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Cutting-Edge Nostalgia: A Look at Two of Virginia's Movie Palaces

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From neglect to the rise of Netflix to general lack of funds, several of the opulent, old movie palaces across the Commonwealth have closed or have been repurposed altogether. But Kelsea Pieters looks at two of Virginia’s historic theaters that have survived – and thrive from support of those in their communities.   

Step into the projector room at the Byrd Theater in Richmond, and you’ll find more than 100 years of projection technology. That collection came in handy this summer, as their Barco DP-100 projector stopped working long before its predicted demise – and a vintage 35 mm projector was used temporarily in its place. While that sounds like a bout of welcomed nostalgia, General Manager Todd Schall-Vess says 35mm films are either in limited quantity – or, pretty outdated.

“Sony hasn’t released a 35 MM film since Annie.”

And – that was in 1982. But, the non-profit theater foundation was soon able to afford a stunning, new 4-k projector.

“4-K is like looking at your high-end plasma screen in your living room, except 30 feet wide and 24 feet tall.”

This seems to define how The Byrd has always operated – cutting-edge nostalgia. Richmond’s Grand Movie Palace opened in 1928 as the first new theater in Virginia outfitted with a Vitaphone Sound System for talking films. But, the theater also featured a grand Wurlitzer organ to accompany silent films – which is still played every Saturday night.

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And, despite the changing tides of movie-viewing trends, The Byrd has managed to stay relevant. Schall-Vess shows me one photo that sums it up…

“This is people in Richmond getting their first look at a Crossely TV Set. This is what was going to put movie theaters out of business. Do you know where they’re watching it? In the upstairs lobby here at the theater.”

The Byrd is a rarity amongst movie palaces, as it has continuously operated as one since it opened nearly 90 years ago. In that time, several generations of Richmonders have grown to appreciate the theater as a community staple.

Schall-Vess says, “We’ve had people that have spent their entire lives – lost one our continuous patrons recently – came here the day it opened – except for when he was fighting the Battle of the Bulge”

Across the state, the Grandin Theater in Roanoke also serves as a community anchor, boasting the same grand designs it did when it opened. Ian Fortier is the theater’s executive director:

“The Grandin represents a facility that we call an iconic jewel in the arts and cultural crown of the Roanoke valley. There are many people in this neighborhood who have been coming to this facility their entire lives.”

The Grandin opened in 1932 and, like The Byrd, was ahead of the curve as the first theater to feature talking pictures in Roanoke.

“It had glorious decades of ups and downs – in 2001 it went in to disrepair and was closed, and the community rallied around renovating the building and at the same time, making it a foundation.”

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The Grandin's Exterior

Since its rebirth, the theater has only further established itself as a communal gathering place. It’s evident with the locally made concessions, the lobby-art gallery, it’s even home to a church on Sunday.  It has proved to be such an economic driver, in fact, that the Economic Development Authority of the City of Roanoke awarded the theater 50,000 dollars to help renovate the façade of the building.

Fortier says, “They concluded that they wanted to support the Grandin one because of its iconic status in the community, its historical relevance – and then they also believe the theater is the anchor for Grandin village – which as you know is one of the most vibrant communities we have in Southwest Virginia.”

Construction on the façade is scheduled to begin in January.

And, with communities rallying to help to fix the old, two of Virginia’s most iconic movie palaces can focus on the new – continuing to engage generations of movie goers with grand relics of years past, while looking towards the future, full speed ahead.

Kelsea Pieters has worked as a reporter and producer for WVTF since March 2014. She regularly contributes feature and news stories and produces Back to the Blue Ridge with Kinney Rorrer. Kelsea graduated from Roanoke College in 2013 with a BA in Communication.
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