The Lyric Theatre’s grand reopening — scheduled for January 14 — is billed by AL.com as a return to the theatre’s origins with its vaudeville-inspired opening schedule. But as we looked back at the Lyric’s history, what stood out most was how transient the theatre has been. It’s shifted its offerings and purpose to meet changing markets, changing times, and its own gradual decay. Maybe the most exciting part of the this new chapter, then, is the chance for the Lyric to finally establish its true identity.
“You’d like to say that the Lyric had a long and distinguished history, but, in fact, it didn’t,” Ward Haarbauer, who wrote a dissertation on the Lyric, told Metro Magazine in 1978. “It didn’t have much opportunity to live up to its promise.”
Ultimately, Haarbauer detailed a venue that fell victim to its owners’ fast-and-loose operations and to the changing class dynamics they attracted. The early Lyric operators adjusted its show format, first moving from single vaudeville stagings — the type that society folk attended — to less classy “three-a-day” shows and then to the even more shameless “continuous run features,” Haarbauer told the magazine.
Local newspaper articles of the thirties and forties tauted new film screening technology at the Lyric, but that wasn’t enough to salvage it. By the 1950s, Haarbauer said, the Lyric had shut its doors and a would-be restoration group couldn’t cover the estimated $300,000 repair cost. News headlines from 1964 suggest another local group also attempted to restore the theatre. What happened to that effort is unclear from online archives, but one would imagine cost to be a major factor once again. It’s possible the Lyric has long been a victim of its own grandeur.
In 1973, college friends and self-described “old film buffs” Dee Sloan and Robert Horton did enough repair work to make the Lyric’s main floor operational for film screenings, reported Emmett Weaver for the Birmingham News. “This Thursday the grand old theater (the last of its kind in downtown Birmingham),” Weaver wrote, “will re-open again with the 1927 first-talking movie from Warner Bros., ‘The Jazz Singer,’ which starred the late Al Jolson who gets down on his knees in the film to sing ‘Toot, Toot, Tooties, Goodbye!’“ The movie house would also fail, though the Lyric would survive for a while as the Foxy Adult Cinema.
Its latest incarnation is a return to the Lyric’s greatest strength: its live theatre acoustics, according to artsbham.com writer Michael Huebner. “With its steep pitch from the stage to the upper reaches of the balcony, and only 70 feet from the stage to the last balcony seat, it promises to be intimate in sound as well as sight,” Huebner wrote.
Indeed, lightupthelyric.com says the Lyric could host the over 100 events each year that aren’t a good fit for the Alabama Theatre. It also highlights an operational Lyric’s potential economic contributions. The Birmingham Business Journal reported this year that the Lyric energy had also contributed to commercial developments like the neighboring Gray Construction headquarters in the Booker T. Washington building.
Personally, we’re most excited by the mixed-used renovations happening nearby at the Pizitz building and the Thomas Jefferson Tower, which birminghamwatch.org notes is effectively expanding the Loft District into the city’s west side. Whatever style of venue the Lyric becomes, it looks to be a grand feature of a growing neighborhood. That alone is worth celebrating.