Saturday, July 19, 2014

Short Subject: Jake Wells' Bijou on Broad St.


Ed. Note: There are records of an exhibition of “moving pictures” having been presented at The Academy (the Mozart Academy of Music) at 103-05 N. Eighth Street in 1897. Built in 1886, that venue was generally considered to be Richmond’s most important and stylish theater, until it burned down in 1927.

It is said that in 1906 the Idlewood Amusement Park, which was across the street from the New Reservoir Park (later renamed Byrd Park) held regular screenings of “photo dramas,” open to the public for the price of a ticket.

Writing for the Richmond News Leader in 1952, George W. Rogers credited one showman, Jake Wells (pictured above), as having been the “…father of Richmond movie houses.” Early in professional baseball's history Wells had been a Major League player (1882-84). After that stint at the top he continued his career at the minor league level. With his best days as a performer behind him, in 1895 Wells became a player/manager with Richmond’s baseball team, the Bluebirds. He went on to became a dashing figure in the local nightlife scene and was one of the most popular men in Richmond.

After the 1899 season the Bluebirds left the Atlantic League (Class A) to join the Virginia League (Class D) and Wells lost his job. He liked Richmond, so at 36 years old he looked around town for what next to do. Imagining he had a bright future in show biz, Wells took the leap to convert a luggage store at 7th and Broad Streets into the Bijou Theatre. Offering selected touring and local acts that fit into the mold of what Wells called, "family entertainment," the Bijou was an instant success.


A second version of the Bijou was built for Wells in 1905 on the site of the legendary Swan Tavern at 816 East Broad. Occasionally, a short film was thrown onto a screen … eventually the films developed a following. Films continued to play a larger role as time went on.

With his brother Otto, Jake expanded into the Norfolk market, opening the Granby. In the early-1920’s the mighty Wells chain included 42 theaters in the Southeast.

From “Jake Wells Enterprises and the Development of Urban Entertainments in the South 1890-1925” by Eric Dewberry:
A former professional baseball player, Wells invested in a wide variety of public amusements, with the core of his early business centered on establishing and organizing a string of vaudeville, popularly priced, and legitimate theaters throughout the largest cities in the region, a network he later transitioned to showing exclusively motion pictures. A thorough analysis of period newspapers, trade journals, and some business records covering Wells’ career provides much-needed evidence for film and cultural historians wishing to understand the genesis and evolution of public amusements in the region, and its negotiation of traditional social and cultural institutions.

In the 1890s, Wells played and managed several professional baseball teams in the South. The sport educated players and spectators alike to both the values and creed of New South progress, and to rising tensions confronting the intersection of modern and traditional forms of culture. Using his experiences and contacts gained in baseball, Wells helped foster a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation required for the progress of media industries in the region, establishing social networks of knowledge and improving distribution flows of entertainment.   

Click here to read more from Dewberry's dissertation. 

Eventually, Wells turned his back on what had made him a powerful man. He cashed in his movie theater interests to concentrate on becoming a real estate development tycoon. In 1927, at the age of 63, Wells got caught in the undertow of a nasty spell of melancholia. He drove out to the countryside with a female companion, shot himself in the head — twice! — and died.

Richmond's second Bijou closed and reopened as the Strand Theatre in 1933. Its screen went dark for good in 1938. Then the building housed a bowling alley. The Library of Virginia now stands on that ground today.

For more on Wells, the first baseman turned impresario, click here, and here. And, for baseball fans, here’s a page with his Major League baseball stats.

-- The postcard showing the Lubin and the Bijou is from 

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