Lexington's Lyric Theatre and Cultural Center opened Thursday after years of planning and construction.
About 300 people flooded sidewalks and closed-off streets to hear speeches by Mayor Jim Newberry, former Lyric Theatre task force members and current board members Juanita Betz Peterson and Robert Jefferson, and principal architect Susan Stokes Hill.
The speakers told of the history of the theater, at Elm Tree Lane and East Third Street, which served black residents of Lexington when other theaters were segregated, before the civil rights movement.
"The Lyric opened its arms to any and all who crossed its threshold," Hill said. "The Lyric represents the best of community."
The grand reopening has been decades in the making. From 1948 to 1963, the theater was a downtown hot spot, showing movies and hosting some of the best-known jazz artists of its day.
Then it spent more than four decades shuttered, despite frequent talk of reopening.
"It was always my belief that something would happen there," said Joan Brannon, acting program director for the theater and an original member of former Mayor Teresa Isaac's task force to explore reopening the theater. "That it stood all these years without being demolished is a testament to that belief."
In 2009, renovation finally started to make the Lyric a 588-seat theater with an African-American cultural center and a multipurpose room.
"Architecturally, the restoration turned out beautifully," said Gene Woods, a musician and chief executive of St. Joseph Health Systems, "especially the décor, terrazzo floor and the signature marquee. But more than that, the place truly has a special feeling to it that goes beyond the bricks and mortar."
His band, The City, was among the first to perform in the Lyric when it played a private concert last week to test out the venue's acoustics. "Lexington is clearly progressing forward in so many ways, and the Lyric is yet another shining example," he said.
The roots of the Lyric renovation date to 1990, when the Urban County Government received $18.5 million in economic bonds for a cultural and trade center that was never built downtown. The state sued to get the money back; as part of a settlement in 1996, the city promised to spend millions on cultural projects, including the Lyric. But the city didn't take possession of the Lyric until 2005, after a lengthy condemnation battle.
Brannon said there is still some confusion among residents as to what the theater is supposed to be. This weekend's events are designed to make that clearer.
The centerpiece of the weekend is a sold-out opening-night gala Saturday, with Miki Howard topping a lineup that includes Lexington native and national recording artist Ben Sollee, local artists Tee Dee and Scandalous, the Sacred Drum Ensemble and the Agape Theatre Troupe, a new poem in honor of the theater by Nikky Finney, and a reading by Bianca Spriggs. Comedian Adele Givens will be the emcee.
Howard has had a string of hits, played iconic jazz vocalist Billie Holiday in Spike Lee's 1992 biopic Malcolm X and subsequently recorded an album of Holiday classics. But Brannon said that a big reason for booking her as the headliner was that she could bring a retro vibe to the event, with renditions of classic tunes from the Lyric's heyday.
"We wanted to present a powerful evening that was informative, welcoming and festive," Brannon said.
The rest of the weekend is designed to do the same thing, with tours, a showing of the 1943 film Stormy Weather on Friday, and an inspirational concert Sunday.
The cultural center also opens an exhibit of works by former University of Kentucky basketball player and internationally acclaimed artist LaVon Van Williams Jr.
Opening the theater leaves the renovation with one huge hurdle to clear: hiring a director. Lyric Theatre board member Kip Cornett said the board would have liked to have had a director in place for the opening, but "it's a critical position, and we have to make sure we get the right person."
Cornett said the board is looking for a manager who will be the public face of the theater, and the expectation was that people like Brannon and local artists and producers on the board, including Everett McCorvey and Miles Osland, can oversee programming.
The theater already has a schedule, including a new play by Agape Theatre about the women in Duke Ellington's band, and a holiday concert by the American Spiritual Ensemble.
In the long run, Brannon said, keys to the Lyric's success will be community support and a strong lineup of acts.
"The vision for this facility has to be national," she said. "There's no reason we can't have a strong lineup of national acts and also have local support."
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.