The Empire Theatre will become the Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre in January, the result of a $2 million gift to Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre from the longtime philanthropists.
In a news conference on the sidewalk underneath a newly installed marquee, Mayor Dwight Jones commandeered the feel-good announcement on a crisp morning, occasionally interrupted by jackhammers along West Broad Street.
“Today I am announcing a legacy gift -- now get ready for this, because it’s not small potatoes, so get ready for it -- I’m announcing a legacy gift of $2 million,” Jones told a small crowd that spilled into the street.
It was a good morning to score political points. The Empire is historic -- it’s the city’s first racially integrated theater, and the oldest actively operating theater -- and those in attendance were fairly convinced that the renovation in the late 1980s helped jump-start a renaissance on Broad Street. Jones, coming off a tough few months and the recent raid of Occupy Richmond’s encampment at the Kanawha Plaza, beamed with excitement.
“For decades, from the 1930s through the 1960s, this theater was called the Booker T,” Jones told the group. “And I remember as a college student, on one of the few dates that I had, I came to the Booker T.”
Phil Whiteway, managing director of Theatre IV and the Barksdale Theatre, says the Novembers’ gift will go toward capital improvements and the theater’s endowment. The marquee that went up last week cost approximately $150,000, Whiteway says, and overall facade renovations will cost as much as $1 million. That work is expected to be complete by early next year, Whiteway says. An ensuing capital campaign, with a goal of between $12 million and $14 million, has yet to officially launch.
The theater, which became part of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” set late last week, first opened on Christmas Day in 1911.