Wells gave the Lyric 1,200 great seats, pin-drop acoustics and elegant decor, and it quickly became the premier venue in Birmingham. “It was the Alabama before the Alabama,” says Dan Liles, the Lyric’s unofficial historian. “It was the Alabama when the Alabama Theatre property was a livery stable.”
All the greats played the Lyric, including Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, George Burns, Billie Burke and the Marx Brothers.
The good times for the Lyric, and for vaudeville, ended with the stock market crash of 1929. Wells lost his theatres, including the Lyric, to the mortgage company.
The theatre was sold to the Waters family of Birmingham in the mid-1930s and became a second-run movie house. It closed in 1958 and, since then, has been all but forgotten, in urgent need of renovation and rediscovery.
In the 1990s, the Waters family donated the Lyric to Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the non-profit that also owns the Alabama Theatre. Members of the organization want to renovate the Lyric as a performing arts venue that, along with the Alabama, could anchor a legitimate theatre district, generating more visitors and more money for downtown Birmingham.
However, Birmingham Landmarks has so far been unable to achieve a critical mass of support for the renovation. One problem is that few people in Birmingham are old enough to remember the Lyric or have any nostalgia for it. “It's easy to raise money for the Alabama, but people who had positive Lyric memories, who saw Mae West and Will Rogers, they're all dead,” Liles says. “In my generation it was B-movies, C-movies. It's been Birmingham's best-kept secret.”
This weekend, the people of Birmingham will have a rare opportunity to get in on the secret of the Lyric and, perhaps, develop their own sense of enthusiasm about the venue’s exciting possibilities. The 2009 Holiday Open House at the Alabama Theatre, the Lyric Theatre and the Hill Arts Center is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 13, from 2-4 p.m.
Liles, a former history instructor at Marion Institute and long-time Alabama Theatre volunteer, will be on hand to answer questions about the Lyric, which was last opened to the public in September.
There will be plenty of other activities at the open house, of course. The Alabama and the Hill Center will offer refreshments and have large Christmas trees and other decorations. Members of the Alabama’s organ staff will play Christmas music on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. Organ crew chief Larry Donaldson will allow visitors to peek into the chambers of the Mighty Wurlitzer to see how it works. Technical director Jeff Kizziah will be in the booth to show visitors how films are projected.
However, the most exciting aspect of the event will be the chance for visitors to see the Lyric, one of the few vaudeville houses left standing in the United States. “It’s one of those things you can’t believe is there, a 1913 vaudeville house in downtown Birmingham,” says Daniel Evans, a Birmingham attorney and the chairman of the board of Birmingham Landmarks. “It's a priceless treasure, just like the Terminal Station and the old Tutwiler,” Liles says.
The Lyric is a treasure in desperate need of renovation. The seats are missing and the opera boxes were removed in the 1950s to improve sight lines for wide-screen movies. In addition, the venue’s lush decorative plaster continues to succumb to the ravages of the elements, largely because the venue lacks proper climate control.
The most recent estimate of the cost of the theatre’s renovation is $16.2 million, according to Cecil Whitmire, president of Birmingham Landmarks and general manager of the Alabama Theatre. “We have $4.5 million in historic tax credits, but those don’t come until the end of the project, so we will have to get a lot of money and spend a lot of money before we can get that,” he says.
The Lyric is well worth the investment, according to Evans. “Our feasibility studies have shown that it is sound,” Evans says. “It is a steel and concrete structure. And the economic studies have shown that once it’s opened it will have a great impact. It’s a no-brainer. It would help revitalize downtown.”
According to an economic impact analysis conducted for Birmingham Landmarks in 2005 by Birmingham firm Analytic Focus, LLC, a copy of which was supplied to Birmingham Weekly, the Lyric would generate approximately $5 million over its first three years of operation.
According to Evans, the Lyric would provide a venue for smaller events that get lost in the 2,700-seat Alabama Theatre, and would free up the Alabama to book more events overall. “If it were open, we feel it could fly on its own and provide a venue for a lot of smaller things — ballet, opera, chamber music – that benefit from a more intimate setting,” Evans says.
According to the Analytic Focus study, a combined Lyric and Alabama theatre complex would provide an estimated economic impact for the city of more than $20 million during its first three years of operation.
So what’s next? According to Evans, Birmingham Landmarks is presently working on a strategic plan for the entire complex, including a launch of a major Lyric fundraising drive. “Our rough goal for that is this spring, probably early April,” he says. “Some of the buildup we’ve already done. Cecil and I had planned for January, but then the [economic] crunch hit.”
In the meantime, the people of Birmingham can attend the open house this Sunday and stand on the same stage trod by many of the seminal figures of 20th century American entertainment. “You're standing on that stage, maybe alone, and you think about all the performers who performed there — Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Milton Berle — and you wonder, ‘Where did they stand?’ Liles says. “To me it reeks of old show business.”
The Holiday Open House at the Alabama Theatre and Lyric Fine Arts Theatre is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 13, from 2-4 p.m. Admission and parking are free. For more information, go to www.alabamatheatre.com or the Alabama Theatre Facebook page or call (205) 252-2262.
For information about the Lyric, go to the new web site: www.lyricfineartstheatre.com. The Lyric has both a cause page and a fan page on Facebook; you can find both by logging in and searching for “Lyric Fine Arts Theatre.”
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