Reopening night at the Lyric Theatre

Restored Lyric Theatre hosts first concert since 1963

Silent for decades, theater channels its past glory

jwarren@herald-leader.comOctober 31, 2010 

After standing in silence and darkness for nearly 50 years, Lexington's historic Lyric Theatre came alive again Saturday night with lights, music and love.

Hundreds of people strolled down a red carpet while spotlights swept overhead. They stepped inside to attend the Lyric's sold-out grand reopening concert and to witness the rebirth of a place that once was the centerpiece of Lexington's black community.

A concert by recording artist Ben Sollee and other performers highlighted the evening, the first live performances at the Lyric (now called the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Center) since it closed in 1963.

It was a big moment for many who attended from around the East End neighborhood, but particularly for folks such as James Coles, who still remember the Lyric in its heyday, when the nation's top black performers appeared regularly.

Coles, 74, worked at the Lyric in 1953 and 1954, just after graduating from the old Dunbar High School. His relatives say he really was there back then to spend time around a young girl named Thelma, who worked at the concession stand. She's now his wife.

"I used to put announcements up on the marquee, and I got to see a lot of the name groups and entertainers that came through here during that era," Coles said. "Now it feels really wonderful to see it opening again. It seems like a whole new spirit just came in again tonight."

Arthur Guy, 56, attending the reopening with his friend, Sir-Walter Wingate, said he used to see movies, particularly horror movies, at the Lyric in the late '50s.

"I saw Frankenstein right here," Guy said, laughing. "It was a wonderful place. It wasn't segregated like other theaters in the city, so you could sit anywhere you wanted, and everybody in the community came here. It was a real loss when it closed.

"Now, to see it opening again, it's a monumental occasion. I never thought I'd see it happen, but I'm so thankful that it has really come. I'm going to be a supporter of this theater for the rest of my days."

Julia Martin smiled as she recalled seeing Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine perform at the Lyric in the 1950s. Now, she hopes a new generation can have similar experiences at the new Lyric.

"This theater is a little piece of our history, and we don't have too many left that tell the story of the black community," Martin said. "This is one thing we can hold onto so that our children and grandchildren can see a little bit of our history."

From 1948 until it closed, the Lyric was the place to be for Lexington's black residents. It showed movies and offered performances by leading musical acts. Then, the old theater at Elm Tree Lane and East Third Street closed, and it sat silent and seemingly dead as more than four decades passed.

Talk of renovating the Lyric went on for years, but work didn't begin on the $6 million renovation until after the city of Lexington took possession of the building in 2005 after a long condemnation battle.

P.G. Peeples, president and chief executive of the Lexington Urban League, predicted Saturday night the Lyric's reopening will set the stage for a revival of the entire East End neighborhood.

"You can just see and feel the electricity in here tonight," Peeples said. "This theater is important because of what it did mean, and now means, and what it will mean to this community. An art center like this can become an anchor around which many other good things can happen."

Freda Meriwether, who chairs the Lyric Theater and Cultural Arts Center Board, called the reopening a "huge" development for the neighborhood. The revitalized Lyric will provide not only entertainment, but a new spirit for the community and a place for budding black writers and performers to try their skills, she predicted.

"After all these years, we're actually bringing the old Lyric back," she said. "It sat here, quiet, for so long, just waiting for someone to do something with it. But people hung in there and didn't give up the fight. Now, it's finally happening."

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.

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