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Phil Whiteway (left) and Bruce Miller found a theatrical home at the Empire in 1986. Photo by Chris Smith
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The interior of Richmond’s Empire, circa 1913. Photo courtesy Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
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The original 1911 architectural plans for the Little Theatre (top) and the Empire Theatre (bottom). Library of Virginia images courtesy Commonwealth Architects
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A computer rendering of the restoration design by Commonwealth Architects. Computer visualization by ProViz
Developer Moses L. Hofheimer probably thought it a stroke of brilliance to debut his new playhouse on Christmas 1911, the day before the 100th anniversary of the city's most resounding tragedy, the Richmond Theater fire, which claimed 72 lives after scenery caught fire.
The Empire Theatre opened, basking in safe electric light, at 116 W. Broad St. Exit doors perforated its auditorium, and fire escapes adorned the side alley walls.
Now, a century later, the grand lady of Richmond theater, which has outlived her New York City inspiration, is readying to face another century of her public.
Near the turn of the century, changes were under way in New York City's theater district. Its base was shifting from Union Square to near Times Square, the location of the new headquarters of the New York Times.
Charles Frohman, one of the foremost promoters of the day, purchased a lot at Broadway and West 40th and 41st streets. He hired renowned theater builder J.B. McElfatrick to create his Empire Theatre.
In an 1893 New York Times article about the Empire's opening, Frohman claimed that his theater was "thoroughly fireproof and that it is the only stock theatre in New York on the ground floor." Plus Frohman's early use of electricity gave him a short-lived advantage.
Either Hofheimer, who bankrolled the construction of Richmond's Empire, or the theater's architect, Claude K. Howell, learned of the Broadway Empire's innovations and adapted them for Broad Street. Among the New York Empire's distinctive architectural features, for example, was an elegant arch above its entrance, which found its way into the design of Richmond's Empire.
Theatre IV founding artistic director Bruce Miller, who led the company's first shows at the Empire in 1977, explains that at many theaters, including those in Richmond of the time, patrons climbed up steep stairs to the top of the raked seating and then clambered down. "But in Richmond, for the first time here was a theater with electricity, extra fire-safety precautions, and, like the Empire in New York, you entered at the ground floor and looked up at the stage."
When it opened in 1911, the Empire presented vaudeville, legitimate theater and occasional movies. The design was exuberant but not as flamboyant as other Richmond theaters, like the Lubin. On the same side of Broad as the Empire but in the 800 block, the Lubin featured a colossal woman's head shooting animated electric lights from her hair, and on the façade, enticing larger-than-life muses held out their lithe arms as though to welcome audiences.
The 604-seat Empire reflected a Classical Revival style with its pediments and columns, not to mention a gracious plaster chorus of muses over the arch of the recessed window. The Wedgewood-patterned interior was among the most attractive and least fussy of Richmond's public auditoriums at the time. The decorative plaster was either designed or installed by Richmond-based Italian immigrant Ferruccio Legnaioli.
Another Hofheimer project, The Little Theatre, opened next door at 116 W. Broad St. in 1912. Richmond's first actual movie theater, it could hold 386 patrons.
Hitting the Boards
At the Empire, Nashville, Tenn., native Lucille La Verne, who regularly came to Richmond as an actor and director, organized her own theater company beginning in the spring of 1913. In Celebrate Richmond Theater, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley noted that during its April through June season, "the company played for ten weeks, gave 80 performances and sold 147,000 tickets."
Some members of La Verne's troupe went on to Broadway success. Frank Morgan is probably best remembered for his role as the Wizard of Oz in the iconic 1939 film of the same name. Later in life, Edward Arnold, then a handsome college-aged actor, played bespectacled authority figures in film, most notably as Jim Taylor, whose machinations caused Jimmy Stewart, as Mr. Smith, to go to Washington.
A News Leader critic of April 1914 declared that the biggest actors were in films and that film was the biggest show in Richmond.
As if knowing this, Lucille La Verne staged a spectacular summer 1914 season by booking into the Empire golden-curled silent-film stars Mary Miles Mintner and rotund comedian John Bunny. Mintner's fame came as a child in The Littlest Rebel (written by former Richmond resident Edward Peple). At the Empire, the 12-year-old Mintner performed in a one-act version of the Peple play. (The 1935 sound version starred Shirley Temple dancing alongside Richmonder Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.)
A vaudevillian by background, John Bunny became the first major film comedian, and he received a hero's welcome in Richmond. A packed house delighted in one of his Vitagraph shorts, then Bunny performed a monologue, "My Face — Its Cause and Cure." (Though he had it insured for $100,000.) On that August 1914 evening at the Empire, Bunny and other actors performed a pantomime called "The Honeymooners." (Oddly enough, Bunny's persona of the happy fat man presaged later stars such as Jackie Gleason.) Eight months later, Bunny died of Bright's disease.
In December 1914, the Empire underwent conversion into a movie theater and was renamed The Strand. Lucille La Verne moved on, making her silent-film debut the following year. Later, in Disney's 1935 Snow White, she voiced the Evil Queen (whom she also resembles in the animation) and the crone she transforms into while offering the poisoned apple.
In 1915 came two separate but important turns in the histories of the two Empires: New York's Charles Frohman died in the sinking of the Lusitania; while in Richmond, Hofheimer relinquished management of the Empire to Jake Wells, a former professional baseball player turned regional theater magnate. A tall, handsome affable fellow, Wells and his partners ran a chain of 42 theaters in nine states from 1899 to the mid-1920s. They controlled almost every performance and film venue in Richmond.
Another Opening, Another Show
In 1919, African-American advocate John Mitchell Jr., a banker and the "fighting editor" of the Richmond Planet weekly newspaper, purchased The Strand for $113,000. Blacks could attend the theater, but they had to enter through a separate entrance and sit in the balcony. The Hippodrome, built in 1915 (and recently restored), catered to black audiences.
Jake Wells' $8,000-a-year lease was set to run until 1922, but Mitchell persuaded him to make a special presentation of Mary Pickford's Pollyanna for black children in April 1920. This was the first time in the Empire's history that African-Americans entered through the front door.
Whites were rankled by Mitchell's acquisition of the grand, prominent building. A story circulated — maybe apocryphal — that white businessmen offered to purchase the theater from Mitchell, who refused. A 1927 fire in The Strand's rafters closed the building for a time. (Scorch marks from that blaze remain visible.)
The Strand reopened in 1934 as the Booker-T., and two years later, the adjacent Little was rechristened by contest as the Maggie Walker, for the Jackson Ward community organizer and businesswoman. The Booker-T. hosted music and dance performances, but during the 1960s, the management, keen on inexpensive maintenance, removed the original façade embellishments. Thus the theater turned a blank face to its future. The Booker-T. closed in 1974.
Enter Stage Left
University of Richmond classmates and theater colleagues Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway pooled together $2,000 in 1975 and started Theatre IV from the back of a station wagon. They organized a group of performing-arts professionals to bring theater for children to the city and around the state. About this time, Varina developer Mitchell Kambis purchased the Empire and gave it a thorough cosmetic overhaul.
Theatre IV in 1977 rented the Empire for a three-week run of Pinocchio for $7,500. This was serious money to a small company intent on responsible spending.
"Once we got in here and touched it and felt it, we knew we had to get this place," says managing director Phil Whiteway.
Theatre IV setting up its shop in the Empire didn't seem possible, much less inevitable. In Miller's words, "We didn't have much of anything except for a case to be made."
Keith Fowler, who directed and performed at the then-Virginia Museum Theatre (later TheatreVirginia), launched the ambitious American Revels theater company that performed at the Empire from 1983 to 1985 and received $50,000 from the city. And then the curtain went down.
This is how Bruce Miller put it on his Barksdale Theatre blog: "After a financially challenging stint as an impresario, Kambis turned over ownership of the Empire to the mortgage holder, Central Fidelity Bank."
CFB donated the building to the Norfolk-based Virginia Opera. The bank's CEO, Carroll Saine, knew the opera's Richmond office director and downtown booster, Nina Abady, also a Theatre IV board member. The terms stipulated a two-year residency.
Virginia Opera found the theater too small, and when their contract expired, the company sold the theater to a Roanoke developer, who then sought buyers of his own.
In 1986, the buyers were narrowed to three: a city developer who viewed the theater as retail and condos; Murry DePillars, on behalf of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts; and Theatre IV. VCU could have outbid Theatre IV, but when DePillars learned of Theatre IV's intention, he called a meeting with Miller and Whiteway. DePillars preferred to see a historic building saved and put to good use rather than to bid against Theatre IV.
Then a theater miracle occurred.
Suspension of Disbelief
Ann Sutherland Kirby, related to the Woolworth fortune, had a son Wade, who worked as a touring actor. She contributed $100,000 toward Theatre IV's purchase of the Empire.
"It was scary," Miller says. "We'd never, ever seen a check with that many zeros." He later dedicated a run of My Fair Lady, set in 1911 London, to Kirby.
Theatre IV initiated its first capital campaign for $2.3 million and thereafter has consistently paid the bills. This has meant conducting renovations and improvements in phases. It has meant keeping patient while keeping budgets balanced, adding and subtracting personnel and sometimes instituting pay cuts, even for Miller and Whiteway's salaries.
Today, some 800,000 people a year attend Theatre IV events, not just at the Empire, but also through its extensive touring and outside productions. The Empire proper, which now seats 611, receives some 125,000 people a year.
The company shored up its flanks with the purchase of a former saloon on one side and on the other, the Little Theatre, which became its black-box space. A nearby building was also acquired, for offices and set construction. In 2001, Theatre IV also rescued the troubled Barksdale Theatre (founded in 1953).
The Richmond Theater Critics Circle Awards are held in the elegance of the Empire auditorium, with the most recent taking place Oct. 16.
This latest round of façade work was due, in part, to August's "hurriquake" that shook loose pieces of stucco and a piece of trim from a second-story window. Their contractors at Kjellstrom & Lee construction advised closing off the sidewalk for safety. Scaffolding went up, and work began.
Soon, C.K. Howell's columns once again will grace the Empire's façade (made of a composite, rot-resistant material), and the neon will shine on the Little's marquee.
The show will run into its second century.