Written by Jesse Chambers
Photography by Joe De Sciose
Nothing less than a miracle has taken place in downtown Birmingham—the $11-million restoration of the beautiful Lyric Theatre at Third Avenue and 18th Street North after a half-century of forgetfulness and neglect. A vaudeville house, the Lyric opened in 1914 and had its glory days in the 1920s when Birmingham was a brash, young boomtown. Virtually every star in America played there: the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, and more.
But the Lyric, and vaudeville, faced tough times in the Great Depression. The venue became a second-run movie house in the early 1930s, finally closing in 1960 and remaining shuttered—except for brief stints as a revival cinema and porn house—for decades.
But now it’s coming back, with Birmingham Landmarks, the nonprofit that owns the Lyric and the nearby Alabama Theatre, planning a grand reopening of the magnificent venue with a local vaudeville showcase Jan. 14–16 and a performance by the State Ballet of Russia on Jan. 17. This means the people of Birmingham can now happily ponder what the return of a living, breathing Lyric after so many decades can offer them.
First, the Lyric is stunningly beautiful, with a 19th-century Parisian elegance that offers a marvelous contrast to the movie-palace glitz of the Alabama. The Lyric’s return should yield enormous economic and cultural benefits to the city as it stimulates business activity, takes its place in a growing theatre district, and helps bring more visitors to a newly vibrant downtown.
But the greatest benefit of the renovation for a city with a damaged self-image may be psychological, because it reminds the people of Birmingham that they can pull off a project that many thought impractical, if not impossible, and that the can-do fire and spirit of the early 20th century Magic City is still alive.
On a cold, rainy December afternoon, I paid my first visit to the Lyric in months as dozens of construction workers bustled about in the lobby, on stage and in the balconies. An amazing amount of work had been done. There were new seats and chandeliers. There were opera boxes in place for the first time since the early 1950s. The stage had new boards and new rigging supported by 65-foot steel girders.
And new features were being added each day, according to Tom Cosby, the Lyric’s chief fundraiser, who led a tour for me and B-Metro creative director Robin Colter. For example, Cosby looked at the stage and noticed the footlights had been installed. “Every day is like Christmas morning at the Lyric,” he says, laughing.
Cosby praises the skill of the craftsman who brought the Lyric back to life, including the workers from EverGreene Architectural Arts in New York who restored the venue’s treasured decorative plaster. “I didn’t know this old-world craftsmanship still existed,” he says.
The renovation was especially moving for me because I fell in love with the Lyric after attending an open house there in 2008 when the place was filthy, there were no seats, and the plaster was decaying in a drafty auditorium without air conditioning.At times I doubted if the Lyric would be saved, but it was. The city that destroyed its Terminal Station got one right.
The story of the rebirth begins in 1993 when the Waters family, owners of several theaters, donated the Lyric to Birmingham Landmarks, then under the leadership of the late Cecil Whitmire and board chairman Danny Evans. However, it would take 20 years of work by the nonprofit’s staff, board, and volunteers—paying for feasibility studies and architectural plans, cultivating donors, holding open houses and working to get public attention—to pull off the restoration.
Efforts to revive the Lyric finally found success beginning in 2013 with the “Light up the Lyric” fundraising campaign under the leadership of Cosby, formerly of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. This success was made possible by the new popularity of downtown, with its bars, restaurants, and lofts, after decades of suburban flight, according to Brant Beene, Birmingham Landmarks executive director.
This urban renewal “creates that celebration feeling and that feeling of newness in the downtown area that has made all of this work together,” Beene says. “People want to be a part of this rebirth, and I think people, especially college age and up, are tired of Birmingham’s old reputation, and they want people to see their hometown as something phenomenal, as something really positive.”
The Lyric is expected to have a positive economic impact. According to a 2005 study by Analytic Focus LLC, the theatre should generate an economic benefit of about $5 million during its first three years. The study said the Lyric and the Alabama, as a complex, should generate more than $20 million in impact over the same period. The two theatres “are different and complementary,” Evans explains. The Alabama, with 2,100 seats, is perfect for big concerts and movie screenings. The Lyric, with 750 seats, has stellar acoustics and a larger stage and fly space than the Alabama, making it a perfect venue for performing arts: music, ballet, dance, and theatre. “I don’t know of any other place in the United States where there are two restored, historic theatres across the street from each other and owned by a non-profit,” Evans says.
The addition of the Lyric to Third Avenue also gives downtown another entertainment option, along with the Carver Theatre, the IMAX theatre at the McWane Science Center, and the Red Mountain Theatre Company (RMTC). “They say that the Birmingham theater [district] in the 1920s was as big and fine as any city in the U.S. (and) we are seeing a comeback of that sort of thing,” Beene says. “We have things cooking, but it’s not over, not by a longshot.”
The Lyric is a great addition to the theatre district, according to Keith Cromwell, RMTC executive director and the producer of the Lyric’s vaudeville showcase. “The more people we have out seeing live entertainment, especially in a venue of this magnitude, it helps the entire sector come back,” he explains.
Poet and performer Sharrif Simmons, who moved to the Magic City in 2004 and will serve as one of the hosts of the showcase, sees “a significant connection between Birmingham’s recent success and its investment in its service industry, arts and entertainment in particular.” The Lyric is part of a near “gold rush” of new amenities in the city, including Railroad Park, Regions Field, and the Uptown Entertainment district, according to Simmons, who thinks that the theatre “will be a strong piston in Birmingham’s economic and cultural growth engine.”
The Analytic Focus study predicted the Lyric restoration would help downtown attract new businesses, and that process has begun. The Lyric has been credited with helping spur such projects as the new Whitmire Lofts and Revelator Coffee on Third Avenue, the conversion of the old Pythian Temple on 18th Street for office space, and the renovation of another office building on the corner of Third Avenue and 18th Street. “All of those things have been spawned at least in part because of the Lyric,” Evans says.
The Lyric may also serve as a much-needed symbol of racial unity for Birmingham. Seating at the theater was segregated in the old days, but the Lyric was one of the first places in the South where blacks and whites watched the same show at the same time for the same price, and many African-Americans, including Mayor William Bell, remember attending movies there. And the theater represents a place of connection between the old white entertainment district on Third Avenue and the traditional black business and entertainment district, which begins just about a block from the Lyric, near Fourth Avenue North and 18th Street. “I think it’s a wonderfully unifying thing,” Evans says. “The Lyric can be a unity thing for the theatre district, for the entire city.”
The Lyric’s programming, to be handled in part by Birmingham promoter Todd Coder, will reflect this desire to make the venue a place for everyone, according to Cosby. “This is a performing arts venue, and we’ll have a diversity of events priced affordably,” he says. “We don’t want to hear this is just for Mountain Brook. We don’t want to hear it’s just for white people, just for black people. We want it to be for everybody—young, old, in between.”
The Lyric restoration may have another, even deeper meaning for the city, according to Glenny Brock, outreach coordinator for Birmingham Landmarks. “Certainly, it will have a significant, meaningful economic impact, but what I find more compelling is the psychological impact, because it was such a daunting task,” she says. Brock got a good sample of public sentiment regarding the feasibility, both practical and financial, of restoring the horribly run-down Lyric while conducting hundreds of tours of the venue with thousands of participants over the last seven years.
“Only one person ever said, ‘I don’t think this is worth it,’ but many dozens didn’t think that it was possible,” says Brock, a long-time Lyric booster who also beat a loud drum for the renovation while serving as editor of Birmingham Weekly and Weld for Birmingham. But the Lyric had its own persuasive, visual power, according to Brock. “Places that are beautiful really matter to people,” she says. “It is a place to be proud of. It’s this huge evidence of transformation.”
I told Cosby, as he, Colter, and I stood in the lower balcony and looked down at the stage, that I had always believed the battle to save the Lyric was a battle to save the city’s spirit, that some of the rowdy, optimistic energy of the old boomtown Birmingham was hiding in the Lyric waiting to be recovered. “Oh, it was a battle for the soul,” Cosby said, before dropping one of his favorite quotes, from Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who said of Istanbul, “Ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never dream of rising to its former heights.”
Fortunately, the people of Birmingham— especially those who made large donations— answered that question with an emphatic “no.”
“This is truly a shining spot for us,” Colter said.
The impact of the restoration is not just cultural but personal for those who worked so hard to make it happen. “I’m afraid I’ll embarrass myself,” Beene says when asked his feelings about opening night. “I may have tears running down my face when we finally open the curtain.”
“I think about walking out on stage before anybody is there and just looking up,” Evans says. “It makes me smile. We spent so many days in that place when it was so sad and dilapidated.” Evans is also happy the Lyric is owned by a nonprofit dedicated to preservation. “This is such a wonderful feeling—how this will touch generations of people, and nobody is going to tear it down,” he says.
“I love the Lyric,” Brock says. “As far as the place it occupies in my heart, it seems so simple, but I love the Lyric. I always have.”
It is not hard to predict that the entire city will soon love the Lyric, too.
Let the shows begin.
What you’ll be able to see at the lyric
by Jesse Chambers
The Lyric Theatre opened in 1914 as a magnificent venue for live variety performance, and its long-awaited grand reopening in January will feature the same style of entertainment. “We are going back to our roots with three opening nights of modern vaudeville,” says Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks.
The Lyric’s vaudeville showcase on Jan. 14–16 will be staged by Keith Cromwell, executive director of the Red Mountain Theatre Company, one of the Lyric’s neighbors in the city’s burgeoning downtown theatre district.
In addition to the three vaudeville shows, the Lyric will play host to the State Ballet of Russia, which will offer two performances of Romeo and Juliet on Jan. 17.
Magic City talent, not touring acts, will perform in the showcase, according to Beene. “There will be no nationally known stars,” he says. “We want the Lyric to be the star of the show, and we want Birmingham talent involved.”
Long-time bluegrass trio Three on a String will serve as the “anchor entertainers” for the show’s first act, with a noted gospel group, The Birmingham Sunlights, serving as anchor for the second act, according to Cromwell. The shows will also include some “delightful surprises,” Cromwell says. Those surprises may include dancers, jugglers, comics, and other local acts who will come out and do bits, according to Beene.
Attendees will also learn more about the show’s magnificent venue, according to Beene. “My goal, number one, was to tell the story of the Lyric,” he says. That story will be told in brief snippets through the evening by the show’s hosts—storytellers Dolores Hydock, Sharrif Simmons, and Bobby Horton, who is also a member of Three on a String.
However, attendees should not expect a “history lesson,” but rather a “celebration of its past,” Cromwell says. “What Sharrif and Dolores and Bobby do is so brilliant,” he says. “They are incredible storytellers—some of the best in the United States, certainly in Alabama. Having them tell the story of the Lyric in their own vernaculars is so great. And we want the audience to learn the history of the theatre in an entertaining way.”
The focus on local performers in the show reflects a desire by the organizers to make the opening nights “feel like a celebration of all that is in Birmingham” in terms of performing talent, according to Cromwell. “We are so lucky in Birmingham,” Cromwell says. “After 13 years at the RMTC, I am so amazed at the talent that walks in to perform on our stages.”
The local focus is also appropriate because the Lyric grand opening is a celebration not just of the venue itself but of the work and passion it took to bring it back to life, according to Cromwell. “I think it’s important, since it is this community that made this unbelievably generous and wonderful decision to save that magnificent theatre,” he says. “Why would we want to have people who are not part of this community to be the anchors, the entertainers?”
Birmingham Landmarks expects to present about 50 shows in 2016, including some appearances by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and the “Live at the Lyric” musical concert series.
“Live at the Lyric,” booked by noted Birmingham promoter Todd Coder, will welcome such pop music legends as Randy Newman, Taj Mahal, and Mavis Staples. The series will begin on Feb. 13 with a performance by Sam Bush, a bluegrass mandolin player considered an originator of the “Newgrass” style.
The variety performances Jan. 14–16 will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40, $50, and $60, plus service charges.
Romeo and Juliet will be performed on Jan. 17 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $35, $45, and $55.
Tags: Jesse Chambers