Picture a typical movie theater. Mainstream films broadcast in a multitude of rooms equipped with massive fifty foot screens. An overpriced and oversized soda sits in the cupholder of a plush chair accompanied by an adequate amount of legroom. Sounds of young children fresh off sugar highs radiate throughout the cavernous building. This is the type of movie theater that most people picture. One may even assume that this is the only type of movie experience available in the Richmond area, but one would be wrong. Situated on the corner of Libbie and Grove Avenues lies a theatre that stands apart from the rest.
Westhampton Theatre may not have fifty foot screens, overpriced food, sufficient leg room, or even cupholders, but it does offer a movie experience unlike any other in Richmond. A notable difference between Westhampton and typical theaters is size. Westhampton houses only three screening rooms. Furthermore, it is renowned for screening foreign and independent films that are not available in most theaters. Many of the films that are shown have won various awards from film festivals and awards shows such as the Sundance Film Festival and the SAG Awards. Currently, the theatre is showing Spotlight, a film about journalism that won the SAG award for best ensemble.
Westhampton Theatre opened in 1938 and today continues to serve generations of Richmond residents. One of these residents is my grandmother, Priscilla Jamison. She describes the theater as, “her favorite place to see a movie because of its small, intimate size and old fashioned feel.” My grandmother, like so many of its frequent visitors, has created a special bond with this place. These reasons are what makes it so disheartening that Westhampton, after seventy years of business, is scheduled to close late this summer.
The needs of the Richmond community have changed vastly in recent years. The Libbie Grove area that was once based on leisure activities, such as seeing a movie, now needs retail and housing options. The theater has also faced lots of competition from the nearby seventeen screen theater Movieland at Boulevard Square. Due to these changing needs and tough competition, the theater was sold in March 2014 to the Cametas family for $1.75 million through their real estate holding company Westhampton LLC. The Cametas enlisted broker Jason Guillot of Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer to help them decide what to do with the property. In a statement to Richmond BizSense, Guillot said that, “In the coming months, we plan to engage the surrounding community, including neighborhood associations and area businesses, and the city [Richmond] to develop a plan for the property that honors the historical significance of the Westhampton Theatre and the Libbie and Grove corridor.” When I asked my grandmother how she felt about this situation, she said, “I am honestly disgusted. I’ve gone to Westhampton every Sunday afternoon for decades and I don’t know what I am going to do without it… It’s such a classic Richmond institution.”
I can still remember the first time I went to Westhampton. I was seven years old, and I saw the film March of the Penguins. Back then, I took the experience the theater offers for granted. However, this past weekend, I went back to Westhampton with the intention of immersing myself in all that it has to offer. When I first walked in, I took note of the sitting area outfitted with a fireplace and furniture that is original to the theater’s opening. The area is instantly welcoming and provides a comfortable place for movie goers to sit and relax while they wait for their movie’s showtime. Additionally, the screening rooms hold approximately one hundred seats, which allows for a certain intimacy and community among viewers. My grandmother said that the modest size, “makes me feel like I am a part of the actual movie instead of just watching it.”
Seeing a movie at Westhampton Theatre is a truly special and memorable affair. If you have not already been to Westhampton Theatre, I highly recommend going before it shuts down this summer. See a movie that is not available at a typical, large theater. Take advantage of the humble size. Become a part of a classic Richmond landmark while it is alive.