Each of the 1,200 seats was a good one, whether a patron was on the main floor, in an opera box or in one of the two steep balconies.
The Lyric had remarkable acoustics. After all, there were no microphones in those days, and a comedian or singer on stage had to be audible even in the farthest seats.
The Lyric was elegant. The stage curtain was covered in gold leaf. Above the proscenium was a huge mural called The Allegory of the Muses, painted by local artist Harry Hawkins.
Best of all, the Lyric hosted the greatest names in entertainment, and people who would later become great names — Will Rogers, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Mae West and more.
The Marx Brothers appeared there (“4 Marx Brothers and company of 16 in the biggest musical comedy the Lyric ever offered, ‘Home Again,’ 45 minutes of fun and music,” promised a newspaper ad).
Milton Berle appeared in 1928 as Milton Berlinger, and he had a gimmick: While he told jokes, his mom sat in a box seat and heckled him.
Even the great Buster Keaton played the Lyric, before he ever stepped in front of a movie camera. He appeared with his mom and dad as part of the 3 Keatons (“fun’s funniest family”).
The Lyric was part of a thriving entertainment district — “the likes of which nobody in Birmingham now could imagine,” according to historian Linda Nelson — that was located on Second and Third Avenues between 18th and 20th Streets North. “Every other building was a theatre,” Nelson says. “Lights and activity and crowds and noise. It was busy. It was brilliant. Lots of places to eat, see shows.”
Venues like the Lyric, and the loud, fast, often bawdy entertainment of vaudeville, fit perfectly in the raucous young steel city of Birmingham — a rough, tough, unforgiving boomtown with strict segregation and a rigid class structure, but also a tremendous energy, even a kind of wildness.
“Birmingham had so much vibrancy in the period from the mid-1880s up to the point of the Depression,” according to Marvin Whiting, curator of the Birmingham-Jefferson History Museum, scheduled to open in 2009. “Everything about the city was alive, whether it was alive with struggle between labor and capital, or a struggle between a servant class and an elite class. It was a period of remarkable growth and also of remarkable tension.”
Birmingham came to a full stop with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression, which drastically curtailed production at the steel mills that had driven the growth of the so-called “Magic City.”
“The Depression hits, and where does the city have to go? No place,” Whiting says. “There was no smoke coming out of the smokestacks, out at Ensley or elsewhere.”
Another victim of the depression was Jake Wells, who owned dozens of theaters across the South but was overextended financially. When the crash came, he lost his empire, including the Lyric. He grabbed a pistol, went into the North Carolina woods and shot himself.
The Lyric was taken over by the mortgage company and leased to the Schubert organization, which continued to present vaudeville there. But vaudeville was dying — a victim of the Depression and competition from movies.
The Lyric, its glory days over, was purchased in 1935 by Birmingham’s Waters family and became a second-run movie house. It closed in 1958. It reopened for a few years in the 1970s, first as a revival cinema, then as a porno theater, but has remained dark now for over 30 years — forgotten, neglected, allowed to deteriorate. Its fate mirrored that of Birmingham’s downtown, which was all but abandoned after the 1970s.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Downtown has begun making a comeback in recent years, and now there is even hope for the Lyric.
In the 1990s, the Waters family donated the Lyric to Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the group that saved the Alabama Theatre. Cecil Whitmire of Birmingham Landmarks is now planning to raise the money needed to return the venue to its former glory. He dreams of seeing a restored Lyric join the Alabama and the Carver Theater as the anchors of a new entertainment district that could draw hundreds of thousands of people annually to downtown Birmingham.
“This theatre will draw about 250,000 to 275,000 people in the course of a year, in addition to the half a million that the Alabama draws,” Whitmire says. “We can have three-quarters of a million people downtown after dark, sometimes on the same night. And if that didn’t help draw bars and restaurants, things like that, I don’t know what would.”
A renovated Lyric Theater would offer at least two other theatrical assets. With 1,200 seats, it is much smaller than the Alabama, making it a nice mid-sized house. In addition, the Lyric stage is much larger than the Alabama stage, making it more suitable than the Alabama for many theatrical presentations. “Opera Birmingham would love to get in here,” Whitmire says. That group, according to Whitmire, has struggled to find sets small enough to stage such operas as Aida and Tosca at the Alabama.
$16.2 million is the estimated cost of the Lyric’s renovation, 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.
Whitmire expects that the funding will be a mix of private and public monies. “We are putting together a committee of people who we want to have work with us to get this done,” he says. He would like to receive assistance from Birmingham city hall. “We’re working with the city, trying to get them to make a commitment, but we’ve been unsuccessful so far. We still are hopeful because this is something that would do so much for the downtown, particularly after dark.”
The Lyric’s lobby will likely be renovated first and serve as the main office for the fundraising drive. “We could bring people in and show them the drawings of what we hope to make it look like when we finish, so it would give them some idea,” Whitmire says.
It is imperative that the renovation begin as soon as possible, because the Lyric continues to succumb to the ravages of time and the elements. “This building has been empty since 1958, and it’s deteriorated so badly, and each day that we delay the restoration the deterioration goes further and the cost of putting it back increases,” Whitmire says. “We have no heating, air conditioning or ventilation over here, so the moisture eats away at this beautiful decorative plaster and, each day, more and more of it’s gone. We’re almost in an impossible situation where one day we’ll get to the point where it just isn’t feasible from an economic standpoint.”
That would be tragic, since the Lyric holds a special place in the history of Birmingham and is a sort of high holy cathedral of American show business. “It is the last vestige of vaudeville in the city of Birmingham,” Whiting says. “I would think that it’s one of a kind, certainly locally, and probably one of maybe 10 left in the United States.”
“If I had to go to the heart of it, in the whole country there are very few vaudeville theatres that are still standing,” according to Tim Hollis, author of the book, Birmingham’s Theater and Retail District.
The Lyric captivates anyone lucky enough to see it, even in its present state of decay, with the lobby used for storage, the seats missing on the main floor and the opera boxes gone (they were removed in the 1950s, according to Whitmire, to improve audience sight lines for wide-screen movies). “It is an architectural gem, and my impression is that I have never seen a proscenium arch to match that one,” Whiting says. “It is just enormous and so beautifully crafted.”
It is a rare treat to stand on stage at the Lyric — on the same boards trod by the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers and the other demigods — look up at the balconies, and try to imagine what the place would have sounded like with performers on stage and a full house and musicians in the pit. “The whole intimacy of the building suggests what it must have been like to have something going on on stage with a crowd of people almost up to the stage,” Whiting says.
In some ways, the venue’s state of disrepair adds to its romantic appeal. If left alone in the Lyric, your imagination free to play, you may feel as if though you’re an explorer who’s stumbled into some holy place, some pharaoh’s tomb. More than just a magnificent physical space, the theatre is a portal to another time, to another mode of being so strange to modern eyes that it’s hard to believe that it ever existed.
This impression is heightened if you grab a flashlight, go down one of two narrow staircases from the stage, and explore the catacombs of the old dressing rooms, most of which are about eight feet square, with small sinks in the corners, and a collection of ancient graffiti — “Cell Block 11,” “solitary cell,” “Lost our lease,” etc.
It’s not hard to imagine what it would have been like to put on makeup or costume in one of those cramped rooms amid the chatter of the other performers, the hoof-beats of dancers on the stage right above your head, the sound of the crowd filtering down the stairwells and through the small passageways that allowed musicians to go in and out of the orchestra pit.
In the Lyric, you are transported back to the world of vaudeville — the birthplace of virtually all modern American entertainment, including sketch comedy and TV variety shows. After all, when the theatre closed in 1958, it had only been 23 years since vaudeville was last performed there. Perhaps the Lyric — sealed up for so long — shelters some fugitive spirit from the days before television sucked so much of the energy out of American life.
The Lyric also takes you back to a wild, raucous, early Birmingham that bore little resemblance to the dull, blighted city, scarred by the strict imposition of class and racial divisions and fundamentalist social mores, that came later, occupying the same physical space as the old city but bearing virtually no resemblance to it. “I think the Depression literally burned out the soul of this city,” Whiting says. “The soul just never finally came back.”
Perhaps the people of Birmingham, especially those who love downtown, could do worse in their struggle to recover the soul and spirit of the brash, young Magic City of the early 20th century than to rally behind Whitmire’s efforts to save the Lyric. The Lyric is, perhaps, more than just a portal to the past, but a portal to the future for a city that desperately needs to reclaim its wildness.
Whitmire is hopeful that he can begin to generate greater public awareness of the need to preserve the Lyric. This is a challenge because the venue has been closed for so long. “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.
“I really want this theater to be a big part of the community, but getting the community involved, that’s the problem,” Whitmire says. “Everyone in the arts, they’re all gung-ho for this. We just can’t get the enthusiasm beyond the arts.”
Whitmire is certainly not lacking in enthusiasm for the Lyric. He loves the place. “The Alabama’s ornate, but this theatre has an elegance that the Alabama doesn’t have, the kind of elegance that makes you want to dress up,” he says. When the Lyric opened there were at least five other vaudeville houses in Birmingham, but within five years, they were all closed, according to Whitmire. “The Lyric was just so fine, so beautiful,” he says.
The people of Birmingham will come to appreciate this rare treasure when they are able to see it restored, Whitmire believes. “When we finally get this thing renovated and people come in here they’ll say, ‘Why did it take so long?’”
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