Byrd Theatre plans creative ways to engage with community during COVID-19

The Byrd Theatre has remained closed since March 14. Since then, the theater has rented their marquee for the public to customize. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Aerin Fortes, Contributing Writer

The Byrd Theatre is nearly a century old, but remaining relevant to the Richmond community remains a source of innovation for its management. 

Since the theater closed in March due to COVID-19, the Byrd’s doors have not been completely shut — it has launched a number of ways to raise money and serve patrons during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve done many things to keep the community engaged, entertained, and educated,” said the theater’s marketing director, Lisa Rogerson, in an email.

The theater introduced marquee sign rentals in June. The front sign that usually displays film titles can be customized with a name or celebration for a $250 donation.

One donor, Richard Timblin, rented the marquee to propose to his partner with a message that read, “Will you marry me?” He discovered the opportunity on the theater’s Instagram just two days before his scheduled proposal, changing his original plan to propose during a picnic at the Church Hill Overlook.

Timblin has been a regular patron since his first visit in 2014 to see “Let’s Be Cops.” He’s seen plenty of classics at the Cary Street location, and says he can’t wait to be there again.

Richard Timblin proposed to his girlfriend Maggie Girardi by renting out the Byrd Theatre’s marquee. Photo courtesy of Richard Timblin

Timblin said getting his message on the marquee was a simple transaction done completely over email. 

“There was a slight delay getting the message up with all the rain we have had, but ultimately it was the best way to ask my now fiancée the biggest question I’ll ever ask,” Timblin said.

Before COVID-19, bringing in donations and fundraising were norms for the nonprofit theater. 

“This isn’t new, having different sources of revenue,” Executive Director Stacy Shaw said. “We’re just trying to think of more innovative ways for people to be interested while we can’t do our regular programming.” 

Private theater rentals are available to groups of up to 30 people with their own Blu-Ray copy of a film. A party of up to 10 requires a $350 donation.

“It does give us the opportunity to allow people access to the building with people they feel safe and comfortable being around, so [theater rentals] have been going very well,” Shaw said. “We had one yesterday, and these are people who have been coming to the Byrd their whole lives. They were here as children and they were so sweet and so excited.”

Shaw said finding a cleaner that would disinfect hard surfaces and cloth seats was a challenge, but a resource they needed before opening their facilities. This required testing on the upholstery to ensure the fabric would not be damaged. 

Patrons can enjoy films at home with rentals ranging from $10-12 and lasting 24-72 hours. The virtual screening room offers documentaries, feature films and special series.

After its initial closure, the theater hosted Facebook tours of the projection booth that had more than 6,000 views. The livestreams became popular, going on to showcase the theater’s iconic Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at nearly 15,000 views.

“We have also hosted a couple of local filmmaker talks virtually and have a couple more we are planning this fall,” Rogerson said.

The theater is working on some in-person events for the upcoming fall season, Rogerson said, but it will not fully reopen in the immediate future. Shaw said the choice comes from an abundance of caution and a survey of the Byrd’s audience members.

“It’s painful because we really miss everybody,” Shaw said. “It’s very hard to stay closed, but we feel like these smaller opportunities for people to come in with people they know is a safer environment for now until we can get past this thing.”

For more information about the Byrd Theatre’s activities, visit byrdtheatre.org.

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