The lights dim, stars begin to shimmer across the black curtained backdrop, and the audience members think the movie is about to begin. Suddenly, the thundering sound of “The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” hits them. Moviegoers new to the Byrd Theatre are intrigued as they see an organ rising from beneath the stage but those familiar with Byrd Theatre tradition hope to once again be enthralled by the experience. Then the house organ player, Bob Gulledge, turns to the crowd and says, “You ready to sing?” The familiar tune “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” got the whole crowd singing along this past Saturday night.
Gulldege can be found scoping out the crowd entering the Byrd Theatre on any given Saturday evening in Carytown. He explained that he walks around before the movie begins to evaluate the moviegoers’ mood, and then decides which songs he should play before the show. He also takes into account which movie is being shown and the age group of the audience.
“This is the only place where in the course of 10 minutes you can go from Hank Williams to Puccini with just one key change. You just have to look and see who’s here,” Gulledge said.
He explained that he wouldn’t play something like Phantom of the Opera for a group of children waiting to see a Disney movie. Gulledge added that he realizes he’s not up there to play for his own amusement, so he tries to end his show with a “kicker” to get the crowd singing along.
The Byrd Theatre has been welcoming Richmond moviegoers for 82 years. In the past, Gulledge explained that the Byrd Theatre was a place where people went to get updates about world events by watching news reels. He said it was more than a casual movie experience because people got dressed up in their Sunday outfits and brought the whole family to see the movie.
He added that the Byrd Theatre wasn’t nearly as large as the other theatres in town, like the Loews or the National. For what the Byrd Theatre lacked in size, Gulledge said it made up for in extravagance. Gulledge pointed out that the Byrd Theatre has the biggest organ in town, Italian marbled walls, and a Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier. He described the Byrd Theatre as a type of museum, preserving what the theatre stood for in 1928. Gulledge explained that there have only been 13 house organists during the time the Byrd Theatre has been open.
Gulledge has been the house organist for the Byrd Theatre for 13 years. He first came to the Byrd as a teenager with a church group, and was stunned by the size and the sound produced by the grand organ.
“I was taking piano lessons at the time, and I saw the organ sort of thunder across the floor, and that massive console comes up on that lift in the pit. Of course that was new to me. I’d never seen anything like that, and it was like, you know what, I’ve got to do that!” Gulledge said.
After seeing the grand organ being played in the theater, Gulledge asked Eddie Weaver, the house organist at the time, to give him lessons. Gulledge explained that Weaver was a musical and entertainment icon within the Richmond community for more than 50 years.
“I didn’t get lessons right away. He sort of said, you go and take five years of piano lessons and then come back and we’ll talk about it. I don’t know if he was really thinking I’d come back, or if that was just a nice way of saying go away, but anyway it worked out” Gulledge said.
Looking back, he realized the piano lessons allowed him to master the “fundamentals of music.” After taking five years of piano, Gulledge described the transition to the organ as almost natural.
He explained that the only differences between the instruments are having multiple keyboards for the organ and the addition of playing with foot pedals. Gulledge said that the unique part about the Wurlitzer organ found in the Byrd Theatre is that the piano on the left side can be played on the organ’s console. He said because organ has “multiple speaking voices” unlike the piano, the musician can be more creative and not worry as much about the technicalities of playing. Gulledge characterized the organ as an “expressive instrument.”
“You can make them [organs] speak in a whisper and almost cry, or you can kick it up, and almost make it roar with rage,” Gulledge said.
Gulledge expressed how remarkable it was that he was given the opportunity to learn how to play the organ from Weaver, who actually played the organ when it was essential to the success of a show. Gulledge honed his craft on the very same organ he plays today, an organ designed and scaled by the Wulitzer Organ Company specifically for the Byrd Theatre.
The Wulitzer organ found at the Byrd theatre is much larger than organs found in smaller theatres “because they had to compensate for the acoustics of the building in that dome,” Gulledge said.
He explained that the organ is important because there are only about a hundred organs like the Wurlitzer in the United States. Many organs have actually been moved from their intended place, but the organ at the Byrd theatre has remained in its original spot all these years. He noted that organs like the Wurlitzer used in the Byrd Theatre are usually only found in grand houses like Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Although Gulledge said he doesn’t write his own music, he has come up with a few tunes unique to the Byrd Theatre. The introduction, as the organ is being lifted up onto the stage, was actually written by accident.
One morning, Gulledge was trying to come up with a grand introduction that would capture the audience’s attention when the cleaning lady came into the theatre. She used a leaf blower to blow all the trash from the previous night to the side so clean-up would be easier. As she was cleaning, Gulledge said his music began to grow louder and louder until he had this grand entrance. He entitled it Opera’s Opus because the cleaning lady’s name was Opera.
Gulledge recalled seeing the marquee for the Byrd Theatre as a young child, and being mesmerized by the entire “Byrd experience.” Now generations of people are returning to the Byrd with their children to see Gulledge play.
“When I was in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, my friends and I came out for every sing along that he played, and it was just so cool to see people in the community out. You’re in a theatre with a couple hundred people singing Christmas carols at the top of your lungs or ‘Grand Old Flag’ with Bob playing, and he’s really important to the community,” Hilary Montgomery, a Byrd Theatre employee, said.
“Having Bob here is obviously a sense of nostalgia, but it’s also a wow factor, especially for younger kids who are just coming to the theatre… It’s a form of time travel where kids can come and see a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean for example, and that might be their first movie ever, but they get to see something and be a part of something that’s been around for 83 years,” Champ said.
Gulledge, like so many others, was drawn to the theatre’s unique experience. He explained that people view the Byrd much differently than they do other theatres in the city because of its long history. The support of college students, as well as the appreciative audience, has helped the Byrd remain a commodity in the community according to Gulledge. He has high hopes that the people who love coming to the Byrd Theatre will continue to support it.
“There’s an awe and a wonder about this place, and when they hear that organ for the first time, it’s not unusual on Saturday nights for people to just go crazy in here. They sing and they clap along with some of the music, and they seem to genuinely enjoy being here,” Gulledge said.
Although Gulledge has no intention of leaving the Byrd any time soon, he is giving lessons to one student. Gulledge said that his current student “has an incredible memory and a natural sense of music.”
When he isn’t at the Byrd Theatre, Gulledge also works at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Rockville, Md., as a sales consultant.
When Gulledge has time off he loves playing in the Chesapeake Bay with his two grandsons, Tristan and Alexi.
Gulledge lives near the Chesapeake Bay, so he usually arrives about 30 minutes before the 7:15 p.m. show to warm up. Although he doesn’t get to practice very much on the organ, he does practice on his piano at home in Virginia Beach.
“He likes to please the crowd. He knows there are certain songs that are going to get a reaction based on certain crowds,” Damion Champ, a Byrd Theatre employee, said.
As for his experience with the Byrd Theatre and the Richmond community, Gulledge said, he always enjoys meeting people from the audience that just stop to say hello and offer encouraging words. In addition, Gulledge said he appreciates the people that continually support the Byrd and make meaningful contributions to the preservation and restoration of the organ.
Gulledge concluded that he tries to make the movie event all it can be, and that he is truly lucky to be a part of the whole experience.