by Charles McGuigan
Shirley MacLaine and her younger brother Warren Beatty saw their first motion picture in the Art Deco treasure now called Samis Grotto. The space, at that time called The Bellevue Theater, was just a few short blocks from their home in the 3900 Fauquier Avenue. After watching that first movie there, the young Shirley MacLaine decided to become an actress.
And for a number of years, Virginia’s version of the Grand Ole Opry, was broadcast live from The Bellevue Theater. After Sunshine Sue retired as host of the show in 1957, the show was renamed the New Dominion Barn Dance and its home was moved from the Lyric Theater downtown to the Northside. Among those who performed on its stage were Johnny Cash, June Carter, and a very young Willie Nelson. As a matter of fact, the original backdrop of the New Dominion Barn Dance stands behind the curtains on the stage at Samis Grotto.
Bill Thomas, one of the newest members of the Bellevue Civic Association, and a trustee for the old Bellevue Theater on behalf of Samis Grotto, is spearheading an effort to restore The Bellevue Theater to its former glory.
“We’re trying to create a rebirth for the building so that it can be an important landmark in the community,” Bill says. “So we’ve tried to be the catalyst with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) to encourage a state and national historic landmark with the Bellevue neighborhood beginning with the area immediately around the old Bellevue Theater.”
To that end, Bill recently received a letter from VDHR that recommends the old Bellevue Theater “be eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.”
This was great news for Bill. “The first step in order to make us eligible for certain historic loans, grants and tax credits is by having an historic district, and this would substantially augment our possibilities for restoration of the theater.”
The Bellevue Theater is one of two Art Deco theaters in the city of Richmond that has yet to undergo and architectural restoration. “This theater in Bellevue was built in the 1930s and we want it to be an integral part of the community and restore it so that it has public uses,” says Bill. “The first thing we want to do is secure loans and grants to restore the façade. We want to begin by making the exterior presentable and appropriate to the original historical and architectural integrity of the building itself.”
Bill envisions the restored theater to serve the community in a varieties of ways— from the screening of classic films, to a venue for local theatre and musical events, perhaps, even as a place to host catered affairs. “We’re open to good suggestions,” Bill says. “That theater’s had an exciting life, and we want it to continue, and we want to be an integral part of the community.”
Unlike other theaters in Richmond, the old Bellevue Theater has an extremely wide sidewalk that Bill hopes one day will be transformed into a sort of piazza. “We’d like to encourage a festival atmosphere that would lend itself to entertainment and restaurant use,” he says.
Bill Thomas will make a presentation about the restoration of the theater, as well as the historic district designation, on November 20 at the next Bellevue Civic Association meeting (the location of that meeting has not yet been determined). “At the same meeting we may also request a presentation by the state department of historic resources to explain this important opportunity to the community,” says Bill.
He also thanked long-time developer Louis Salomonsky for his help in engineering this project. “He has been a valuable pro-bono advisor in helping us to envision the theater’s endless possibilities and we’re grateful for his friendship and support,” Bill Thomas says. “The ultimate goal of this project is to preserve this important part of Richmond’s story as we all strive to make Richmond one of the most historic and visited destinations in America.”