Lyceum: A Public Speaking Tradition
The Richmond Forum’s place within its city’s history dates back to the 1820s when the lyceum movement, based on ancient Greek and Roman fora, spread throughout the United States. Speakers traveled around on a “circuit” — similar to those in public speaking today — and lectured to gatherings of socially and intellectually engaged citizens. The Richmond Lyceum arose at the end of the 19th century, conducted around town in venues including the rooftop of the newly built Jefferson Hotel (now a Richmond landmark and site of modern-day Richmond Forum dinners and receptions).
The lyceum faded from public life by World War I but reemerged during the Great Depression when Americans turned to educational forums to help solve the troubling public issues of the day. Richmonders established their own educational forum — The Richmond Public Forum — in 1934.
The Richmond Public Forum (1934 – 1955)
The original Richmond Public Forum was hosted in the auditorium of John Marshall High School and promised discussions on the “vital questions of the day,” according to the program booklets of the time.
This Forum grew in popularity by offering big-name speakers at an affordable price (25¢ per program, or $1 per season) for up to seven programs per season. At its peak, The Richmond Public Forum drew audiences numbering into the thousands. Discussions focused on major national and international issues: from the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in the 1930s to the conditions of overseas nations during World War II in the 1940s. It introduced less frequent, but equally popular programs on more domestic issues: “Can the Family Have Two Heads?” “Education in a Democracy,” “Is History an Art or a Science?”
In the 1950s, however, the novelty of The Forum was wearing off. Seasons dropped in audience numbers and fewer programs were offered. Some blamed the rise in television while others blamed a liberal bent to the programming. Whatever the reason, The Richmond Public Forum went dark in 1955 after 21 seasons.
Reviving The Richmond Public Forum (1964 – 1980)
In January 1964, members of the First Unitarian Church resurrected the old Richmond Public Forum name to give it new life for a new era. The Unitarians gave the series a home in a true auditorium: the Mosque (which was later renamed as the Landmark, then the Altria Theater, and remains The Forum’s home).
In its new incarnation, The Forum brought nationally and internationally known speakers to enlighten, educate, and entertain Forum audiences, including Henry Kissinger, Shirley Chisholm, Ronald Reagan, Shana Alexander, Gerald Ford, and Moshe Dayan, to name a few. In 1980 after 16 years in operation, the Richmond Public Forum dimmed its lights and closed its doors.
The Richmond Forum (1986 – present)
In 1986, Ralph Krueger, who was involved with the original Forum, founded The Richmond Forum and incorporated the new entity as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization. Krueger believed that Forum programs should instill civic pride, relate to contemporary life, and challenge citizens to discuss and explore the political, cultural, and economic trends and issues that affect our communities today.
On January 24, 1987, The Richmond Forum presented its first program “The News and the News Makers,” with ABC News journalist Ted Koppel. Presenting nationally and internationally known speakers became the unique hallmark of the organization.
For nearly 40 years, The Richmond Forum has presented the most engaging, influential, entertaining, and educational speakers in the world to stimulate, inspire, and inform 4,500 patrons at each of five programs every season. The Richmond Forum is increasingly known at a national level for producing programs that are innovative, compelling, and often “one and only” events that can’t be seen anywhere else. Because our patrons have become accustomed to seeing the best speakers in the world, they have high expectations for each new season. Speakers always know to bring something special to The Richmond Forum.
The Stories behind the Richmond Forum
For our 30th season, award-winning author Ray McAllister rummaged through decades of Forum files and artifacts, scoured meeting minutes, dug up dusty newspaper clippings, and conducted dozens of interviews with founders, subscribers, sponsors, and past Forum speakers.
The result is “The Forum Files,” a first-ever compilation of the history and amazing behind-the-scenes stories of The Richmond Forum — and its two predecessor series, going back to 1934! — in a beautiful commemorative coffee table book. It’s a must-have for all fans of The Forum and lovers of unique Richmond history!
Hardcover // 164 full-color pages // $20.00 inc. tax + S&H