The selectors said: Together they've demonstrated a half-century of devotion to high artistic standards and professionalism through their work in diverse disciplines, including production (the Bal du Bois), dance (Concert Ballet of Virginia) and stage (Theatre at Bolling-Haxall House). Robert Watkins and deVeaux Riddick have made extraordinary contributions to the Richmond arts community through their leadership and support.
In February 1946, the ship bearing Robert Watkins and his comrades from uneventful wartime duty in Alaska ran aground a day outside port. He jumped overboard with a life jacket, intending to land in a raft. “But I had to be fished out,” he recalls.
He was stuck for five days on a rescue vessel, while his Richmond family and friends wondered whether he’d lived to tell the tale. He was a long way from Hanover Avenue, where he grew up in the 1930s.
After World War II, Watkins attended the Richmond Professional Institute’s theater school, whose 12 students included Charleston, S.C., native deVeaux Riddick.
In Richmond, “Theresa Pollak administered my entrance interview,” Riddick says. “She was pleasant, and accepted my credentials, such as they were.”
Her approval proved prescient. Riddick and Watkins commenced to build one of the city’s longest-running theater partnerships.
“We had to do something,” Watkins says of their foray into Richmond theatre. Back then, the city’s theatrical scene was limited largely to amateur groups such as the Living Room Players and shows performed at schools and churches.
Riddick says, “We took the opportunities presented to us and made the most of them.”
One was the 1950 opening of their interior décor firm, Design, across from the Woman’s Club of Richmond, located in the Bolling-Haxall House. Thirty-five years later, they created a theater there that specialized in drawing-room comedies. In the mid-1960s, they produced shows such as Showboat, an ambitious production at the long-gone Broadway-style Lyric Theatre, at Broad and Ninth streets.
Riddick remembers that the sets were so heavy they bent the pipes holding them up into “W” shapes. “We were very fond of the place,” he says.
They launched Lyric productions knowing the series would be short-lived; the Life Insurance Company of Virginia planned to tear down their building. The curtain finally fell on Kismet, the last of the Lyric shows.
At the Barksdale Theatre, the partners persuaded management to build multi-level sets and knock out a wall for additional dressing rooms. Musing on their careers, Riddick says, “A negative approach can serve as inspiration. Being told you can’t do something encourages you to do it.”