This trajectory of language has meant increased awareness of natural resources and that awareness has often led to direct action — efforts to preserve watersheds and wilderness areas, to curb consumption and pollution, to celebrate biodiversity through art and literature. When it comes to being green, conservation is key. And the idea has urban applications, too: The same moral impulse that makes a community strive to preserve wild, natural places can — and should — lead its members to preserve beautiful places in the built environment. Particularly a beautiful place where the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Buster Keaton once played.
I urge anyone who reads this to spend this Sunday afternoon attending the open house at the Lyric Theatre, the magnificent old vaudeville and movie palace at Third Avenue and 18th Street North. Scheduled to run 2-4 p.m., the event is hosted by Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns the Lyric, as well as the far-better-known Alabama Theatre across the street. The open house will also include tours of the Alabama, so-called “Showplace of the South,” and the Hill Arts Center adjacent to the Alabama.
Theatrical impresario Jake Wells built the magnificent Lyric Theatre at Third Avenue North and 18th Street in 1914. Used expressly for vaudeville, the Lyric had 1,200 seats and terrific acoustics. There wasn’t another house like it in the city, perhaps in the Southeast. The theatre was closed in 1958, and except for brief stints in the 1970s as a revival cinema and a porno movie house, the building was neglected and allowed to deteriorate. Donated to Birmingham Landmarks in the 1990s, the Lyric is positioned to be a cornerstone of a revitalized entertainment district in downtown Birmingham. All that’s missing at this point is funding capital and political will. Or, put another way, means for conservation.
“I want to see it as a fine arts theater for ballet, opera, dance recitals and small performing arts groups,” Holly Burrow, director of the Hill Arts Center, told me last year. “Having two theaters — the Alabama and the Lyric —would make downtown more of an entertainment district and a destination that people want to go to.”
Unless that vision catches on outside of the arts community, the Lyric will suffer the same fate as Birmingham’s Terminal Station. Meanwhile, the building continues to fall apart, and the cost of renovation goes up.
“The longer we put off the renovation, the higher the costs will be, until it just won't be worth it,” says Dan Liles, unofficial historian of the Lyric and Alabama. The Lyric was recently named one of 10 Alabama historic sites on a “Places in Peril” list released by the Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation.
“Sometimes, a place like this matters to a lot of people if they know about it,” says David Schneider, executive director of the Alabama Trust. “It’s getting awareness up where people have the same reaction that I had. I was blown away by it.”
This is similar to what watershed activists like Beth Stewart of the Cahaba River Society tell me about the struggle to build public support for preserving such natural treasures as the Cahaba. They strive to get people on the river, floating on the current in the morning light.
“It changes people,” Stewart says. “It’s through this personal connection that they develop the desire to be good stewards.”
Coming to the Lyric, even with the seats ripped out and opera boxes missing, may change you.
“I’ve been interested in old theatres for years, and I’ve never seen such a fascinating time capsule,” Schneider says. “It was like walking back into the original period.”
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For a more in-depth discussion of the Lyric, including the many performers who appeared there, read "The voice of the theatre," our cover story from July 2008
During the open house at the Lyric Theatre and Alabama Theatre, visitors can go inside the chambers of the Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ and visit the projection booth. Gary Jones and Stuart Thompson will play the organ. The Hill Center will have a cash bar and pianist. All visitors will receive a free ticket to the Alabama’s summer film series that begins June 6. A set of panoramic postcards featuring Bradford Daly’s photographs of the Lyric will be on sale in the Lyric lobby, with a portion of the proceeds going to the restoration. The open house runs from 2-4 p.m. Admission and parking are free. Call (205) 252-2262 or go to www.alabamatheatre.com for more information.