On with the Show

The historic Lyric Theatre once played host to

legendary entertainers. One group’s mission is to see

that happen again.

Written By Glenny Brock

Photographs  by Liesa Cole

“Welcome to 1914,” Brant Beene says. “That’s Sylacauga marble you’re standing on.”

It’s a late winter afternoon, and Beene, the new executive director of the Alabama Theatre, is standing in the lobby of the Lyric, a vaudeville venue built more than a decade before the so-called “Showplace of the South.” He and I are giving a tour of the Lyric, explaining to a crowd of about 15 Birminghamians that this unassuming structure across the street from the Alabama is actually sacred ground in showbiz history.
“Buster Keaton played here,” Brant says. “Mae West, Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, even Roy Rogers and Trigger.”
A few of them murmur in amazement—or at least feigned amazement. Some members of this crowd (myself included) are too young to know or care about these old-school performers, but their names nonetheless have a gravitas, particularly when uttered in the lobby of the Lyric. The space is cold and dingy from almost half a century of neglect and misuse, but it’s still 20 kinds of splendid—a compact cavern of carved plaster, pressed-tin ceiling tiles, delicate light fixtures and marble flooring. Beneath a bank of tiny squared windows, three wide doorways lead to the theatre auditorium, where local theatregoers saw movie stars perform before they were stars. Before there were movies.
“Milton Berle came here as a young stand-up comedian,” I say. “Back then, he used to bring his mother with him on tour, and she would be a planted heckler in the audience.”
That line always gets a laugh. I think it’s because everyone likes to imagine the bawdy old man starting out as a mama’s boy.
By this time, we’re in the theatre, walking toward the stage. The seats were torn out in the 1970s and have never been replaced, so our group fans out across the floor. We are all looking up — to the chandeliers, the derelict opera boxes, the ornate angels carved in painted plaster, the faded mural above the proscenium arch, the original — original! as in 1914! — fire curtain, which says “ASBESTOS” in florid script at its center.
“They were very proud of having an asbestos curtain,” Brant explains, chuckling. “That was the latest technology, and having it meant that if there were a fire on stage, the audience would be protected.”
Slowly, alongside the orchestra pit, our group clusters again, then we take the stage single–file, up five steps and turn to face an imaginary audience. I can not stop smiling.
“Right now, you’re standing somewhere where Groucho Marx once stood,” I tell the tour group. “How amazing is that?”
While the Lyric’s storied bookings certainly give it some show business cachet, there is another aspect of the the theatre’s history that freights it with meaning for Birmingham. Starting with opening night, January 14, 1914 (when cartoonist Rube Goldberg shared a bill with four other comedians and musical acts), the Lyric was the only integrated theatre in Birmingham. Although it had segregated entrances and segregated seating, the Lyric was the only theatre in the city where blacks and whites saw the same show at the same time at the same price.
And yet, by the time the Alabama Theatre opened in 1927, vaudeville was already on the decline, slowly being replaced by movies. By the late 1930s, the Lyric had become the dollar–theatre of its day, showing second runs of films that made their local debut at the Alabama or other nearby theatres with modern equipment and air conditioning. After changing owners several times, the theater closed for good in 1958. Two friends re-opened it in 1973 as the Grand Bijou Motion Picture Theater, showing classic and cult films. That iteration lasted less than two years. The venue had two more bouts of activity — first as the Foxy, then as the Roxy. Under both of those names, it was a porn theater. The late, great Cecil Whitmire once told me that the final “theatrical presentation” at the theatre was Deep Throat, and that the projectionist was arrested for violating Birmingham’s blue laws.
Fast forward almost 40 years. The Lyric Theatre and its adjoining six-story office building now belong to Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the same nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Alabama Theatre. There has been a popular misconception that re-opening the Lyric might hurt the Alabama. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Alabama has 2,250 seats; the Lyric has capacity for 1,200. The Alabama was built for showing movies, so it has limited fly space above the stage and virtually no wings; the Lyric was built for live performance, so it has massive fly space that could accommodate sets and backdrops, plus wings and dressing rooms with backstage access. The Alabama has the Mighty Wurlitzer, with its multi-instrument sound system built into the walls; the Lyric has pin-drop acoustics, such that if someone snaps on stage, you can hear it from the highest balcony.
The Lyric is ideally suited for live performance—several local theatre, opera and dance companies have already expressed interest in making it their permanent home if the restoration is completed. Increased audience capacity alone makes the effort worthwhile: The Alabama Theatre is booked for more than 200 events each year, but nearly half of those bookings weddings, high school graduations and other private events. Serving as a true community venue means a lot to the staff of the Alabama—enough that they turned down Willie Nelson three years in a row due to scheduling conflicts. But imagine what a Saturday night on Third Avenue North might look like with both theatres open. You could put So-And-So’s Dance School spring recital in the grandeur of the Lyric, and book Willie Nelson at the Alabama. Then you’d have about 3,500 people headed to a single city block. If you looked at that block on a map of downtown Birmingham, you’d see the McWane Science Center down the street and the Carver Theatre right around the corner, and the Railroad Park just a few blocks away, beyond the soon-to-be-redeveloped Pizitz building. I’m pretty sure that in other cities, an urban neighborhood like that would be called an entertainment district.
A friend of mine is fond of saying, “The Lyric is the new Terminal Station.” I think what he means is that the theatre represents a real opportunity for the people of this city to buttress our future by preserving and re-purposing a piece of our past. The Terminal Station was one of the grandest structures that ever existed in this city, yet it was demolished in 1969 despite public outcry. That will not happen to the Lyric, provided we can make the cause of saving the theatre a matter of civic conscience. Once again, we have something widely acknowledged as beautiful, valuable, historic and worth saving. Once again, we have two choices—tear it down or stake a different future on it.
Every time I’m in the Lyric, I get this uncanny feeling that the past and the present exist simultaneously. Even though it’s empty now, the energy of acrobats, dancers and burlesque beauties still somehow pervades the place. So what if it’s the 21st century? I wear a flapper dress and a shingle-bob haircut and a strand of pearls that reaches my waist. You’re there, too. In a top hat and tails at the ticket window. As I glide across the lobby to take your arm, someone is playing ragtime piano. Someone else is already telling jokes on the stage. We take our seats as the curtain rises, and although the show hasn’t started yet, I already know how it’s going to end.
This romantic vision of an impossible past is how I imagine the future.
History suggests that Birmingham prefers to lose something and mourn its loss forever than to save something and bear it forward into an uncertain fate. But what if this time it’s different? Maybe I just get carried away by the timeless splendor of the place, but I believe that if we save the Lyric, we can save ourselves.
Glenny Brock is a journalist and the volunteer coordinator for the Lyric Theatre. You can learn more about the ongoing efforts to restore the theatre by visiting www.savethelyric.com.

10 Responses to “On with the Show”

  1. Becky Satterfield says:

    Great article and photos.

  2. Just a wonderful article and love, love, love the pictures. Cannot wait to attend my first event at the Lyric especially when another large event is at the Alabama. That will be such fun! Thanks to all associated with the Lyrica is doing! Great wisdom, great plan, great future for downtown.

  3. DeeAnn Darby-Bradley says:

    Glenny’s article was enchanting, & the photos were amazing. We will save the Lyric! I live in Oregon, my son & family live in Colorado; however, our roots are in Birmingham. Like Glenny, we love the city and want to help in any way possible.

  4. Brant Beene says:

    Yes, not only will the Lyric be saved, it will prosper. Great work. Glenny.

  5. Richard Dabney says:

    I remember seeing films when it was The Lyric and The Grand Bijou. Also, in 1919 my great-aunt, Miss Lucy Otey Lipscomb was feted with a theatre luncheon at the Lyric before she became Mrs. Louis Jefferson Brown!

  6. Penny says:

    Wow!! Two of my favorite peeps in Birmingham, what a great article and photos, Liesa and Glenny

  7. Gail Johnson says:

    Nice memories. Thanks

  8. Hollie Baker says:

    Wonderful article! The photo’s show only just a speck of how beautiful the Lyric is. I’ll be looking forward to stepping inside when it is finished!

Leave a Reply