Organist Bob Gulledge has played the Mighty Wurlitzer at Richmond’s Byrd Theatre for two decades.

Monday’s front-page news story, “After Byrd manager is fired, what comes next for the theater?” asked many of the same questions we’ve been wondering ourselves. After the abrupt dismissal of longtime manager Todd Schall-Vess and the decisions of two members of the Byrd Theatre Foundation to step down in protest, we worry about the fate of the beloved Richmond landmark.

The 1,400-seat theater, which first opened in December 1928, is a local gem from a more elegant era. Opulently designed with elaborate murals, imported marble, chandeliers and dramatic curtains, the theater has been a National Historic Landmark since 1979. The Byrd Theatre is as much a part of Richmond’s tapestry as Hollywood Cemetery and Belle Isle.

Thousands of families have enjoyed its affordable prices and friendly atmosphere. The Wurlitzer organ continues to enchant all ages. Schall-Vess was a pro at knowing what movie fare would keep families, VCU students and the community coming back for more.

What’s to become of the Byrd? The board says changing its venue to a first-run movie house is not an option. Suggestions by Schall-Vess and others that the board may consider turning the theater into an cinematic art house elicit a “say it ain’t so!” response. Showing independent, artsy and foreign films did nothing to save the now-demolished Westhampton Theater. It’s a relief to read marketing director Lisa Roberson say the Byrd has no intention of changing its programming strategy.

But, we wonder, will the booking agency that is replacing Schall-Vess have his knack for booking movies Richmonders want to see? And, without the controversial former manager’s expertise, we hope the all-volunteer board has the know-how to keep this Richmond treasure popular, operational and maintained well into the future.

— Robin Beres

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