"Downton Abbey" mania swept through Carytown on Thursday night, casting its grip far and wide before settling into the grandeur of the Byrd Theatre.
A line of period costume-attired fans stretched down the block and around the corner, awaiting a big-screen showing of the season premiere of the popular PBS show about the intertwining lives of the haves and have-nots in post-World War I England.
On the street in front of the theater, fans waited their turn to snap pictures in front of two classic roadsters -- a 1924 Rolls-Royce and a 1929 Austin Swallow -- while a cast of historical interpreters from Maymont worked the crowd.
"It's an exceptional show," said Martha Reichardt, who quickly began listing her favorite qualities of the program, the third season of which premieres Sunday. "It's an intelligent show, and it's clean. Everyone can enjoy it."
The limited showing -- fans got to watch the first hour of the two-hour premiere -- was an awareness-raiser for the local public television station. Admission was free. Costume was optional, and many people played along.
An hour before showtime and half a block down the street, commanding their own little corner of Capital Coffee & Desserts, sisters Dana and Laura Crouch sipped what surely was the finest English tea from paper cups.
Decked out in period costumes of their own making -- black dresses, fancy stockings, sparkles of all manner and headwear befitting women of their stature -- they took turns effusing about the benefits of a television program they said had no rival.
"What better way to study history than to relive it," the 21-year-old Dana, a theater major at the College of William and Mary, said to Laura, a 19-year-old history major at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"You just get really attached to the characters," said Laura. "It doesn't take long to get emotionally invested."
Their father, Clayton, waiting outside with mother Nancy, said the night was a grand time to be in Richmond.
"This is really great for Richmond," he said. "And really, how many chances do you get to wear an ascot?"
Byrd manager Todd Schall-Vess said it was a good night to be reminded of what life once was.
"I think there are certain similarities to our theater and the show," he said, striding along the red carpet in the splendor of a vested tuxedo. "Both bring to mind an era long gone. Some of that, like the class struggle, needed to end. But some of the other things, the gentility of it all, is nice to remember."
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