries and other day-to-day expenses. He said many patrons don’t understand why the theater cannot simply raise its $1.99 ticket price to generate revenue for improvements. Such a move would be self-defeating, he said, because an increasing percentage of box-office receipts would go to movie distributors, not the foundation.
Plus, higher ticket prices would undercut the theater’s ability to provide affordable entertainment, he added. The Byrd regularly attracts 9,000 to 10,000 patrons per month. “It’s one of the few places that attracts all of the community,” Pelling said.
Barrett said the Byrd needs to be viewed as a critical community asset — not a second-run movie house — and suggested it easily could tap a legion of supporters if it had someone to champion the cause.
“I think, with the proper community support, it’ll be something that everyone wants to do,” he said.
Address: 2908 W. Cary St., Richmond
Presents: $1.99 second-run movies, plus film festivals and other community events; open 365 days a year
Owner: Byrd Theatre Foundation, through a 30-year mortgage that started in 2007
Information: (804) 358-3056 and www.byrdtheatre.com