ROBINSON THEATER: BEGINNING AGAIN
A RICH HISTORY IN CHURCH HILL
Built in 1937, the Robinson Theater was a sophisticated version of Art Deco Moderne architecture. Commissioned by Hill Entertainment Group and designed by Richmond architect, Edward F. Sinnott, the Robinson quickly became the center of activity for this thriving community. The United States Department of the Interior lists the historic Robinson Theater as “the final icon of the transformation of this section of Church Hill into a middle-class African-American neighborhood”.
BILL “BOJANGLES” ROBINSON
The theater was named for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a native son of Richmond who grew up to be “the toast of Broadway, dazzling audiences with his remarkable footwork”. To this day, he is considered by many to be the “World’s Greatest Tap Dancer”. Former Virginia State Delegate, James Christian, Jr. doorman and assistant manager of the Robinson Theater recalled Bill Robinson as “a kind-hearted individual who had a great deal of interest in the people”.
“FOR THE NEIGHBORHOOD”
Christian also remembered the role of the theater as “a social institution for the neighborhood. It certainly was a help to the youngsters in the community”. The Honorable Douglas Wilder remembered his childhood neighborhood in Church Hill as one “self-sufficient city”. He was impressed by the Robinson Theater and the way “people would go to the theater like they were going to a premiere on Broadway”. In addition to showing films, singers, dancers, jazz bands, comedians, and amateur talent shows appeared live regularly at the Robinson. The theater was a hub of social interaction for the community. Until it closed.
In the mid-1980s, after several reinventions of the theater ranging from disco to bar to restaurant, to pool hall and nightclub, any resemblance to its former glory vanished along with the lighted displays, ticket booth, and grand entrance. The Robinson’s beautiful marquee was removed and the doors boarded up. The theater was closed, the lights went out, and no longer could the Robinson be considered a place “of help to the youngsters in the community”. Crime in Church Hill was on the rise and many neighborhood landmarks were abandoned and fell into disrepair.
TURN ON THE LIGHTS
In 2008, the Robinson Theater underwent another reinvention, this time returning to its roots as an “icon of the transformation of this section of Church Hill”. A historic renovation now enables community life to once again take place within its walls. With a myriad of opportunities for young and old alike, including lessons in dance, karate, acting and music, Saturday matinees, community meetings, receptions and recitals, the possibilities for neighborhood use are endless. Throughout the restoration process, neighbors have stopped by, eager to share their personal, fond memories of this once beautiful theater. A full replica of the Robinson Theater marquee was returned to its rightful place and this historic monument is once again bringing light to the Hill.