The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

I’ll compile a few days’ birthday celebrations into one, as (you may have guessed) I’ve not the time to crank out daily blather at present.

First off goes to my father, who will undoubtedly not read this. He’s still annoyed that the Sun doesn’t issue several daily editions, so it’s bloody unlikely that he’ll manage to get online to see this. Still, as the fruit of his loin, I ought to make the effort.

Next goes to Bill, my erstwhile big brother—that’s fraternal big brother, for those who’ve not paid attention. Bill turns 35 today—let the celebration be marked with joyous family stuff! We who are not so family oriented will be marking his birthday with rather more indelicate observations. Bill is one of the most unerringly cool people I know, with glib tongue, to say nothing of perception, tolerance and logic far and above my own.

Two of Maryland’s most beautiful picture palaces also have their anniversaries on this date. They both celebrate their 77th birthdays, and opened this night in 1926 with the same movie—Mae Murray starring in “Valencia”. The more prosaic theatre, Frederick’s staid and lovely Tivoli, continues to entertain Western Marylanders with a variety of stage, film and song; while Baltimore’s fabled Valencia fell to dust in 1963. Still, it was a hallmark of theatrical architecture; built in a former ballroom above the Century Theatre it was at the time of its completion both the city’s newest and oldest theatre—it was “over a Century”. Ha ha. It was also the city’s only real “stars n clouds” atmospheric theatre. On opening night, it not only featured Miss Murray in its eponymous film, but had a staff of ushers (hand picked for their torsal pulchritude) decked out in open-necked silk shirts, a Spanish guitar orchestra in the lobby, a brand-new Wurlitzer built especially for the theatre (playing “Valencia”, of course) and, in the smoking room, a VERY modern Columbia Viva-Tonal Electric Grafonola playing—what else? “Valencia”, endlessly while patrons indulged in the pleasures of Chesterfield and Camel, waiting for the picture to start. Meanwhile, out in Frederick, the Western Maryland set didn’t have quite such an array of pleasures, but they did revel in the beauty of one of the most intricate mosaic floors ever laid in the State. A special orchestra (borrowed in part from Baltimore hotels) played for the beautiful Tivoli’s opening night. Fredericktonians, previously used to dancing on wooden floors with the rugs rolled up, marvelled at the “danceability” of the lobby floor. Even more impressed were they when the mighty Wurlitzer sounded forth! In a small city renowned for its beautiful and impressive churches, nobody had ever heard an organ that could actually make the floor shake. The Chinesisch-Red walls and marble accoutrement were more than Frederick had seen before or, in fact, since.

And a final birthday wish, the grandest of all. By the time I get around to publishing this, it will be the correct day, and the SEVENTY-FIFTH birthday of one of the world’s most beautiful theatres.

The Byrd Theatre in Richmond opened on Christmas Eve, 1928. Though nominally a neighborhood theatre, it has been a part of that great city’s cultural tradition since the day it opened. Despite competition from such downtown theatres as the Colonial, National and Loew’s, it held its own through the golden age of movies and has outlasted them all to become the city’s premiere picture house. It also holds the distinction of being the first theatre in all Virginia to use “Vitaphone” on its opening night. Despite Vitaphone, the Byrd is equipped with the world’s most perfect Wurlitzer theatre organ. Although most theatres this size would have had a smaller instrument, the Byrd’s operators evidently felt the attraction of such a musical gem and contracted for a superlative example. The Byrd’s Wurlitzer is without comparison in the world. It can evoke any emotion known to man; from the sobbing of its tibia pipes to the triumphal fanfare of its post-horns. The Byrd’s chandelier is also of particular note; it weighs in the neighborhood of 2.5 tons, and was manufactured specifically for the Byrd in Czech provinces of Austria.
And what was the Byrd’s opening night feature? “On the Waterfront”. A nice enough picture, but…when you get to see anything at the Byrd, who really cares what the picture is? When you go to the Byrd you go there to BE there. The picture has no relevance. You go to meet your friends, to see and be seen in the city’s most fashionable picture house. You go to revel in the beauty that you’ll never see elsewhere, unless you can muster the cash for a trip to Sans-Souci or Schoenbrunn. You will blow off fifteen minutes of the movie to hang out in the mezzanine for a cigarette, just so you can luxuriate in those wondrous velvet davenports and listen to the pianola.
At the same time you may wish to contemplate the famous lobby murals. There are naked people up there, you know.