Lyric Theater

1800 3rd Avenue North,
Birmingham, AL 35203

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LouRugani
LouRugani on March 28, 2016 at 4:46 pm

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.”

atmos
atmos on December 13, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Theatre is scheduled to reopen on 14 January.

Matt Lambros
Matt Lambros on January 6, 2014 at 8:37 am

Here’s a blog post with some recent photographs of the Lyric Theatre

cinemad
cinemad on March 12, 2013 at 3:14 am

what a beautiful old lady this theatre is..shame so many of her conteparies have already died….

jjmaccrimmon
jjmaccrimmon on October 9, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Ladies and Gents, on Sep 28th, 2012, The Lyric Theatre hosted it’s first live performance in over 60 years. The event was a benefit concert by the Chad Fisher Jazz ensemble to raise funds for the continued restoration efforts for the Lyric. To accomplish this feat, volunteers laid down new temporary plywood flooring and lighting. Patrons brought their own chairs. Special dispensation was given by the City of Birmingham, Birmingham Fire Marshal and Code Enforcement to permit this special show. 200 tickets for this performance sold out in a matter of days.

Although the theater area has substantial water damage and decay, the sound quality was nothing less than astonishing. Live jazz spilled across the audience warm and rich as honey. There appeared to be clear sight and sound lines from all parts of the main floor. The band later reported that the sound quality and natural feedback from the venue walls was incredible.

http://savethelyric.com/ https://rally.org/savethelyric

TivFan
TivFan on October 8, 2012 at 9:00 pm

The 18th Street facade of the Lyric can be seen in the l976 Bob Rafelson film, “Stay Hungry”. It is the very last shot of the film. It is also the last shot in the trailer, as well. The shot shows a body builder posing on each of the horizonal levels of the fire escapes. The painted Lyric sign (on the upper wall) and some of the marquee and vertical sign are shown. The letter board on the marquee states: AL GOLDSTEIN FELICITY SPLIT IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (a rating, I’m assuming, is unreadable to the right of the film title.) According to previous posts, the Lyric showed adult films in the l970’s. It’s a great movie. “Stay Hungry”, that is…

Don Lewis
Don Lewis on November 25, 2010 at 7:50 pm

From the early 1900s a night time postcard view of Third Avenue along with the Bijou Theater in Birmingham.

TLSLOEWS
TLSLOEWS on October 19, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Thanks again Don.

jjmaccrimmon
jjmaccrimmon on October 19, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Thank you for sharing this beautiful.

Don Lewis
Don Lewis on October 19, 2010 at 9:28 am

From the 1940s a photo postcard view of downtown Birmingham that captured a view of the Lyric Theater.

jjmaccrimmon
jjmaccrimmon on December 3, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Ladies and gents, I just posted a group of interior photos from the Lyric (http://jj-maccrimmon.livejournal.com/611040.html) in my blog.

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on November 4, 2009 at 9:45 am

Records show a Kilgen pipe organ opus 3459 at the Lyric.

Lak
Lak on October 12, 2009 at 7:43 am

I was in Birmingham over the weekend, and was surprised to see how abandoned and unkept this section of the city seems to be. It will be hard to get investors to back the Lyric project until the city cleans the area up a bit! The Alabama across the street is beautiful though!

jjmaccrimmon
jjmaccrimmon on July 28, 2009 at 4:41 am

On July 18th, accompanied by two assistants, I had the opportunity extensively photograph the Lyric and Alabama Theater (across the street). The photos were taken to compare and contrast the condition of the two theaters and includes a number of wide angle, long exposure images that bring out the detail and vivid color on the inside of both grand old theaters. I’ll post links here to the site the images will be uploaded to. Over 400 photos were taken between the two sites, including backstage, below the stage, storage and mechanical areas, balconies and more. It’s taking a bit to sort out.

Bhamwiki
Bhamwiki on July 1, 2009 at 10:41 am

I’ve got a small article up on Bhamwiki about this theater: http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Lyric_Theatre

There are several views of the interior on Flickr as well. View link

The current estimate is that a full restoration will cost around $20 million. The major fund-raising push hasn’t quite yet been launched, but time isn’t the Lyric’s friend. Individual donors will help generate support for bigger sponsorships, grants and other funding, so don’t be shy about helping out – View link

jjmaccrimmon
jjmaccrimmon on May 19, 2009 at 7:00 am

Open House FREE!

Start Date: 6/7/2009 2:00:00 PM
Details
Tours will include the new Hill Arts Center Banquet Hall, the new Hill Center Meeting Room still under construction and tours of the Alabama and Lyric Theatres. Walk on the Lyric stage and walk back in history where the greats of Vaudeville walked.
You will hear music from the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ all afternoon played by members of the theatre organ staff. Our organ crew chief Larry Donaldson will be on hand to answer questions and let you peek into the secret organ chambers to see how it all works. Our Technical Director Jeff Kizziah will be in the projection booth to let you see how the picture gets on the screen. Volunteers will be stationed throughout the theatre to answer questions.

Refreshments will be in the Alabama Theatre and Hill Center. Holly Burrow of the Hill Center will be available to answer questions and provide literature about the new center.

** From the Alabama Theatre Calendar (5/19/09)

celloman
celloman on August 11, 2007 at 9:29 am

For a history of downtown Birmingham, AL theatres, go to to birminghamrewound.com.

This past weekend I was at the beautifully restored Alabama Theatre in Birmingham for one of the summer classic movies and featuring the Mighty Wurlitzer. What a day! On a table in the lobby was a handout sheet about the Lyric Theatre which is just across the street but has been closed for some time. This is part of it.

RESTORING THE LYRIC
The Lyric Theatre is now owned by Birmingham Landmarks Inc. Landmarks owns and operates the Alabama Theatre complex. Landmarks' plans are to restore the Lyric Theatre to its former glory and operate the theatre as a performing arts house. The Lyric will seat approximately 1,200 patrons with an excellent view of the stage. In addition, the stage has wing space needed for plays, opera, and musical presentations.

Considering that the Lyric has not been used and has sat idle for many years, the theatre is structurally sound and maintains much of its original decor. The balcony rails, the proscenium and side decorations, fire curtain, and mural “Allegories Of Spring,” painted by local artist and interior diesigner Harry H. Hawkins, give the viewer a hint of the Lyric’s glory days.

The Lyric Theatre was advertised to open its doors on Jan. 12, 1914. Due to an injunction filed by the Orpheum Theatre (Third Ave. and Seventeenth St.) the Lyric opened Jan. 14, 1914. The dispute centered around the fact that both the Orpheum and Lyric Theatres had a vaudeville booking contract with B.F. Keith Shows. The Lyric would present B.F. Keith Big Time Vaudeville from 1914 until the opening of the Ritz Theatre in 1926. Some of the show business legends to perform on the Lyric stage were Sophie Tucker (during second week the threatre opened) Gus Edward’s Kid Kabaret with George Jessel and Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Buster Keaton with the Keaton Family acrobats, Milton Berle, and Mae West. In the fifties, both Roy Rogers and Gene Autry appeared live on stage at the Lyric.

Changes in ownership and the depression took their toll. From time to time, the Lyric showed lower grade movies and was not the best place to go to see a movie. In the late 50’s the Lyric closed its doors. The lobby would be used for retail space and the theatre would be vacant. In 1972, a group of young businessmen reopened the theatre as the Grand Bijou Theatre showing classic movies. After the Grand Bijou closed, the Lyric ended its operation as the Foxy and later Roxy Adult Clnema, now closed.