A VCU professor and a local studio explore the historical relevance of movie houses. 

Remembering Theaters

When Kathy Fuller, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, begins talking about history, you can't help but feel her excitement.

Her passion for 20th-century history in particular led her to cultivate an interest in the influence of movie theaters across the United States.

Recently, she turned her attention specifically to movie theaters in Richmond. This week, she is releasing her book, "The Dementi Family of Photographers Celebrate Richmond Theaters" (Dietz Press, $29.99), a book she wrote in collaboration with Elisabeth and Wayne Dementi of Dementi Studios, an 84-year-old photography studio.

While the book focuses on the 20th century, there is a prologue that covers Richmond's theaters between 1800 and 1900. The rest of the book features text by Fuller, as well as photographs of theaters, actors, programs and promotional materials for movies. Some photos are now-and-then shots of theaters such as the Byrd and Westhampton. "This project was a lot of work," Fuller says, "but I enjoyed it tremendously."

The collaboration evolved from a slide presentation featuring Richmond's theaters that Wayne Dementi put on at Fuller's mother's nursing home. The director of the nursing home remembered Fuller's interest in the same subject and suggested the two get together.

"I did the project because I wanted to learn more about this," Fuller said. She and Wayne started talking, and the idea for a book evolved.

While Foster Studios contributed some rare glass negative slides for the book, Dementi Studios provided most of the visuals, poring through thousands of photos for the project. Fuller says the studio's archives were rich with an almost exclusive look into the early days of the movie industry's presence in Richmond.

"Wayne's uncle and grandfather worked for the Richmond News Leader and were also hired by the theaters to take pictures of newsworthy events," she explains.

Fuller learned how movie theaters were cultural centers, even as late as 1964. "During World War II, for example," she says, "you would go to the movies to get news about the war. Back then, people went two or three times a week."

Fuller says home entertainment prevails these days, and people may reserve moviegoing for a special occasion. Despite this, Richmond's dedication to historical preservation saved the structures she finds so fascinating in the wake of local revitalization and development efforts. "We didn't tear down our theaters, as most major cities have," she says. "Even New York began tearing down some of its theaters in the 1960s."

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