Harry Stilson loved the movies. Richmond theaters took his money several times a week and he faithfully recorded ticket expenses in his journal (Friday, March 5, 1919: “2 movies (rain) .25”) and sometimes the movie title (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lubin”). Moving pictures were extremely popular in the early 1900s and an outing to Theater Row on Broad between 7th & 8th Streets was eagerly anticipated. Theaters sold tickets to more than movies. The Bluebird, Isis, Rex, and others offered escape from the harsh realities of the Great Depression but your ticket also included a “short”, a serial, and a news reel. One of my elderly Shockoe Bottom friends, Aleck Mollen, declared: “For a nickel you could go to the Bijou and the Broadway. Cost a nickel and we would walk up from the Bottom, walk up Grace Street, pays my nickel and looks at my picture and wait for the serial to come on.” The Lubin was next to the Bijou and is clearly visible in this Stilson parade photograph.

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Harry also took movies. In October 1928, he wrote “Miss Day of Galeski Optical has loaned me free of charge a moving picture camera and projection in the hopes that I will buy one in the coming year.” Miss Day was a savvy salesperson because Harris Stilson’s “moving pictures” began shortly after that. We donated the surviving films to VCU Libraries and they are believed to be the oldest films in any cultural institution in Virginia. Those films have been restored and now we can go to the movies and visit Richmond when streetcars rumbled down cobblestoned streets. We’re sharing those films with groups around Richmond if your organization wants its own showing.

That’s just what we did last week. I invited family and friends to watch Stilson movies at a Saturday afternoon matinee. I brought the popcorn and cokes and they brought the oohs and ahhs. One scene that fascinated viewers was of another Saturday matinee…at the Byrd Theatre. Piecing together when Harry got his movie camera (October 1928) and the opening of the Byrd Theatre on Christmas Eve 1928 with the background in his film, we think it could have been filmed when the Byrd was opening. There is a truck behind the crowd of children with something BIG in it, like a sign and the canister of film was dated 1929. We can’t prove it but here is a still shot from that film. You decide.

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Harry usually attended movies downtown, often after his streetcar route was ended. Normally he went alone but sometimes he took his sister, Vera, who shared his love of photography and films. He was frugal so he patronized theaters with less expensive tickets. The Byrd Theatre, on Westhampton Avenue, now Cary Street, was within walking distance of the Stilson home at 3021 Grayland Avenue (then known as Chaffin Street) but it was pricier. I know he attended the Byrd because my father spoke of going with his grandfather, but Harry most often frequented Theater Row and Church Hill’s Patrick Henry on 25th Street. The allure of the movies didn’t diminish over time. Harris Stilson’s movie-going days ended with his death in 1934 but my oral history sources describe Saturday matinees of their childhoods in subsequent years fondly.
Lots of movie memories are recounted in my book, Up & Down Church Hill. Floyd Gottwald grew up in Fulton and remembers one theater off Williamsburg Road as “the stink bomb” because it had no ventilation. Bootsie Madison went to the Patrick Henry where “Mouse” was the usher and Bootsie sneaked bean-shooters into the balcony to wreak havoc on the patrons below. Bob Griggs usually went to second run movies at the Patrick Henry because the East End Theater was more expensive.
In those days, most neighborhoods had separate theaters for blacks and whites. Edward Aiken recalled that “You could go to the Robinson Theater for little or nothing. Nine cents. You could see a cartoon, a series, and a main picture.”
Theaters offered performances of all sorts. Bob Griggs recalled that the Patrick Henry sometimes had live performances. “Occasionally they’d have a group come in and perform on the stage, a western group or something.” Westerns with Hop-Along Cassidy and Tom Mix were followed by later cowboys like “Lash” Larue and Bob Steele and delighted Richmond audiences, especially young boys. Well, not just boys…Harry filmed parts of Tom Mix serials from his theater seat and they’re in his film collection. Mary Nolde Foster: “The Byrd used to have live things, too. Phil Spitale and his All-Girl Orchestra. I used to go to music things. I remember seeing Nelson Eddy. I still have his autograph somewhere.”

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Recently the French Film Festival was held at the Byrd and Harry was part of that event. French director Jean Achache’s documentary, The Byrd Theatre: A Love Affair, premiered that week end and some of Harry’s movie clips were included in that documentary. Jean did an amazing job of combining history with personalities and remembrances and his film is a charming and intimate visit to Richmond’s past. Isaac Regelson was an integral part of the project and he’ll let me know when our city’s Love Affair comes to Richmond’s big screen. I’ll keep you updated on distribution schedules because you won’t want to miss this documentary.
Meanwhile, Harry Stilson’s movies ARE available for viewing and Richmond In Sight is happy to share. Go to our website http://www.richmondinsight.com or contact me here. Just another way to be a part of Harry Stilson’s Richmond. What better way than a Saturday afternoon matinee?

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