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Byrd Theatre names first-ever executive director, movie house remains closed, 10 part-time staffers left without jobs

Byrd Theatre names first-ever executive director, movie house remains closed, 10 part-time staffers left without jobs

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Stacy Shaw, a 30-year veteran arts administrator, has been hired as the first-ever executive director of the Byrd Theatre in Richmond.

She spent the past six years at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., a historic theater that hosts live productions and musicals, developing corporate, capital, endowment and major donor campaigns. Before that, she worked at the Wells Theatre, also a historic live venue, in Norfolk.

“The Byrd is very special,” Shaw said. “You see something there and you remember the experience.”

“This is a pivotal moment for the Byrd Theatre,” said Lisa Rogerson, marketing director for the Byrd.

“We are so thrilled to have someone with Stacy’s experience and expertise join the Byrd,” said Ted Haynes, the Byrd Theatre Foundation’s president, in a statement. “We are confident in her ability to lead the organization through the current times and into a successful future.”

Although the 1,200-seat movie house is allowed to reopen under Phase Three restrictions, the Byrd has decided to remain closed for now.

“These are interesting times — unlike any other times, really,” the new 51-year-old executive director said. “My vision is to get us back up and running when it’s time. We are closely following CDC guidelines and listening to our patrons, many of whom say they’re not ready to come back yet.”

With 1,200 seats, the Byrd can safely seat guests 6 feet apart, although other areas in the venue cause concern for social distancing.

“The lobby areas are more of a challenge,” Shaw said. “We want to make sure people are comfortable. We’re working on getting cleaning requirements and sanitizing practices in place per the various government guidelines. We’re also trying to create as touchless an entry experience as possible with open doors, prepaid ticketing and concessions.”

“I’m grateful that we’ll have time to figure things out, although it’s a very difficult time not having ticket sales income,” she added.

Last November, Todd Schall-Vess, the Byrd’s manager for over 21 years, was fired by the Byrd Theatre Foundation, which now manages and operates the venue.

Two board members quit over the handling of his termination and the fact that he wasn’t offered any severance.

Many visitors worry that the Byrd’s programming will change in the future without Schall-Vess’ leadership. He was crucial in choosing the second-run films that would serve the largest audience and keeping ticket prices affordable.

Under the board’s strategic plan, the Byrd’s programming has been changing slightly over the years from only offering second-run movies, to offering a mix of classics, second-run movies, art-house titles and the occasional first-run.

“The Byrd will continue to offer shows that people want to see at an affordable price,” Shaw said. “In that way, we’re not going to change. But I do think there’s room for us to try new things.”

In 2016, the theater raised ticket prices from $1.99 to between $4 and $6 for second-run new releases and repertory films such as classic films or animation classics.

Shaw said the Byrd continues to be committed to offering accessible ticket prices, “but this current environment makes it a challenge. Patrons may see a small increase going forward.”

While the stage is too narrow to host live performances because the Byrd was built as a movie house, Rogerson said the venue can and has incorporated live music with films.

The Byrd Theatre is over 90 years old and is best known for its Wurlitzer organ, crystal chandelier and opulent, old-time atmosphere.

Over the past few years, the foundation raised money to replace the roof and heating and cooling systems, as well as add new seats to the center section. But more renovations are needed going forward.

“We’re a nonprofit. We’re different than a large movie chain. We have to raise enough money to keep the Byrd operating. At over 90 years old, the Byrd needs love and care and that’s one of the things I bring to the table,” Shaw said. “In my past positions, I’ve raised transformative amounts of money for historic theaters that has left them in much better positions to continue to be used for years to come.”

While the Byrd is closed, the theater is working on several improvement projects, including an upgrade of the women’s restroom on the first floor as well as renovations to the lobby and concessions area.

“I think it will have a dramatic impact on how people experience that space,” Shaw said. “It will look better and increase efficiency.”

Other projects include the total renovation of the Wurlitzer organ in the upper left balcony and many behind-the-scenes improvements.

More than $1 million was raised under phase two of the board’s strategic plan for these projects, which also included money to finance the executive director position.

The Byrd has been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The theater applied for a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed it to pay part-time staff until mid-June when the funds ran out. Ten part-time staffers were let go after that due to the theater’s continued closure.

Shaw began working at the Byrd in late June. She lives in Petersburg with her wife, who teaches at Virginia State University.

“The Byrd is a community institution that reaches across generations,” Shaw said. “I want to make sure that continues for generations to come.”

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.

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