Richard D. Byrd, lawyer, theater producer, writerAttorney...


January 12, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella Columnist Sylvia Badger contributed to this article.

Richard D. Byrd, lawyer, theater producer, writer

Attorney Richard D. Byrd, who founded one of the nation's first dinner theaters, won acclaim as a local producer, director, writer and actor and wrote an Emmy-nominated television documentary, died yesterday. He was 63.

Services for Mr. Byrd, who died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Baltimore's Guilford section, will be held at noon Tuesday at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

Mr. Byrd was described by acquaintances as a Renaissance man who forged careers in law, theater, radio and, briefly, city politics.

He was working as an assistant public defender in the Baltimore County Public Defender's Office when he became ill late last fall. He also was planning at that time to direct a dinner-theater production of Cole Porter's "Can-Can."

"With everything he did, he always did two things at the same time," said his wife, actress Sheryl Ryanharrt. "He managed to get three lifetimes into one."

In more than three decades, Mr. Byrd directed and produced 50 Baltimore-area shows, including "Oliver," "The Odd Couple," "Brigadoon" and "Dracula." He appeared in about 100 productions, often with his wife.

The team delighted audiences at such venues as F. Scott Black's Towsontowne Dinner Theater, the Bolton Hill Dinner Theater and the Garland Dinner Theater in Columbia, which is now Toby's.

In 1967, Mr. Byrd became producer of one of the first dinner theaters in the nation, Oregon Ridge Dinner Theater. When he took over, it was a cabaret-type theater that served sandwiches and drinks. To lure people from their television sets, Mr. Byrd began serving a full menu, his wife recalled.

"I found it difficult to know where he got his ideas," Ms. Ryanharrt said. "He had so many always whirling out."

WBAL Radio listeners also knew Mr. Byrd from his prime-time two-way talk show, "The Richard Byrd Show," which he was host of for several years in the early 1980s. Until two years ago, he served as the station's director of promotion and public relations.

But he may be best-known for producing "The Drunkard," an old-fashioned melodrama in which the villain regularly drew hisses and boos from audiences at Four Corner Cabaret Theater.

When they heard Mr. Byrd was thinking of staging the cabaret-style show in 1961, his friends bet it wouldn't last more than five performances.

Mr. Byrd won the bet. The show ran 27 years. During its early years, Evening Sun critic Lou Cedrone hailed it as "one of the most phenomenal productions ever presented in the Baltimore area."

Of Mr. Byrd's acting, directing and writing talents, dinner-theater owner F. Scott Black said, "He had that vision to see all aspects. That's what made him a successful writer. He was writing for actors, and he was an actor. It made him a successful director; he was directing actors, and he was an actor. He had vision of seeing everything."

Mr. Byrd also produced and directed shows for the Saints and Sinners Club of Baltimore and served as president of the Second Sunday Series sponsored by the Belvedere Arts Council, which tapped the talents of Marylanders in the areas of art, arts lectures, music, poetry and new play readings.

The attorney's love of people had drawn him to politics in his younger days, Mr. Black said.

Soon after serving in the Korean War and landing a job as a stockbroker for Baker-Watts, Mr. Byrd became the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore City Council, where he served one term during Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.'s administration.

Day jobs while on the council, and soon after, included being public relations director for Baltimore Contractors, public relations director for the American Cancer Society and editor in chief of the County Paper, a Towson weekly newspaper that eventually was sold to its rival, the Jeffersonian.

"He was truly a Renaissance man," said Mr. Black, a close friend for 20 years. "He was someone you couldn't be neutral to. He was intense. That intensity was catching. He made an impression on everyone because of his strong personality, because of his excitement about everything. Inactivity was not in his vocabulary."

While gaining recognition in the theater, Mr. Byrd managed to become a successful attorney. He moved from his first law job in the early 1960s as assistant state's attorney in the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office to assistant Baltimore County solicitor in the early 1970s to private practice in Baltimore and to assistant state's attorney in Baltimore.

His life in the theater had started even earlier. He toured the East Coast in several musicals, then produced and directed local television documentaries for about five years. In the late 1950s, his television writing won him an Emmy nomination.

The Baltimore native graduated from McDonogh School in 1947 and attended the Citadel in South Carolina. He subsequently studied political science at the University of Maryland. He received his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1962.

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