How The Byrd Theater Will Get New Seats

by | Jul 18, 2014 | POLITICS

Richmond’s Movie Palace turned 85 last December, and it’s no secret this Carytown landmark is showing its age.

Richmond’s Movie Palace turned 85 last December, and it’s no secret this Carytown landmark is showing its age. But, a non-profit group is working behind the scenes to launch a renovation campaign aptly named for what patrons want most – “Journey to the Seats.”

From cramped, cracking bathrooms to peeling paint, there are a lot of needed repairs visible to moviegoers. But a lot of crucial work has already been happening out of view since the Byrd Theater Foundation, an all-volunteer group of about a dozen Richmonders concerned with the movie palace’s future, purchased the Byrd in 2007.

Grant Mizell, vice president of the Foundation and marketing co-chair, listed off a number of less noticeable improvements including fixing a leaking roof, repairing the boiler and purchasing a digital server to store and play movies. With these “reactionary” repairs out of the way, Mizell said the Byrd was “entering that period where we can be really proactive.”

The renovations outlined the comprehensive Byrd Theatre Restoration Master Plan include a mix of structural upgrades, such as rewiring the entire theater, and visage restorations, including adding a vertical marquee to replace the original (top image) which was removed in 1971 and refurbishing the ornamental finishes throughout the building. Work started this summer with the replacement of the decades-old HVAC system on the Byrd’s roof, and will conclude in 2017 with a grand reopening of the theater.

“The lack of comfort of the seats at the Byrd is legendary,” notes the master plan dryly, but this most-desired renovation will take place last to avoid dirtying the new seats from interior restoration and electrical work, Mizell said.

The end goal, according to the plan, is to raise enough for the Foundation to finalize the purchase of the theater from the family of former owner Samuel Warren.

The Journey to the Seats campaign will likely cost $3-3.5 million, Mizell said, but this figure is a very rough estimate because of the possible complexity of some of the coming work. The Foundation is looking to raise money wherever it can, he said, which means shifting focus from corporate and organizational donations and raising money from ordinary Richmonders as well.

“We need everybody,” Mizell said.

The Foundation is planning several fundraisers to reach out to passionate patrons, Mizell said. One will involve the return of a favorite feature with a twist – Saturday Midnight Movies, but with an emphasis on donating to choose what movies will be screened.

The Foundation will also be making a big push at the Carytown Watermelon Festival next month, with redesigned t-shirts, bumper stickers and more to sell, as well implementing a “bucket brigade” to collect donations in the street.

It won’t be a solo effort, either – the Byrd will be collaborating with a local startup called Live to Serve. The company, which will launch next month, is essentially a mash-up of Kickstarter and Groupon, Mizell said, with a local flair. People will be able to purchase full-price coupons to local businesses, with half of the price going to a charitable organization of the purchaser’s choice.

Other notable events will include a fundraising “byrlesque” show, another installment of Carytown Fashion Feeds the Byrd and a screening of The Big Lebowski in November to coincide with the release of a Lebowski-themed beer by Center of the Universe Brewing Co.

Mizell and his co-chair James Loving both have marketing backgrounds which has taught them the importance of keeping people informed. Along with a coming blog which will detail every step of the restoration process, the Foundation has set up a projection against a wall of the theater to show the highlight of the Journey to the Seats.

“I think for a long time people haven’t known what’s going on [with the restoration],” Loving said, “We think it’s really important to tell people it is happening, and to show them in real time.”

Ultimately, the hard work Mizell, Loving and the other volunteers at the Byrd Theatre Foundation is motivated by a deep appreciation of the historic building and their experiences with it.

“It’s been a part of my life since I was a little kid,” Loving said. “You can’t help but be in awe of this building […] you want to make sure that’s there for someone else to enjoy, just like we did.”

Mizell, who was married in the Byrd, also stressed the theater’s increasing role as an educational film center in Richmond. “Preserving the building is just a means to preserving the idea of and the tradition of cinema.”

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at

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