by Noah Maggin
During Jackson Ward’s heyday as the so-called Harlem of the South, the Hippodrome Theater on Second Street brought Richmonders together with stars of African-American culture, providing welcome relief from the day-to-day grind of the early 20th century.
After catching fire in 1945, the Hippodrome was revived and then fell on hard times in the 1960s. It subsequently underwent numerous reclamation projects–none of which succeeded in restoring the “Hipp” to its former glory.
Then Ronald Stallings stepped in.
Stallings (right), a well-regarded Jackson Ward developer and the Hippodrome’s current owner, set out to recreate some of the entertainment magic that the venue was known for in the 1930s and 1940s.
If Stallings hoped to revive the theater’s historic reputation, he knew that the building had to look the part. Armed with a grant of $600,000 from the city of Richmond, he invested three million dollars in renovations, beginning in 2009, that transformed an abandoned building for the better part of 40 years into something again worth seeing and visiting.
In August 2011, Stallings reopened the Hippodrome as a live performance venue aimed at recapturing some of the theater’s historic popularity by regularly hosting Jazz and R&B artists. The Hippodrome’s location near the Greater Richmond Convention Center is another plus, providing an entertainment outlet for visitors to Richmond and helping to bring crowds to the theater.
From the outside, the theater’s distinctive Art Deco architecture and signage harkens back to the good old days as a front-facing marquee boldly presents the venue name while classic old posters advertising performances from Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are exhibited in display cases on both sides of the main doors.
According to “Style Weekly,” the new Hippodrome Theater’s renovated interior “exudes a sense of casual luxury” with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, colorful and jazzy carpets, and large classic motifs on the walls— all decorating a performance space equipped to handle multiple configurations.
But with such an investment in renovation, questions still remain as to the goals set by Stallings and Hippodrome Event Director Sara Evans.
Local observers like Keisha Lambert, a 28-year-old resident of Jackson Ward who passes the theater every day, says she “always see[s] these long lines and big crowds all dressed up for fancy events,” noting that the Speakeasy, the restaurant connected to the theater, hosts most of the events these days.
Though the Hippodrome does host events, parties, and functions, the target market appears to be an upscale, modern consumer. Some argue the venue is being selective in its promotions in order to maintain a certain image. Stallings points to the 250 events a year hosted by the Hippodrome/Speakeasy and explains that the theater has moved away from music acts because of how “finicky music can be and how difficult it is to manage the availability” of high-caliber talent and crowds.
Will the Hippodrome Theater ever reclaim the role it played during the neighborhood’s glory days? That remains to be seen, but residents of Jackson Ward, both old and new, are glad to see that the Hipp is once again open for business.
To learn more about the Hippdrome:
“About The Hipp.” Hippodrome Richmond, hippodromerichmond.com/about-the-hipp/.
“The Hippodrome Theater and The Taylor Mansion.” The Hippodrome Theater and The Taylor Mansion – Virginia Is For Lovers, www.virginia.org/listings/TheArts/TheHippodromeTheaterandTheTaylorMansion/.
Slipek, Edwin. “Hipp Replacement.” Style Weekly, 22 Mar. 2012, www.styleweekly.com/richmond/hipp-replacement/Content?oid=1691421.
“Hippodrome Theater Bringing J-Ward Back.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 19 Jan. 2012, www.richmond.com/arts-entertainment/hippodrome-theater-bringing-j-ward-back/article_30893654-2db3-5588-b949-887cf281d52d.html.