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HIGHLAND PARK, IL – It appears that a new retail building with a restaurant, offices and a garden will soon replace the Highland Park Theater on Central Avenue in downtown Highland Park. The city approved the $1.1 million sale of the theatre building and property for $1.1 million to the Highland Park-based Canel Companies, which says it plans to demolish the theatre and replace it with a two-story building that will include retail shops and a restaurant, according to a city news release. A portion of a nearby parking lot will be preserved for nearby business owners.
The city’s news release indicates Canel Companies’ proposed design is “consistent with the character of the current façade.” The selling price reflects the appraised value of the building.
(Moving Picture World, September 2, 1922)
East Indian Organist Delights Kenosha’s Moving Picture Fans
DR. HYLAND ELMAN SLATRE-WILSON now presides at the big three manual Barton Orchestral Organ installed in
Saxe Brothers' half-million dollar Orpheum Theatre, Kenosha, Wis.
Dr. Slatre-Wilson is one of the best educated musicians in the United States. His education was begun in the public schools of Syracuse New York, and continued at the college of the City of New York, the State University of New York and under such masters of music
as Leschetizky, Marescalchi, Consolo, Vitale and others in piano, violin, voice orchestration and composition.
From his youth Dr. Slatre-Wilson took up the study of the organ and at the age of fifteen became city organist of the All-India University of Bombay, India, his native land. He organized the 100 piece Emin D'Nalyh Orchestra, named after him. (Emin D'Nalyh is Dr. Slatre- Wilson’s family name).
Dr. Slatre-Wilson comes from a long line of great East Indian educators. About ten years ago he returned to the United States with John Alexander Dowie, of Zion City,
Illinois. Dr. Dowie at that time was building the Zion City tabernacle and planned to install one of the best pipe organs in the United States to be used in connection with a large choir and extensive musical festivals. Dr. Slatre-Wilson was placed in charge of the
organ selection and installation and himself designed one of the best Cathedral Organs in the United States, which even now is a famous feature of Zion City. The organization and establishment of the great Zion City Choir, whose singing has brought pleasure to hundreds of thousands in dozens of cities, was also a work of Dr. Slatre-Wilson.
Moving to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Dr. Slatre-Wilson founded the Conservatory of Music, which he conducted with great success until the opening of the Orpheum, when he took
his place at the console of the Barton Orchestral Organ installed there. The combination of Dr. Slatre- Wilson’s musical skill and the widely versatile three manual Barton Organ has captivated Kenosha’s music loving movie
goers, and the Orpheum is crowded daily and nightly. The delicately shaded, thousand-toned melodies pouring from the dozens of throats of the Barton Organ in response to the touch of Dr. Slatre-Wilson’s gifted fingers is a
revelation both of human skill and instrumental perfection.
In explanation of the marvelously intricate improvisations and minute tonal gradations with which Dr. Slatre-Wilson delights Orpheum audiences, he modestly gives great credit to the Barton Divided Manual. “I was greatly surprised,” he says, “to find that in spite of the many tonal combinations and rich expression possible with the Barton, I was able to
play it readily on sight, without a minute of study and I find it a constant inspiration in my daily striving to gain further mastery of organ playing.”
Built in 1914 for owner Chauncey Bishop and designed by Perry and Thomas, architects.
Seize Youth as Suspect in Girl’s Slaying
The city councils of Berwyn and Chicago offered rewards totaling $1,000 yesterday for information leading to the capture and conviction of the three bandits, one of whom on Sunday killed Miss Pearl Eggleston, 17 year old usher at the Ritz theater in Berwyn. Police Magistrate Joseph
Cerny of Berwyn added $100 to tho rewards. The crime has shocked the whole community. The Chicago council adopted a resolution offered by Ald. Horan [26th] saying: “Whereas, the entire city is stunned with horror at the wanton and cold blooded slaying of Miss Pearl Eggleston, the commissioner of police is hereby authorized to offer a reward of $500 for her slayers.” The police revealed that perpetrators of a theater holdup in Cicero recently are believed responsible for the killing of the girl last Sunday night when she screamed as the theater cashier was being robbed.
Recalls Cicero Robbery.
During the Cicero robbery an audience of 1,000 was unaware of what was happening when, on March 18, three armed youths drove up to the Annetta theater, 2337 South 62nd Avenue, and took $500 from B. Bartelstein, the manager, who was in the cashier’s cage at the time. Five persons who were passing the theater at that time were forced by the robbers to stand in the lobby with their faces to the wall. Methods used in each robbery and the similarity of the descriptions of the robbers lead police to believe that the same trio committed both crimes. The Cicero witnesses will be asked to view suspects seized in the hunt for Miss Eggleston’s slayer. Miss Gertrude Plante, the cashier of the Ritz theater in Berwyn, who saw her friend shot down, collapsed yesterday. She collapsed in her home, 113 South Elmwood avenue, Oak Park. Sho also is suffering from a bruise inflicted by a piece of metal torn from a money changing machine by the bullet that killed her friend who was with her in the cashier’s cage at the time of the holdup. The cashier, with a physician, went to the Berwyn police station, but was unable to identify a suspect there.
Methods, Appearance Similar.
Chief of Police Charles Levy is inclined to the belief that Miss Eggleston was murdered by a youth, her sudden recognition of whom made her scream. He thinks a young man may have obtained information from her as to the location of the $1,400 taken in the holdup without her having any idea he was a robber. Rather than face certain identification by her whom he had expected to be at work inside tho theater, the youth killed her, Chief Levy believes. “I wish they’d keep their crooks in Chicago,” Mayor Frank Janda of Berwyn said. “The fact that the car was found there shows where the slayers came from.”
In a May 18, 1916 ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune, the AVERS Theatre address was listed as 3828 W. 26th Street.
LeRoy’s Princess Theatre may reopen
Scott Miller and Sue Bratcher
Mike Hanafin, owner of the True Value Hardware and NAPA Auto Parts stores in LeRoy, wants to purchase the property and the city agreed to pony up $50,000 toward the project.
“It’s betterment of the community. My family’s here. We don’t plan on going anywhere, and we don’t want the theater going anywhere,” Hanafin said, saying his daughters and grandchildren were regulars at the theater.
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“If all goes well, I could be showing movies by Thanksgiving.”
The building hasn’t been sold yet, however. The asking price is $275,000.
The LeRoy City Council recently agreed to reimburse Hanafin $50,000 in tax increment financing funds to acquire the property. Tax money generated within a TIF district stays within that area to make further improvements.
The TIF funding is contingent on an initial investment of $280,000 from Hanafin, who plans to rehab the building and parking lot, even though the property went through a major overhaul two years ago.
“With an old theater, I don’t think you’re ever done,” Hanafin said.
Exact renovation plans aren’t set, he said.
It’s the second time in as many years the city has coughed up cash to reopen the Princess.
To aid the revitalization of LeRoy’s once sluggish downtown, the city loaned the current owners $65,000 in 2004 to help cover a $200,000 theater renovation project.
City Administrator Jeff Clawson previously said he expects the city to receive payment when the building is sold. He was unavailable Tuesday.
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Co-owner David Kraft put the property for sale in October. He said he didn’t know about Hanafin’s requests.
The Princess Theater had deteriorated before Kraft and Kris and Susan Spaulding gutted it two years ago. The building had sat vacant for nearly 20 years.
Records indicate the last movie was shown in 1982. A country-music center occupied the building for a couple years in the late 1980s, and the building briefly housed a teen dance hall in 1990.
During the vacant years, however, a leaky roof left the ceiling, paneling, plaster and everything else inside water damaged.
Then Kraft and the Spauldings updated everything. They built a new roof, put up new roof rafters and added steel beams to support the walls. The group installed a new sound system, a larger movie screen and church pews and bistro seating in the lobby for those who wanted to congregate after movies.
The GRAND Theatre in Kenosha opened on Christmas Eve of 1908 within the Meyers Block building and was owned and operated by John L. McConnell Jr. Two days later, a projection-booth fire caused two hundred patrons to evacuate into the rear alley. McConnell, who was operating the projector, said an advertising film he was threading caught fire when it touched a wire in the projector, which was also destroyed, and McConnell sustained severe right-hand burns from his attempts to extinguish the flames.
The following year saw McConnell announcing a new partnership with William Bottenburg of Chicago to build a chain of film theatres “with a touch of vaudeville” (Kenosha News, August 31, 1909). Cities besides Kenosha under consideration included Madison, Stevens Point, Duluth, Beloit, Janesville, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Appleton, Waukesha and Superior, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota.
A September 23, 1910 GRAND Theatre ad in the Kenosha Evening News exclaimed that a number of studios were licensed to exhibit their product at the GRAND including Essanay, Pathe, Edison, Gaumont, Biograph, Kalem, Lubin, Selig, Melies, Eclipse and Vitagraph.
But by 1912, the Kenosha Business Directory shows the building space occupied by the Postal Telegraph Cable Company and the Conforti Brothers Tailoring Shop.
The Meyers Block itself became the TMER&L Interurban Station and the local Wisconsin Gas and Electric offices, and was destroyed by fire on February 14, 1978.
I saw it tonight. The BYRON attraction board is gone.
Or, actually, here comes the neighborhood!
The sparkling lights of Du Quoin’s Grand Theater, which has been an iconic sight on the city’s Main Street since 1914, went dark on a Tuesday night in September, 2015. The theater will be closed for at least the next few months, according to city officials.
“It’s been a problem business for many years. It’s very much loved and it’s a piece of history here, but it hasn’t been successful,” said Mayor Guy Alongi. “We will have to look if it’s financially feasible to keep it open.”
Alongi and other city officials are working to gauge interest from the community to determine if the movie theater should reopen, and if the city should buy it or help find a private owner to take over.
“We’re going to ask the public a lot of questions,” said Jeff Ashauer, the city’s economic development director. “What do you think the city should do? What would be best for this town?”
When Jeannie Burke saw the letters on the theater’s marquee Tuesday night, she knew what her answer would be. “It would be so sad if it didn’t reopen because it’s always been a prominent part of this town, even as other things have come and gone,” said Burke, who works across the street at Main Street T’s. “And what if it’s not there anymore? I hope we don’t have to find out.”
Losing the cornerstone business would be tough for Du Quoin, where only a few landmark-type structures remain.
“This needs to be addressed, and only time will tell how that plays out,” Ashauer said.
Last year, the city loaned theater owner Richie Baker $20,000 to help purchase new digital projection equipment with a price tag of $90,000. None of that loan has been repaid, and Alongi said the theater might have more debt.
While the structure is “functioning,“ Alongi wants to make sure the the century-old structure is sound before moving forward. "A new business plan is definitely in order,” he said. “This will be a major investment, so the question will be if the community and the city can stomach it.”
If the theater goes up for sale and the city steps in somehow, Alongi said movies could be showing at the Grand again in the next six months or year.
“Whatever happens, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Alongi said. “When you see that closed sign, it is shocking, but I think we have to take our time and weigh our options with this one."
Architect Derald Milton West – Born June 24, 1918, Died October 18, 2010
Derald Milton West, American Institute of Architects, passed away at 92 in Blowing Rock, NC on October 18, 2010 after living a remarkable life.
He was born June 24, 1918 to the late Frank Milton and Edith Maude Garland West in Chicago, Illinois.
He was a gifted athlete in baseball, football, and hockey in his youth at Lindblom High School in Chicago. From there he was the first member of his family to graduate from college, with honors, from the University of Minnesota in architecture. While a student in 1942, he met and married his wife of 62 years, June Elizabeth Anderson. He was studying for his masters at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Mies van der Rohe when war broke out.
Millions of men were joining the war effort, and Derald was no exception. But his path was quite interesting; he was selected as one of a dozen young scientists and engineers to enter an elite program sponsored by the War Department. He was sent to Wright-Patterson for research and training into the capabilities of munitions, fuses, and other secret technologies. From there, he did further research at Princeton University, during which time he was privileged to meet Albert Einstein on numerous occasions.
Eventually he was sent to England to advise the Ninth Air Force on strategic bombing from a highly technical perspective. He often briefed the Supreme Allied Commanders as the invasion of Fortress Europe approached, and this at the age of 25. He landed on the Normandy beaches days after the invasion to assess the results of aerial bombardment. One of his duties was to advise the Ninth Air Force — after numerous failed missions — to carpet-bomb the runways of a notorious German fighter base in Holland rather than saturate the entire base with smaller munitions. He’d noted earler that the base was ringed with water-pump windmills since it was below sea level and his concept was to destroy the drainage system. The mission was staged and the base was never again operational throughout the war. That success, and his research on how to bomb the Seine bridges prior to D-Day – which precluded Field Marshal Erwin Rommel from reinforcing German resistance to the D-Day landings – earned him a Bronze Star from President Harry S Truman, a rare honor for a civilian.
But his true self-identity was always as an architect. After the war he built a successful practice in Genoa City, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Blowing Rock, NC which lasted over sixty years – designing the GENOA Theatre in his new hometown and other buildings, particularly schools, throughout America and into South America. Active in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), he served many roles, including as the National Chairman of the Education Committee and as a judge of the NCAARB. He was a mentor and inspiration to three generations of young architects.
The concept of giving back to his community was important to Derald; he was the co-founder of the Genoa City Improvement Association, a member of the Lake Geneva Planning Commission, the Board of the First United Methodist Church of Lake Geneva, the Walworth County Park and Planning Commission, and the co-founder of the Chapel-on-the-Hill in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In Blowing Rock he was a member of the Planning Board, a founding member and Chair of the Architectural Review Board, a member of the Historical Society, a vestry member of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, and a past-President and twice Rotarian of the Year of the Rotary Club of Blowing Rock and a multiple Paul Harris Fellow.
He was survived by his children Deralyn, James, Robert (Sally), and Marilee West, and by six grandchildren.
He was preceeded in death by his wife June, in 2004. A memorial for Mr. Derald M. West was conducted on Friday, November 12, 2010 at 11:00 o'clock at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock officiated by Father Rick Lawler. Contributions in Derald’s memory can be given to St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, the Blowing Rock Rotary Foundation or an organization of the donor’s choice. www.hamptonfuneralservice.com.
Derald Milton West – Born June 24, 1918, Died October 18, 2010
He was preceeded in death by his wife June, in 2004.
A memorial for Mr. Derald M. West was conducted on Friday, November 12, 2010 at 11:00 o'clock at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock officiated by Father Rick Lawler. Contributions in Derald’s memory can be given to St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, the Blowing Rock Rotary Foundation or an organization of the donor’s choice. www.hamptonfuneralservice.com.
BURKE TO LEASE VIRGINIAN THEATRE – Deal Is Now Under Way Whereby Collins Theatrical Enterprise Will Lease Virginian (Kenosha Evening News, Friday, January 28, 1921)
The Collins Theatrical Enterprise, owners/managers of the Burke Theatre, announced plans to lease the Virginian from the Virginian Theatre Company. The Virginian had offered vaudeville four days each week for years, and Collins said it had no plans to change the format.
The MAJESTIC Theatre opened on Saturday, August 17, 1912.
(Research courtesy Al Westerman.)
Kenosha’s original ORPHEUM Theatre opened on Saturday, September 24, 1910 with May’s Pictures and Songs and a five-cent admission.
In the SHERIDAN’s photos section here, its May 3, 1938 ad in the Waukegan News-Sun lists its address as 1701 Sheridan Road. Perhaps there was a reallocation of address numbers at some point?
WAUKEGAN NEWS-SUN, May 3, 1938.
Sidney Schatz passed away at 96 on April 2, 2009 at Balmoral Nursing Home in Lake Forest, IL where he resided after suffering a stroke eight years ago.
Born in New Hampton, IA on Jan. 14, 1913, his family moved to the south side of Chicago when he was eight years old. After working as a clerk for a stock broker, he managed a theatre in Chicago, which led to two of his life interests, investing in the stock market and owning a theatre.
He rented and operated the Sheridan Theatre in North Chicago, IL until he built the Park Theatre in 1947, which he owned for 23 years, after which he semi-retired and sold real estate part-time. He was a longtime member of Congregation Am Echod in Waukegan, IL and a former member of North Chicago Lions Club, North Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Lake County Board of Health and treasurer for North Chicago Little League.
Sidney was survived by his sons Marc (Carol Jakaitis) of Mequon, WI and David (Susan Gehlmann) of River Forest, IL; grandchildren Jeff, Dave (Angie Massen), Timm (JoellePolivy), Dan, Ben and Stephanie; and great-grandchildren Nate and Jon. He was preceded in death by Lois (Stein), his wife of 46 years, in 1984; his sisters Ann Harris and Pauline Peterson, and brother Milton Schatz.
Funeral service were at 11 a.m. Friday, April 10, 2009 at Peterson & Patch Funeral Home in Waukegan with Rabbi Ze'evHarari officiating, and interment at Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, IL. Memorials to the American Stroke Assn. are appreciated by the family.
Built as a cinema for the Marshfield Amusement Company in mid-1912, it was on a Z-shaped lot. Concrete was furnished by the S. L. Cooper Co. Façade was crème terra cotta by Midland Terra Cotta illustrating “Primitive Dance”, “Ancient dance” and “Modern Dance” in that order, designed by the architects. The white Italian marble lobby occupied the full frontage with ornamental plaster above, and the auditorium was bowl-shaped. The ceiling was vaulted and spanned by curved trusses.
LAKE GENEVA Regional News, April 12, 2016:
Burlington businessman Shad Branen is the new owner of the Geneva Theater. In an email, Branen confirmed that he closed on the building on March 30. He said he intends to get renovation work started as soon as he gets the proper permits.
Ken Robers, Lake Geneva building and zoning administrator, said Branen has not yet taken out a building permit on the theater, but he is bringing in contractors to take a look at the structure. “I’m letting them do exploratory surgery,” Robers said. He said the contractors are “poking around” the building. Some are looking at the roof which will require work. Robers said he’s also allowing the contractors to pull some of the old roofing surface off in preparation to putting down a new roof.
In March, the Lake Geneva City Council approved a developer’s agreement with Branen for the renovation of the Geneva Theater. Under the agreement, Branen will receive $895,000 in city Tax Increment Finance district funds to assist in the renovation of the 1920s-era theater at 244 Broad St.
Earlier this year, Branen approached the city with a proposal to renovate and reopen the Geneva as a four-plex movie theater with a seating capacity of about 500. The city had set aside $800,000 from its TIF funds for renovating the theater. When Branen first approached the city in February, he requested $950,000. The $895,000 figure was reached after negotiations between Branen and the city.
Under the developer’s agreement, Branen must complete renovating the theater by Dec. 31, or face fines of $100 per day, to come out of the TIF grant. And he must own the property for at least 10 years and operate the theater as a for-profit entertainment center open to the general public. Forgiveness of the grant phases in during those 10 years. If the theater closes or ceases operation during those 10 years, Branen would owe the unforgiven portion of the grant to the city.
Branen is committed to spending no less than $1.36 million on renovating the building, which does not include the sale price of the property. If at least $1.36 million isn’t spent on the renovations, a dollar for dollar reduction will be made in the TIF grant. Landscaping and exterior improvements to the property must be completed by no later than six months after the theater receives its occupancy permit.
Branen has already renovated one old, historic theater, the Plaza Theater in downtown Burlington. The Plaza, built in 1928, the same year as the Geneva Theater, is slightly smaller. Branen bought it out of bankruptcy in 2010 and turned the business around. Branen is a member of the Branen family which once owned the Burlington Standard newspaper. Over the past five years, Branen has renovated and restored the theater, turning it into as much of a conference, community and special events center as a movie house.
The theater now shows free movies during holidays and school breaks, hosts performances by high school choirs and local bands, shows free Green Bay Packer games and the Super Bowl on the big screen. The theater also has a weekend menu served to patrons along with a selection of macro and micro brews.
Branen said a revitalized Geneva Theater could be used to tailor special events to Lake Geneva.
As the CRYSTAL Theatre, it opened on Friday, December 5, 1913.
(KENOSHA EVENING NEWS – Friday, September 3, 1920)
PACINI INTERESTS OPEN NEW STRAND
New Movie Shrine on Howland Avenue Starts Operation on Saturday
ALL BEEN REBUILT
A new shrine for the “silent drama” is to be opened in Kenosha on Saturday when “The New Strand”, one of the theatres now being operated by the heirs of Charles Pacini, and located at 210 Howland avenue, will start operation after having been closed for several weeks for extensive remodeling and redecorating. The plans for the new theatre were made by the late Charles Pacini several months before he was killed. He purchased the lease for the theatre, formerly known as the Crystal, and let contracts for remodeling and redecorating, all of which were practically completed at the time of his death.
The theatre has been made over completely. Starting with the new façade, a beautiful entrance to the movie house and continuing throughout the entire interior of the theatre, it has been transformed completely.
Beauty Marks Decoration
The interior of the theatre has been beautifully redecorated in soft tints that have completely transformed the playhouse. Pretty wall lamps have been installed to carry out the decorations. New furniture for the theatre and a new piano have been installed to make the house up-to-date to the last feature. In the mechanical line an entirely new machine has been installed with new electrical connections which assure the patrons of the theatre the best service that can be secured.
In announcing the opening of the “New Strand”, Willard Welch, the manager of the Charles Pacini Amusements, emphasized the fact that the new theatre would be part of the Pacini theatres and would show the same class of pictures which are shown at the Majestic and Butterfly theatres. Their contracts include the latest releases from many of the largest film companies in the country.
“The Glorious Lady”
The opening picture will be Miss Olive Thomas in “The Glorious Lady”.
(Thanks to Al Westerman for his exhaustive research.)
Step inside the Lyric Theatre today, and you might feel as if you’re encased in a small, glittering jewel box.
The 102-year-old theater fairly glows with historic charm, adorned by elegant plaster cupids, burnished wood, smooth marble and shimmering gold paint. Chandeliers hang from the ornately stenciled ceiling. Opera boxes curve in graceful arcs. Thick blue curtains shelter a stage that once welcomed stars such as Mae West, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers and Milton Berle.
But it wasn’t always this way. The Lyric — built in 1914 as an intimate vaudeville house with pin-drop acoustics — spent decades in downtown Birmingham as a dark and crumbling ruin. The building’s essential structure remained strong, made of concrete and steel. But the theater at 1800 Third Ave. North existed as a shadow of its former self. Its heyday long past, the Lyric sat in silence — damaged by water and weather, prey to the ravages of time. “When we first got here, it was like King Tut’s tomb,” says Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, a nonprofit organization that owns the Lyric. “It was really a sight to see.”
Birmingham Landmarks, which acquired the Lyric in 1993, spent more than 20 years figuring out how to revive the theater — and just as important, making sure enough money was raised to pay for such a massive project. Painstaking craftsmanship was required to bring the Lyric’s visual beauty back to life, along with a full-scale overhaul of crucial operating systems such as lighting, plumbing, heating and air conditioning.
In January, audiences saw the result of an $11.5 million restoration as the Lyric reopened to the public as a performing arts center. Three variety shows featuring local entertainers were sold out Thursday through Saturday, marking the theater’s triumphant return.
“I’ve had so many sleepless nights, and I’m sure Brant does, too,” says Danny Evans, board chairman of Birmingham Landmarks and a prime mover behind the Lyric’s revival. “The Lyric was abused for many years, but she’s a strong old girl. … For this to be complete, in spite of some naysayers who kept asking, ‘When are they going to do it?,’ is a great joy to me.”
Talk to organizers who’ve prompted the theater’s rebirth, and you’ll hear detailed accounts of feasibility studies, grant proposals, architectural renderings, preliminary plans, fund-raising efforts, tax credits and more. Some might call it a long and difficult journey, with many stops and starts. Evans, who was there from the beginning, prefers the analogy of building blocks slowly sliding into the proper spots. As he tells it, Birmingham Landmarks never intended to take on the Lyric when the organization was formed in 1987. However, the nonprofit’s basic mission — to save historic buildings — nudged the group in that direction when the Lyric became available a few years later.
According to Evans, Birmingham Landmarks was created for one purpose: to ensure the survival of the Alabama Theatre, a 1927 movie house that was facing bankruptcy. At the time, Evans and a piano-playing friend, Cecil Whitmire, were especially concerned about the theater’s Wurlitzer organ, a majestic instrument that was integral to the building’s history. Birmingham Landmarks bought the Alabama, assumed its debt of $680,000 and made that theater — across the street from the Lyric at 1817 Third Ave. North — the nonprofit’s primary focus. Evans helmed the board; Whitmire managed the theater. Under their leadership, the Alabama began to thrive.
The Lyric was something of an afterthought, purchased in 1993 from the Newman Waters family, along with a companion office building that stretches to 1806 Third Ave. North. The family, which had owned several movie houses in the Birmingham area, set a price of $10, essentially offering the Lyric as a gift. “It was a just a remnant of the vaudeville house it used to be,” Evans recalls. “It had a bad roof. The windows were falling out. It had been abused and used for many things, including selling beauty supplies. All that was dumped in our laps. We were able to get enough money to put a new roof on it and fix the windows, enough to keep it from deteriorating further. … We began doing feasibility studies on the Lyric. We did early architectural renderings and plans in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. In the middle 2000s, interest rates rose and the economy started tanking. We kind of moseyed along like that until 2008 or 2009.”
Although Birmingham Landmarks had a vision for what the Lyric could be, it faced a formidable challenge. The once-pristine theater had been through many structural changes since the glory days of vaudeville, first transformed into a movie house during the early 1930s. That period ended in 1958, when the hardest times hit. The Lyric closed, reopened for a few years in the 1970s as a revival house and had a brief run as a porn theater. The building was shuttered in the 1980s and left to decay.
“The Lyric was so well-built, it wouldn’t fall down,” says Beene, who joined Birmingham Landmarks in 2009. “The cost to demolish a building like that is so great, there wasn’t much talk about making it a parking deck. But nobody wanted to buy it. Nobody knew what to do with it.”
Whitmire, who died in 2010, often said fundraising for the Lyric was more difficult than it had been for the Alabama Theatre, mostly because the vaudeville generation had passed away. Potential donors lacked an emotional connection to the century-old building, he said, and cherished no fond memories of seeing live shows there.
Beene was hired by Birmingham Landmarks to combat such perceptions, kickstart the Lyric’s finances and stir community participation in the project. After Whitmire’s death, he moved into the executive director role and has overseen the Lyric and Alabama theaters ever since. “I think Cecil and Danny had to swim upstream for about 20 years, because things were moving away from downtown,” Beene says. “At one time, the Alabama Theatre was the only thing downtown. After Birmingham Landmarks was formed, it took 10 years, maybe 11, to get the Alabama to where they wanted it to be. They inherited the Lyric in ‘93, and the Alabama was only half-done at that point. The focus was on the Alabama. It seemed almost impossible, at least to Cecil, to raise the money they needed for the Lyric. And the Alabama was his first love. The Lyric didn’t have an organ. When he died, right at that time period, Railroad Park and lofts and Regions Field and all those things were starting here. I came in and caught the wave.”
As more fundraising, another feasibility study and a mountain of paperwork ensued, Beene sensed a shift in public attitudes about the Lyric. Millennials began to take notice, gushing over tours of the building led by volunteers such as Glenny Brock, then editor of Birmingham Weekly. Articles in that alternative publication, particularly those written by reporter Jesse Chambers, championed the theater and pointed to new life for the old vaudeville house. Brock, who later became outreach coordinator on the staff of Birmingham Landmarks, says her first visit to the Lyric in 2008 made her a believer. It led her to participate in cleanup sessions at the theater — pulling up carpet, scraping paint, mopping floors, removing dead birds and bat droppings. It also inspired her to spread the word about the Lyric and its potential — in print, online and in person.
“The Lyric, to me, was such a beautiful ruin,” Brock says. “The outside of the building, for much of my life, was very plain, like a brown cardboard box. It became a personal mission; I wanted to see it succeed … Most of my role, as this title implies, is making sure people know about the Lyric. Basically, I just tried to get everyone to love that place as much as I did.”
Others involved in the Lyric’s renaissance, such as lead fundraiser Tom Cosby, relied on the simultaneous pull of art, history and economics. Cosby joined the team in 2012 as a paid consultant for Birmingham Landmarks, after 35 years with the Birmingham Business Alliance and its predecessor, the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Although he’d intended to retire, Cosby quickly became enmeshed in the mission to save the Lyric, using his experience, contacts and knowledge of Birmingham’s power players to get the job done. Spearheading a new “Light Up the Lyric” campaign that was launched in March 2013, Cosby raised more than $7 million for the theater in just nine months. A sparkling new marquee was installed that September, celebrating the campaign and symbolizing the Lyric’s future.
Eventually, Cosby raised more than $8 million via 89 donors — individuals, corporations and foundations — that contributed $10,000 or more. After historic tax credits were secured, the Lyric’s restoration fund reached $11.5 million. “The Lyric is a unique and beloved cause,” Cosby says. “I don’t know in my heart if (the donors) did it because they were such arts patrons — maybe they were — but I think they realized we needed a downtown for this area to thrive. … Places like the Lyric have absolute power and a sense of place. This is what separates Birmingham from a suburban strip mall.”
Executive director Beene — who’s been known to wax poetic about the Lyric, comparing it to a vintage instrument — also regards the theater’s revival as a no-nonsense economic development project. “We can’t afford to have a museum,” Beene says. “That’s not what we can do. From the start, I’ve said that we have to have an operating business for this to work.”
If his hopes for the Lyric are realized, the 750-seat theater will bring more people downtown, spurring growth and renewal that spreads for several blocks, transforming the area into a vibrant entertainment district. At the same time, Beene envisions the Lyric as a potent booster for civic pride.
“This is a place for all of our community to use, to share and to appreciate — not just as the past of Birmingham, but as the future of Birmingham,” he says. “We think that’s very important. … This gives people something to be proud of, something that’s unique, something to come home to. I want people to grow up at the Lyric. I want parents to bring their kids. I want youngsters to come there and see things. I want boyfriends to bring their girlfriends, and girlfriends to bring their boyfriends, and propose to them and get married on the stage. I want people to be swallowed up by the Lyric and enjoy it.”
That theme — the idea of “making modern memories” at the Lyric — comes up in conversation with all four of these key players, as Beene, Evans, Cosby and Brock continue their quest to make the theater shine again. Others who’ve become invested in the Lyric’s rebirth — board members, donors, volunteers, staffers and more — are likely to feel the same.
The restored Lyric Theatre opened to the public with three variety shows featuring local performers on Jan. 14-16, 2016. The task is far from finished. Beene, for example, can tick off a wish list for the Lyric that includes a green room, rehearsal spaces, expanded dressing rooms and a replica of the original box office. The adjoining office building? It hasn’t been touched yet.
Birmingham Landmarks also owns a building next-door to the Lyric that formerly housed the Majestic Theatre, a vaudeville competitor during the early 1900s. Two floors are empty, Beene says; the ground floor is home to Superior Furniture.
“We’ve got lots of dreams, but they’ll have to wait,” says Evans, the board chairman. “We need to get all the kinks worked out at the Lyric.” Ask Evans to retrace his steps back to 1993 and take a big-picture view, summing up how the Lyric was saved, and he responds without hesitation. The most important thing, he says, was taking an initial leap of faith. “The catalyst was when we decided to do it,” Evans says. “We didn’t know how to do it, and there was a lot of bumping into walls. But we made the decision to do it.”
Beene offers another perspective. “With heart,” he says. “That’s the short answer. If you put all the pieces together, it was timing, hometown people and others with a vision to know what the Lyric could be.”