Archives for posts with tag: Byrd Theatre


Some Christmas gifts are always in style, always exciting. Riding toys of any sort but especially bicycles or tricycles inspire joy in 1926 or 2016. Richmond In Sight’s collection of my great-grandfather’s photographs prove that. The Harris Stilson Collection includes a few Christmas pictures that could just as easily be now. This tricycle parade was the day after Christmas, 1927 on Carytown’s Grayland Avenue with a neighbor’s mother & grandmother admiring the procession.


That photograph of my father, Howard Lynch, his sister, Norma Kathleen, neighbor Minnie Arnold and an unknown child is as relevant as the picture that follows below. That’s my triplet grandchildren on a popular “trike” variation: no pedals so kids balance themselves and learn to ride a bicycle easier. At least that’s the theory. First, they need to learn to sit on the seat. There’s a reason parents are young…they need stamina!15731824_10154893722050909_7168745008375094271_o

Some folks are never too old for bikes. Harry Stilson tests his grandson’s new bike in this picture and I can almost hear my father pleading for his bike back.


Chia pets, pet rocks, and Cindy Lauper attire pass from favor but some toys are timeless. Dolls, trucks, and little structures endure as favorites. I bought my kids Fisher-Price garages, airports, and houses but these are really, really cool, too. Howard and his friend, Ralph Carr, proudly display their gifts and I wish at least one of those had survived for me to treasure decades later.


Harry looks delighted to be with his grandchildren as they show off their belongings. My aunt Margaret was born with only one full arm but she rode this tricycle and later bicycles and looks thrilled to be doing it.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.


Margaret loved dolls. I have a few of her dolls, still but sadly, her Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll and her Madame Alexander Dionne quintuplet dolls disappeared over the years.  I do, however, have the china tea set that Margaret is using here. Somehow it survived decades in her basement in an open box. The question is: will it survive the grandchildren?


This child below is NOT happy. Don’t know who she is but she’s the sister of a little boy  in other pictures and I’m guessing they are along Harry’s West Clay Line streetcar route in Jackson Ward. I am always hopeful that someone will see one of Harry’s images and recognize a relative. It’s happened before and is always my Christmas wish.


This last image was captured from a Stilson film and is too timely to leave out. The Byrd Theatre opened December 24, 1928 and we believe this may be the first movie matinee. The kids are all wearing Lindy hats, leather aviator caps imitating Charles Lindbergh because he had recently visited Richmond. Howard and Norma certainly wore theirs with pride. There seems to be a history of movie events at Christmas, huh? Perhaps none as significant as the opening of the historic Byrd Theatre but I know lots of families whose holiday traditions include movies, at home like us with The Muppets Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (both the “real people” and the “tartoon” version, as my granddaughter calls it) or at the theater. Traditions are priceless and whatever form they take, they are to be cherished.   022-byrd-kids

As you pick up wrapping paper and try to figure out where to store the presents your children received, remember this: some of those toys will be forgotten tomorrow but a few  will be treasured for generations. I know…the triplets love toys from the past.



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.


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.



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.”

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 or contact me here. Just another way to be a part of Harry Stilson’s Richmond. What better way than a Saturday afternoon matinee?

Richmond is having its first big snow of the winter as I write these words. The good news is that there will be enough snow to sled, build snowmen, have snowball fights. The bad news is that it’s SO cold I’m debating the wisdom of packing down my 400 ft. driveway and pulling out the sled. Yes, I am 63, the kids are grown and gone, but that doesn’t preclude my careening downhill, hopefully missing the creek, dragging the sled back up and repeating the ride all alone. Just in case, I parked the car at the end of the drive to maintain sledding conditions. I miss the days when all my neighbors and their kids congregated at my house for the “Moseley Sledding Club.”

Harry Stilson’s grandchildren and their friends had their own “Grayland Avenue Sledding Club” as seen in this picture below. The girl with a camera in her lap is Minnie Arnold, a neighbor who learned from Harry to always have her camera handy. Harry developed Minnie’s pictures for her so I have lots of them in his collection. She was a lifelong friend of the Stilson/Lynch family and I wish I could find relatives to share her images with. Since I can’t, I’ll share them with you. Grayland Avenue, between Carytown and the Downtown Expressway, boasted lots of kids including Ralph Carr and Lin Lucas. The little girl is my aunt Margaret Lynch.

 Grayland kids with sleds

This is one of my favorite Stilson images. It reminds me of the Little Rascals. My dad, Howard Lynch, and aunt Kathleen Lynch, are wearing “Lindy hats” popular back then. In the Stilson movies of the Byrd Theatre matinee, half the kids have leather hats like Charles Lindberg wore. One of my older friends, Aleck Mollen, was taken to see Lindberg at the fairgrounds (where the Diamond is now) by “his” Main Street streetcar man, Mr. Argenbright and relates the story fondly decades later . Lindys’ visit to Richmond was even bigger than a school-closing snow. These pictures combine reminders of both of those memorable occasions.

033 little rascals

Today we watch television, listen to the radio, or go online to see if school is closed. In the early 1900s, many families didn’t have radios so Richmond devised a creative way to announce school closings. Paul Nolde, of the Nolde Brothers’ Bakery family, recalled the “999 bell” that firehouses used. When kids heard that sweet sound, they knew school was closed and they were free to dress in their warmest clothes and go sledding. Bootsie Madison described building sleds but many weren’t as creative or fortunate. For those kids, cardboard sufficed.

My book, Up & Down Church Hill, relates stories of snow days back when. Aleck Mollen was raised in Shockoe Bottom and sledded down 17th Street from Fairfield, depending on a “lookout” to warn of traffic coming. One time that lookout wasn’t paying attention and Aleck’s sled went right under a slow-moving car. Bet he never told his mother about THAT! There was also a story about a kid sledding under a streetcar and surviving, a story that I’ve heard often enough that if not true, is still a great Richmond legend.

Hopefully, kids in the next few days will enjoy the snow without causing parental trauma. Unlike the days when the city closed streets in Church Hill for sledding, kids and kids at heart will have to find other options. Wherever snow is packed down and hills beckon, there is nothing like the exhilaration of flying down a Richmond hill.

For a while now, I’ve been sharing photos from the Harris Stilson photography collection with you. Well, thanks to PBS Channel 23’s Virginia Currents program, now you can get a better idea of the magnitude and significance of my great-grandfather’s pictures and movies as well as the scope of Richmond In Sight projects.
The crew of Virginia Currents spent almost six hours at my house recently and the resulting program, which aired for the first time last night, is an amazing feat of ingenuity and creativity. They squeezed six hours of film into a ten minute segment…and did a great job. Yes, it was “only” about ten minutes long but viewers saw lots  of pictures and a few clips of Harry’s movies as well. The film clips included kids lined up at the Byrd Theatre, the Shields Lake high dive, downtown scenes of streetcars and pedestrians, a tiny glimpse of what jewels these 1929-1031 films are.
During filming, Randy and I were seated beside a child-sized secretary built by Harry’s wife, Mary. On it is a Stilson picture of that same secretary displaying two cameras. I inherited those cameras, including the movie camera, instructions, price list and the October 1928 journal entry stating “Miss Day from 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 an astute salesperson because Harry’s surviving movies began in 1929.
Mary Stilson's miniature secretary


If you missed the program last night, don’t fret. Saturday, April 13th at 5:30 PM and Sunday, April 14th at 1:00 PM will be your next opportunities to see the show. The program will be online by April 19th as well. And if you did watch Virginia Currents and enjoyed it, think about making a donation to our local PBS station. This  snapshot into the lives of Virginians is a valuable part of Channel 23’s repertoire but funding has been cut and the program is in jeopardy of disappearing. Let the station know how vital this program is to our community.
The expression “beggers can’t be choosers” is a bit inaccurate in this case. I am begging for donations to Richmond In Sight because in order to restore and share those movies, we need money. Your tax-deductive gift to Richmond In Sight through VCU Libraries can make that possible but if you choose to give to Virginia Currents instead, I will understand. Just choose one, please. We’re both worthy causes focusing on our neighbors and our home towns.
Meanwhile, take a look at for more pictures and stories and to see more cool stuff.