Eight months before his family reunion, Abdul Muhammad called to see if the Deweese Street community room at the Lyric Theatre was available.
Sorry. It was booked, he was told.
"I called eight months in advance," Muhammad said. "I'm the chairman of the board of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center and I couldn't get in."
Although that meant the family reunion had to be held elsewhere, it was good news for Muhammad and for the Lyric Theatre.
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"That told me how much our community room is in use," Muhammad said.
Lowering rental rates for its community room has been a key change at the Lyric over the past few years as the reinvented downtown theater tries to improve its bottom line and find its niche in Lexington's arts scene.
Things have improved since the Lyric reopened in October 2010. Late last year, the theater underwent its first audit and received a clean assessment. It recently completed a new five-year strategic plan that calls for key changes in how the city-owned center does business. It recently hired a full-time development director to up its corporate and community sponsorships and go after grants.
"We were operating in the red three years ago," Muhammad said. "Now, we're operating in the black and we are asking for less government money every year."
But in February, its popular executive director Rasheedah El-Amin announced she was leaving to pursue other opportunities.
El-Amin's departure is a setback, but the board says the theater is better positioned now than it has ever been.
"Where we are today versus where we started, it's like night and day," Muhammad said. "But we also have a lot of room to grow."
The board tapped Donald Mason, a board member who has a degree from Asbury University, to serve as acting director. Mason, a Tates Creek High School graduate and Lexington native, will serve as acting director for at least six months but hopes to become the theater's full-time director, he said.
"I am deeply passionate about the Lyric and believe its potential has yet to be fully reached," Mason said. Mason, who is working on an MBA with an emphasis in the music business through Berklee College of Music and Southern New Hampshire University, has roots in the city's music scene. He has worked at WRFL-FM 88.1, the University of Kentucky's student radio station, and hosts the Red Barn Radio, which records each Wednesday at ArtsPlace.
The Lyric has anchored the corner of East Third Street and what is now called Elm Tree Lane since the 1940s. From the '40s through the '60s it was a musical hot spot, epicenter and touchstone for the city's black community. For decades, it sat dormant, an eyesore but a reminder of what the East End once was. After years of legal wrangling, an official ribbon-cutting was held in October 2010 with the grand reopening in December of that year.
But since its reopening, it has struggled to regain the cultural importance it once had.
It opened without an executive director. Even after Los Angeles producer and performer Yetta Young was hired in May 2011, the theater was dogged by complaints of dark nights, high rental fees and poor communication with the neighborhood. Young left in December 2012. El-Amin, who previously served as the cultural arts coordinator, was named interim director and became the permanent director in 2014.
It was under El-Amin's direction that activity at the corner of Elm Tree Lane and East Third Street increased. One key decision: the board decided to lower its rental rates for its community room. The price had been a flat $350 for five hours, with the option to add more hours. The change decreased the cost to $75 an hour for private events and $25 for community events that are free and open to the public.
Billie Mallory, an East Side resident, said El-Amin not only repaired bridges that Young burned but forged new partnerships that increased foot traffic into the theater.
"She's just done a wonderful job," Mallory said. "She's really made people feel welcome and comfortable at the Lyric. I think people are very pleased with the direction it was going."
El-Amin also worked to get more exhibits in the cultural arts center — further increasing foot traffic into the East Side space. And she worked with various community groups such as the Lexington Children's Theatre to bring more and diverse groups of people into the theatre.
Its 500-plus seat theater space also secured a major tenant — internationally heard WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, which moved from the Kentucky Theatre to the Lyric in a deal that Young struck but El-Amin executed. The show will record its 800th episode at the Lyric Monday night with Texas Swing band Asleep at the Wheel on stage.
Paula King, the treasurer of the board and a board member since 2012, said revenues from tickets and rental fees also increased. The Lyric had to cut or furlough staff in the years that expenses surpassed revenues.
"We can't really finish in the red," King said. "We had to cut back our staff to make our budget."
But the past two years, revenues have gradually increased, King said.
Mason said he plans to ensure that the Lyric's doors remain open to everyone. That means booking more diverse musical acts, partnering with more community groups and bringing more programming to its exhibit space.
"We have the Breeders' Cup coming up in October, we are working to make sure we have programming during that time," Mason said. "It's also our five-year anniversary so we are developing programming for that."
As part of its five-year strategic plan, the board is also considering looking at its rental rates for its theater space. By making those rental rates more competitive, more local groups can host events there, Mason said.
"We are hoping we can attract more local musicians," Mason said.
But it also needs to seek more sponsors and grants so losses on those performances are minimal.
"That's our weakness — sponsorships and grants," King said. In 2014, sponsorships and grants were a little less than $10,000.
With the hiring of a new development director, the group is hoping to increase those sponsorships and fundraising by 20 percent each year. Mason said the new development director will start Monday.
Chris Ford, who has served on the board for several years, said the successful audit and the five-year strategic plan will show grant organizations and private donors that the Lyric is a good investment. Ford previously served on the board as First District Councilman. He was recently appointed by Mayor Jim Gray to serve as the city's social services commissioner.
"I think the clean audit is going to bring a level of validation," Ford said. "It will put it in a position to go after sizable donations and grants."
"Most organizations won't give grants until you have been operating for a minimum of three years," he said.
The new five-year plan calls for a gradual decrease in government support for operational costs over the next five years. Currently, the Lyric receives $160,000 from the city government for operational expenses. That's mostly for salaries for the center's employees. The city also picks up the tab for maintenance and other costs for the building, which it owns. Last year, those costs were approximately $86,710, according to financial information provided by the city.
In 2011, 65 percent of its $323,732 budget was taxpayer money. In 2014, only 32 percent of its budget of $502,462 was a direct allocation from the city.
Ford said it's unlikely that the Lyric will ever be self-sustaining. Many of the city's arts programs are supported by taxpayer dollars. The city owns several arts venues, including the Downtown Arts Center, the Lexington Opera House and the Kentucky Theatre.
"The city support has been critical," Ford said. "It's been valuable to the board and to the people we serve. Not only does it indicate the government's recognition that this facility is important to the East End; it also sends a signal that diversity is important."
At the same time, the Lyric board understands that it has to raise more money from private donors.
"We have to establish relationships with partners," said Jones. "That's what the city wants us to do. We are good stewards of their money, that's what the audit showed. In order to be better stewards, they want us to get more sponsors."
One of Mason's dream to-do projects is an exhibit of memorabilia from the old Lyric.
"I know that may be hard to do because it's been more than 50 years, but if anyone has any old programs from Count Basie, Cab Calloway or even ticket stubs we would love to have them so we could showcase it," Mason said. As a kid, Mason would often pass the Lyric when it was a boarded-up, dilapidated building. Although he wasn't born when the Lyric was a hot spot, Mason said he always felt a connection to the building and its musical history.
He recalled, "I would drive by it and think, 'I hope they never tear it down."