The Academy of Music Theatre is one of Lynchburg’s most notable historical treasures. When it first opened on February 1, 1905, the theatre boasted perfect sightlines, extraordinary acoustics and the ability to attract nationally acclaimed performing artists.
The Academy of Music Theatre was built, greatlythanks to the herculean efforts of Richard D. Apperson, owner of the Lynchburg Traction and Light Company, which ran the local street car service. The venue, designed by area architects Frye and Chesterton, opened in 1905 and over the next six years grew to become one of the most prominent and well attended theatres in Central Virginia.
Tragically, fire struck the Academy in 1911 destroying a substantial portion of the Main Street side of her interior, and the theatre was quickly closed. A local business leader, Charles Guggenheimer, and his assemblage of over twenty investors brought the hall back to life. The repaired and reopened 1912 Academy of Music, thanks to the work of nationally renowned theatre designer C.K. Howell, was now more ornate and better lit.
From its earliest days the theatre drew audiences from within as much as a 100 mile radius. During its first two decades of operation, the Academy of Music was a regular tour destination for major road productions coming out of Broadway. In a typical week, the Academy presented as many as nine live events, ranging from individual artists to full musicals with casts of up to a hundred performers, and the hit (silent) movies of the day.
The Academy’s spotlight hit the Father of the Blues W.C HANDY (6), humorist WILL ROGERS (7), legendary actress ETHEL BARRYMORE, top vaudeville act THE DOLLY SISTERS (8), Cowardly Lion BERT LAHR and Good Witch BILLIE BURKE (9), and the still revered and incomparable pioneer of “sepia” musicals EUBIE BLAKE, whose production at the Academy included soon-to-be international star and World War II spy JOSEPHINE BAKER (10). The notorious ZIEGFELD FOLLIES caused quite a stir at the Academy, featuring as a part of their production perhaps to this day the most instantly recognized female star of the silent era LOUISE BROOKS (11).
The list of legends that trod her boards goes on and on, but the Academy was also an important first-run movie theatre, sometimes showing as many as three different new releases in a week.
Downtown Lynchburg once boasted nine theatres which drew people to Main Street every night of the week. Aside from her churches, America’s “movie palaces” were often the most visible social centers of a town. But after World War II, things began to change quickly.
Suburbanization, the advent of shopping malls and improved highways drew retailers and residents away from the city center, right at the time that an almost magical technology called “television” invaded virtually every American home.
From farming communities to big cities, people’s entertainment and shopping habits changed radically over the next few decades. With theatre box office revenues slipping and fewer people shopping and dining downtown, the effect of empty sidewalks was felt from coast to coast. One by one Downtown Lynchburg’s theatres vanished, either by the wrecking ball or through permanent adaptive reuse. Having fought the good fight for years longer than most, the Academy finally closed her doors on 1958. Once the most powerful theatre in the region and oldest operating theatre in the state, the Academy of Music lay silent and all but abandoned for four decades. It is now the last of nine theatres in historic downtown Lynchburg left standing.
Today the theatre is surrounded by a nonprofit parent organization, the Academy of Fine Arts, a vibrant and active hub of the community and the regional arts scene. Through diverse art exhibitions in her three gallery spaces, on-going classes in visual and performing arts and countless entertainment events in her 340-seat Warehouse Theatre, the Academy name has flourished. The final chapter of this success story is about to be written!
Following the wave of theatre restorations across the country that have proven themselves to be economic engines for their downtowns and their wider markets, work is proceeding on the Academy of Music’s restoration.