Holly Burrow, Director of the new Hill Arts Center adjacent to the Alabama Theatre, will never forget her first visit to the Lyric, the magnificent old vaudeville and movie palace at Third Avenue and 18th Street North downtown. Built in 1914 when Birmingham was a raucous young boomtown with a thriving entertainment district, the Lyric Theatre once played host to the greatest names in entertainment but is now all but forgotten, in urgent need of both renovation and public rediscovery.
“I was on a tour when I was at Samford in my historic preservation class, and Cecil let us go over there,” Burrow says. She is referring to Cecil Whitmire, director of Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the group that owns the Alabama and the Lyric. “I was blown away. I had never known about it. Nobody else knew about it. This beautiful building was just sitting there unused and nobody cared. I was hooked. It’s really a jewel and it’s time that we did something with it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
Burrow — who went on to write a paper about the Lyric while pursuing a graduate degree in Historic Preservation at Savannah College of Art and Design — has now gotten the chance to follow her passion, as she and Whitmire work together to build public awareness of the venue and raise the funds necessary to restore it to its former glory.
The people of Birmingham get a rare opportunity to visit the Lyric and, perhaps, to experience the same thrill of discovery that Burrow did, this Sunday, Dec. 7, from 2-4 p.m., during the 2008 Christmas Open House at the Alabama, the Lyric and the Hill Center. On hand to answer questions about the Lyric, according to Burrow, will be Dan Liles, a former history instructor at Marion Institute who is now the unofficial historian of the Lyric and the Alabama.
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 organ to see how it works.
Technical director Jeff Kizziah will be in the booth to show visitors how films are projected. The backstage and dressing rooms will be open. Tours will include the Hill Center banquet hall and the new Hill Center meeting room, which is still under construction, and Burrow will be available to answer questions and provide literature about the center. However, the most exciting aspect of the event will be the chance for open house visitors to see the Lyric -- magnificent even in its present state of decay — and to walk on stage, on the very same boards trod by the greats of vaudeville.
Stage of history
Legendary theatrical promoter Jake Wells built the Lyric as a top-tier vaudeville house, with 1,200 great seats, magnificent acoustics and elegant decor, and it quickly became the premier venue in Birmingham. Vaudeville was the name used to describe the wildly eclectic, often bawdy variety shows that were the most popular form of entertainment in America before the coming of radio and sound films. All the greats played the Lyric — Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Buster Keaton, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Billie Burke and the Marx Brothers.
The good times for the Lyric, and for vaudeville, came to an end with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Wells lost his theatres, including the Lyric, to the mortgage company. The Schubert organization leased the Lyric and continued to present vaudeville, but the form was dying and, by the mid 1930s, the theatre was sold to the Waters family of Birmingham and became a second-run movie house. It closed in 1958 and has been largely unused since then.
In the 1990s, the Waters family donated the Lyric to Birmingham Landmarks. The estimated cost of the theatre’s renovation is $16.2 million, according to Whitmire. “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. It is imperative that the renovation begin as soon as possible, Whitmire says, because the Lyric — particularly its lush decorative plaster — continues to succumb to the ravages of the elements, largely because the venue has no proper climate control.
Generating greater public awareness of the need to preserve the Lyric is a challenge because the venue has been closed for so long, according to Whitmire.
“People remember going to the Alabama, but they don’t remember the Lyric,” he says. “For the Alabama there was a lot of passion, but unfortunately for the Lyric there’s not that passion.” Burrow hopes that events like the tour on Sunday can help change that. “I want visitors to have a passion, to understand the history of it, and to be inspired to donate to our fundraiser,” she says. “I want people to get some good information and to come to see it the way the people in the arts see it, as a great venue and a great building that nobody knows about.”
Burrow has a strong vision for the Lyric’s future. “I want to see it as a fully operational fine arts theater for ballet, opera, dance recitals and small performing arts groups locally,” she says. “It’s a huge venue that Birmingham doesn’t realize that we have. By having two theaters, the Alabama and the Lyric, it would make downtown more of an entertainment district and a destination that people actually want to go to.”
The Lyric is a very special place, according to Burrow. “Number one is the architecture,” she says. “Its beautiful. It’s one-of-a-kind for Birmingham. Another thing that’s special is the people who played there, all the memories. Also it’s the last standing vaudeville house left in Birmingham and is a huge treasure. It’s also the oldest theatre left standing in Birmingham, which also makes it very important.”
According to Burrow, a web site for the Lyric is under construction at www.LyricFineArtsTheatre.com, and there will be a brochure available at the open house with information about the theatre. Admission and parking for the open house are free.