During its peak in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Lyric hosted major touring shows under the B. F. Keith Big Time Vaudeville banner. In later years the theatre was used for cinema screenings, mostly second-run and alternative releases. It is the only surviving vaudeville theater in Birmingham.
Vacant since the late 1970s, the structure is currently owned by Birmingham Landmarks and fund-raising is underway for an extensive preservation and renovation effort.
The development of the Lyric Theatre began when real-estate developer Louis V. Clark purchased three adjoining lots and hired the Hendon Hetrack Construction Company to construct a six-story office building and theatre on the property. Clark formed a partnership with Jake Wells to operate the theatre. Wells already owned and managed a number of theaters across the South, including the Bijou Theatre a block west.
The Lyric originally had 1,583 seats spread across the main floor, two steep balconies, and two opera boxes. A center section at the front of the stage had a water tank underneath for aquatic shows (and to hold ice for a rudimentary attempt at providing air conditioning). A gold-leafed and painted asbestos curtain hung on the stage beneath a proscenium featuring a large mural known as The Allegory of the Muses, which was painted by local artist Harry Hawkins. Beneath the stage are a series of dressing rooms, each about eight feet square with sinks in the corners.
The theater's debut was set for Monday, January 12, with Wells publishing announcements that the eight B. F. Keith acts booked for the Orpheum that week would be "transferred" to the "New Lyric". As the opening approached, Wells received congratulatory telegrams from many of his peers in other cities, including Sam and Lee Shubert, William Brady, Oscar Hammerstein, George M. Cohan, A. W. Savage, Klaw & Erlanger, and John M. Slaton. The Orpheum's operator, Karl Hoblitzelle of the Interstate Company, objected and rushed to Birmingham to get a restraining order. The result was a two-day delay in opening.
It was Wednesday, January 14, 1914, then, that hosted the Lyric's debut. The acts booked for the opening performances included the Jesse Lasky company's performance of Gertrude Jennings' The Rest Cure", cartoonist Rube Goldberg, Willard and Bond, Four Bards, Claudius and Scarlet, Loraine and Dudley, Walter Van Brunt, and Archie and Gertie Falls. According to a review by Charles Mandy (who did not mention Goldberg's performance), the opening night crowd was "large, responsive, and representative of the best element of the city,", though the "girl ushers, neatly uniformed…proved very acceptable…the crowd made the addition of one or two 'boys' necessary."
Originally the theater offered a program of seven different acts each week, with three nightly performances and matinees on Saturday. The Four Marx Brothers brought a company of 16 to headline a program on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1914.
In its heyday, the theater was operated jointly by Wells and Karl Hoblitzelle, who had bought a share in the business and brought acts from his Interstate Amusement Company. Their disagreements brought frequent turmoil to the theater. After a sudden closure in early 1915, the former Vaudeville house reopened with a less-prestigious "Three-A-Day" variety program. Soon after, even that format was dropped and the stage began hosting continuous run programs with a house repertory company. The crisis was averted when the rival Jefferson Theatre ran into financial troubles and the Lyric once again assumed the mantle of the city's premier Vaudeville hall.
"The Lyric Company" with Hoblitzelle as president, secured affiliations with the Orpheum Circuit, B. F. Keith's circuit, United Booking Offices of America, and the Western Vaudeville Manager's Association as well as his own Interstate Amusement Company. Stars such as Sophie Tucker, Gus Edward's Kid Kabaret with George Jessel and Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, the Keaton Family Acrobats (with Buster Keaton), Milton Berle, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Belle Baker, the Marx Brothers, Lottie Mayer's "Neptune Gardens" water divers, Marshall Montgomery, Pat Rooney and Marion Bent, and Mae West appeared on stage.
W. S. Crosbie was the local manager in charge, with Al Plante as musical director of the Lyric Wonder Orchestra. Daily performances were scheduled for 2:30, 7:15 and 9:10, with two matinees (1:15 and 3:15) on Saturdays. Under Hoblitzelle's orders, all performances were guaranteed to be free of offensive words, expressions and situations. After motion pictures became popular, the Lyric pared its live schedule down to five new acts per week.
In the early 1920s the Lyric started to see more competition. The Masonic Temple Theater was completed in 1922 and the Ritz and Empire Theaters opened in 1926. After the completion of the larger air-conditioned Ritz, the Lyric permanently lost its status the grandest Vaudeville hall in Birmingham.
On Sunday evenings the theatre was used by the newly-formed Independent Presbyterian Church. A Kilgen opus 3459 size 2/4 theater organ was installed in 1925. The touring "A. B. Marcus Revue" held court at the Lyric in 1926 with a large cast and chorus line. The Lyric hosted its own stock dramatic troupes in the off-season, including one with John McFarland and Katherine Comeges as its stars. Russell Filmore's Favorite Players with Jerome Cowan took to the stage with their popular light comedy from 1927 to 1930.
The Lyric continued to operate successfully up until the Great Depression. With his funds overextended, Wells lost his chain of theaters and ultimately committed suicide. Ownership of the Lyric reverted to the mortgage company which leased it to the Schubert organization. The Lyric continued to present vaudeville acts, but the Depression and competition from movies and radio led to its decline and closure in 1930 or 1931.
In 1932, brothers Ben and L. A. Stein of Jacksonville, Florida reopened the Lyric as a movie theater. They installed a new Western Electric sound system and other refurbishments and scheduled four feature films each week, beginning with Will Rogers in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" on April 25 of that year. Ben returned to Florida while his brother remained in Birmingham as manager. Later the same year it was leased to the Paramount and the Wilby-Kincey circuit to operate it as a second run theater, often showing movies that had their local premieres across the street at the Alabama.
The Lyric received another major renovation with new projection equipment in the early 1940s while Oliver Naylor was manager. In 1945, the Waters Theater Company, headed by Newman Waters, Sr, bought the Lyric out of foreclosure for $400,000 and continued its lease it to Paramount as a second-run house. In 1950 he turned the lease over to the Acme Theaters chain which also operated the Melba Theater, Empire Theater, Galax Theater and Royal Theater.
The opera boxes were removed in 1954 under Bill O'Neill's tenure as manager in order to accommodate a 15' tall by 36' wide screen for CinemaScope films. O'Neill also brought back live performances, with a weekly 11 PM "Saturday Night Jamboree" hosted by "Uncle" Jim Atkins and broadcast live on WBRC-AM. Among the musicians taking the stage in the 1950s were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
In 1964 the Women's Committee of 100 studied the possibility of renovating the Lyric as a non-profit civic hall and as a boost to revitalization of the downtown area. The group, headed by Mrs Joseph Simpson, estimated that $150,000 to $300,000 would have to be raised. They incorporated a Lyric Civic Theater Association and hired Nashville architect and theater expert Clinton Brush to advise them on needed repairs and requirements for re-use. The project never materialized.
In 1972, friends and old movie buffs, North Jefferson News editor Dee Sloan and x-ray technician Robert Whorton acquired the theater for a revival house showing pre-1940s pictures. They refurbished the main floor with a red and gold color scheme and new lobby furnishings, including Victorian sofas and a Czechoslovakian chandelier. They reopened as the Grand Bijou Motion Picture Theater with a screening "The Jazz Singer", starring Al Jolson, on April 19, 1973. The $1.75 feature was preceded by a Keystone Kops short and a 1920s-era newsreel.
The Bijou lasted only a short time. It soon reopened as the Foxy Adult Cinema and later the Roxy Adult Cinema, run by Water Enterprises. In 1975, the Lyric's twin fire escapes on 18th Street North were populated by bodybuilders posing for the final scene of Stay Hungry. In 1979 a special program of live performances was staged by a group led by Rebecca Jennings as a demonstration of the potential for rehabilitating the theater. Everett Holle emceed the program, which included Richard Englund from the Birmingham Civic Ballet, Pam Walbert reading a scene from "Joan of Arc", and Bernadine Seay playing the accordion. The theater closed down for good in the early 1980s.
In 1993, the Waters family sold the building for $10 to Birmingham Landmarks, a nonprofit organization which had taken ownership of the Alabama Theatre across the street from the Lyric a few years earlier. Although the theater itself had not been used since the 1970s, the adjoining office building housed operating retail spaces at street-level along 3rd Avenue, including Lyric Hot Dogs and Place Design Studio. The auditorium was in dire disrepair and had no climate control system, leading to further deterioration.
In 1998 the Birmingham Art Association opened a gallery in the theater's office building while the Metropolitan Arts Council worked on plans to restore and reopen the entire facility for $10 million as a community arts center. The plans were part of the $600 million Metropolitan Area Project Strategy (MAPS) proposal which was defeated in a county-wide public referendum. $2.5 million of the anticipated restoration cost was raised privately, but the failure of MAPS put the project on hold.
In 2009, efforts to restore the theater were relaunched. The City of Birmingham provided $200,000 to study the feasibility of the project, which was estimated to require approximately $16.5 million. The study indicated that a reopened Lyric would generate as much as $3.5 million in annual economic impact. Birmingham Landmarks began renovations in the lobby to showcase the potential of the theatre's renovation. A few public open-house events were held in advance of the primary fundraising drive to broaden public interest in the venue. In Fall 2010 efforts to identify hazardous materials in the building were undertaken, with the possibility of a federal brownfield grant to help fund their removal.
In early 2014 Birmingham Landmarks announced that $7.4 million had been raised, making it possible to begin interior renovations in earnest for a reopening in the Summer of 2015. The main room, which will seat 750, is named the "Regions Auditorium" and the lobby "Kaul Hall". Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, Ohio collaborated with Davis Architects on the architectural design of the renovations. Stewart Perry Construction was awarded the construction management contract for the work.
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