Byrd is the Word

Byrd Theatre is holding a fundraiser screening to fix up its treasured Wurlitzer.

It was at the tender age of 12 that Bob Gulledge began to worship at the altar of the Byrd Theatre.

“I remember seeing the big blade sign from the other end of Cary Street where the International Safeway was,” says the 69-year-old, referencing the former grocery store where the Carytown Kroger now stands. “It was a beacon, all that beautiful neon and color.”

The year was 1965, and Gulledge and his youth group from Bon Air Baptist Church were on a pilgrimage to see the Christian epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in its first run. As impressed as he was by the Byrd’s French Empire exterior, it was the organ that really blew him away. Watching Eddie Weaver, the movie palace’s longtime organist, ride the Mighty Wurlitzer as it ascended from the orchestra pit, Gulledge knew it was something special.

“It’s one of those instruments you can feel the vibrations up through the floor. It was pretty overwhelming,” says Gulledge, who’s hosting a fundraiser for the organ this Sunday at the Byrd. “I looked at it and said, ‘I’ve got to do that.’”

After a year of pestering by Gulledge to receive lessons, Weaver finally relented and Gulledge began his 11-year apprenticeship. Early on, Gulledge’s lessons took place at the Miller and Rhoads Tea Room, where Weaver also served as organist.

Starting around 1970, Gulledge began subbing occasionally for Weaver. Gulledge moved away from Richmond in 1979, but after stints around the mid-Atlantic, landed in Virginia Beach in 1985 and began commuting to the Byrd for gigs. Since 1996, he’s been the Byrd’s house organist, performing at movie screenings, weddings and Christmas shows at the Byrd.

[Video by Silver Persinger]

Now, Gulledge has a message for Richmond: This Sunday, the Byrd is hosting a movie screening of “Dracula” as a fundraiser for the organ fund, which keeps the old Wurlitzer in working order.

“Right now, the fund is depleted,” he says. “We run into things like dead notes and stop tabs that don’t work, and magnets that need to be replaced. Something as basic as tuning the organ for the upcoming season we just can’t do because apparently there’s no money there.”

As you might expect, Wurlitzer organ specialists aren’t easy to come by. Both the parts and labor add up quickly.

“Age and use has taken a toll,” Gulledge says of the Mighty Wurlitzer that’s been in use since the Byrd opened its doors in 1928. “There are a lot of components to that organ. You’re talking many thousands of parts. You don’t drop in a circuit board. You have to take things apart and clean them.”

Gulledge points out that theater organs are entirely different beasts than those found in large churches, packed with clarinets, saxophones, xylophones and the like to accompany silent movies.

“It’s an orchestral style of playing,” Gulledge says. “They were the soundtrack, so they had to be able to emote anything from a tender love scene to a thunderstorm, everything in between. The big theater organs had the versatility in the voices to be able to do that. It was cheaper to get one guy to play an organ than get 50 guys to play in an orchestra.”

On Sunday, the Byrd will screen two films as a fundraiser for the organ fund. First, Gulledge will accompany the Buster Keaton short “One Week,” where the Great Stone Face attempts to build a house. The short will be followed by the 1931 “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. All ticket sales will benefit the Wurlitzer.

“To play that organ is a privilege, because it’s the last big theater pipe organ left in the state of Virginia. It’s one of the few – maybe a half a dozen – on the East Coast, and one of fewer than 100 that are in theaters in the U.S,” Gulledge says. “Richmond audiences seem to enjoy it and appreciate it. I’m the lucky guy that gets to put it out there for people to see. It’s a lot of fun.”

So, does Gulledge just play his favorites? No. Instead, Gulledge tries to size up his audience each night. As Weaver used to remind him, he’s playing for an audience, not himself.

“You look around to see who’s there,” he says. “An older crowd, you might play things like ‘Stardust.’ If you’ve got a younger crowd with a lot of kids, ‘Star Wars,’ something from ‘Harry Potter.’ If it’s a mixed audience, you might do big showtunes.

“The experience people have, the spectacle of that big console coming up out of that orchestra pit, bass notes at beginning coming up through that seat, it’s the appeal of the thing.”

The Mighty Wurlitzer fundraiser, featuring a screening of “Dracula”(1931) will take place at 2 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre, 2908 W. Cary St., on Sunday, Oct. 23. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit


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