Birmingham’s historic Lyric Theatre undergoing restoration
By Mark Hughes Cobb | Published by tuscaloosanews.com
June 20, 2013
On a downtown Magic City street in the early 20th century, the country’s biggest stars strode the stage of a fabulous theater, comparable in glitz and grandeur to the best houses of New York.
And they were live, real 3-D, not flattened on the silver screen of the yet-to-come Alabama Theatre across the street: the brothers Marx, Mae West, Buster Keaton (with his family act), Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, Fred Allen, Rube Goldberg, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Roy Rogers and yes, Trigger, trod the boards of the fabulous vaudeville-centered Lyric Theatre, at 1800 34th Ave. N. in Birmingham.
But the movies killed vaudeville, or at least mortally wounded the idea of taking acts out on the road, when they could so easily be filmed and back in their trailers for lunch. So after a heyday from 1914 to about 1927, the Lyric began to fade in the glow of its cross-the-street neighbor, the lavish Alabama. It closed in 1958, only to sputter open in the ’70s as an art-film house, then in the ’80s for a brief run as a porn-film house, before shutting down again.
A beauty shop moved into the lobby area about that time, effectively blocking off the Lyric, which once sat more than 1,500 people in ice-conditioned comfort — a primitive fan system blew air past an estimated 2 tons of ice per day — where blacks and whites watched shows together, a first in Birmingham, although the blacks had to sit in the highest of two steep balconies. A water tank near the stage allowed for aquatic acts.
When Birmingham Landmarks Inc., which was created to renovate and restore the Alabama, broke through that old shop, it was like uncovering a thought-lost King Tut’s tomb, said Brant Beene, executive director for the Alabama and Lyric Theatres.