MacArthur Avenue stretches across Richmond’s north side for half a mile, dotted with local businesses on one end and flanked by tree-lined neighborhoods on the other.
For years, the street has served as a community hub. Bohemian restaurants, bars and coffee shops — some of them housed in buildings nearly 80 years old — fill the northernmost block.
Wedged between a pizza parlor and a diner is the largest building of them all, a nondescript square of red brick and wooden trim. Built during the Great Depression as the Bellevue Theater, a single-screen movie palace with marble floors and art-deco details, the 650-seat room was transformed into Richmond’s premier country-music venue in 1957.
For the past four decades, the storied old building has served as the headquarters of the Samis Grotto, a local Masonic lodge. Last year, RVA Studios moved in — and patrons of the adjacent restaurant began to hear muffled music during dinner hours.
Aaron Reinhard is the owner of RVA Studios. After outgrowing his first studio space, he struggled to find a new location and considered shutting down for good. One of his clients, a bagpipe ensemble featuring members of the Masonic lodge, offered him use of the semivacant Grotto.
“My old studio was a 1,000-square-foot cinder-block box,” Mr. Reinhard explains. “It got the job done, but nothing about the space was special. It didn’t stand out. The Grotto is different. It was like going into an old museum and turning it into something new.”
Phil Heesen, a member of the country-rock act Exebelle & the Rusted Cavalcade, is one of many regional musicians to sing the building’s praises. “It’s a giant, beautiful theater with a stage, a balcony and absolutely nobody in it,” he says. “You can go in there and record without any distractions.”
This isn’t the Grotto’s first brush with music.
Weekly installments of the New Dominion Barn Dance, a country variety show, helped make the Bellevue in its day a close relative of the Grand Ole Opry. Under the supervision of Carlton Haney, Bill Monroe’s former booking agent, the Barn Dance attracted some of the industry’s top names.
Willie Nelson graced the stage in November 1961 as a member of Ray Price’s band. George Jones and Johnny Cash headlined their own concerts. The shows were broadcast every Saturday evening by WRVA’s 50,000-watt station, whose signal could be heard as far north as Canada and as far west as Chicago.
The Country Cavaliers served as the Barn Dance’s popular house band. Bass player Irene Lancaster Parks, who still lives in Richmond, remembers the time well.
“We brought in all the popular stars from Nashville,” she says, “and if they didn’t have a band, we’d back ‘em up. If they didn’t have a bass player, I’d play bass.” And … take her chances.
“We wouldn’t have time to practice with the guests,” she recalls. “If you played like I did, which was by ear, you just listened to the music and knew when the changes were coming. I started on the Barn Dance when I was 17, so it was something you just learned how to do.”
A fan as well as a musician, Ms. Parks collected photographs and autographs during her time at the Bellevue. “I have pictures of me onstage with so many stars: Johnny Cash, June Carter, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price. There’s one of me and Willie Nelson, before he started going hippie. He was clean-shaved and had a suit and tie on.”
Country’s popularity waned in the mid-‘60s, leaving the Bellevue’s main floor and segregated balcony half-empty during shows. Across town, black theaters like the Hippodrome, which once featured “Chitlin’ Circuit” legends such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, struggled with their own attendance issues.
Suburban growth — fueled in part by the era’s characteristic “white flight” from the inner cities — contributed to the problem. By 1970, a number of theaters had closed in Richmond, including the Bellevue.
As the Country Cavaliers went on to their own country-music TV show, the Bellevue underwent multiple renovations. The sloped floor was leveled. The theater chairs, where Richmond residents Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine watched their first Disney films, were removed. The marquee was covered with sheets of metal bearing the Samis Grotto logo.
Nevertheless, bits of the Bellevue’s legacy have survived. Today, the Grotto’s interior is a mix of country kitsch, Masonic memorabilia and musical equipment. A painted backdrop of a moonlit barn, taken from the nearby Lyric Theatre and used during the Barn Dance days, still graces the stage.
Framed portraits of various Shriners hang on the lobby walls. On the third floor, Mr. Reinhard and sound engineer Evan Batemen have moved their mixing boards into the theater’s old projection room. Thick cables run from the analog equipment to the balcony below, eventually making their way down to the cavernous “live room” on the main floor.
Travis Tucker, a Richmond-based sound engineer, has used the Grotto’s unique layout on two albums. “The goal of most recording studios is to deaden the sound,” he explains, “so you can manually add your own reverb later. What’s cool about RVA Studios is the way they make their layout a focal point on most of their records. Every time you use a microphone, you can hear the room. You hear how big it is.”
Those booming acoustics are no accident. “You don’t find live rooms like this nowadays,” Mr. Reinhard says. “It was built, shaped and modeled for voice amplification. You’d take a 100-watt stereo and play a movie through it, and it would sound like 1,000 watts.”