By Kaitlin Candelaria
The revival of downtown Birmingham continues with the grand re-opening of the Lyric Theatre in mid-January.
The Lyric Theatre, which is more than 100 years old, sits at 1800 Third Ave. North and will officially re-open its doors Jan. 14 after an $11.5 million renovation. Opening weekend will include three nights of modern vaudeville and a performance of Romeo and Juliet by the State Ballet of Russia.
A list of concerts scheduled for the spring was released recently and includes names such as Drive-by Truckers, Mavis Staples, Sam Bush and Randy Newman.
Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, said it’s hard to discuss the revitalization of the Lyric without mentioning other signs of progress in the city, such as Regions Field and Railroad Park.
“As things happened, we had a great fundraising campaign here in downtown Birmingham that brought Railroad Park in and the city agreed to help build Regions Field, and those two things were sort of the beginning of the downtown resurgence,” he said. “Momentum really started to shift back toward the downtown area around 2003 or 2004. Finally, when Railroad Park and Regions Field came along, we felt like we had the momentum and the time was right for us to have a fundraising campaign to rebuild the Lyric.”
Beene isn’t a Birmingham native but has called the city home for almost 40 years. He said he was attracted to his role with Birmingham Landmarks, the company that owns both the Alabama Theatre and the Lyric Theatre, because of his love for entertainment.
“All us children of the ‘60s love music,” he said, laughing. “But I also loved the historic nature of it. The Lyric has been here since 1914 and the Alabama has been here since 1927, so you have to think of the people who have been through those buildings and what they have meant to the historic fabric of Birmingham.”
Beene came on board at Birmingham Landmarks in 2009 to raise money to rebuild the Lyric. The family that owned the theater sold it to Birmingham Landmarks in the early 90’s for only $10 with the intent that it be revitalized.
However, plans for the Lyric were put on hold when Birmingham Landmarks co-founder Cecil Whitmire passed away in 2010. In 2013, Beene brought Tom Cosby on board as the campaign manager for the “Light Up the Lyric” fundraising campaign, and the restoration of the Lyric finally was underway.
“We’re lucky that Tom decided he wanted to retire, but also that he wanted to work on a project that he had great passion for,” Beene said. “He’s worked on projects like Rickwood Field, the Vulcan and he’s very excited about the Lyric. In the space of eight or nine months, Tom was able to help us raise about $8.1 million for the Lyric.”
After the successful fundraising campaign, renovations began in 2014.
“The great thing about this project has been the variety and the number of people we have had who have contributed great sums of money – sacrificial gifts,” Beene said. “We’ve had great help from the city government, from the state, the arts council, the federal government, from foundations, from businesses and from individuals, all of whom have made tremendous contributions.”
Beene said that, for now, the Lyric will focus on performances like the vaudeville show during the opening weekend and musical performances. In the future, they may consider opening for weddings as well, he said.
“I love the fact that we have the Alabama and the Lyric and Vulcan and Rickwood Field and other places that you can’t find anywhere else in the world,” he said. “They’re ours and they make us what we are and I think that sense of place is a very important thing to a city. Having these theaters and those attractions really gives Birmingham a sense of place. It’s very satisfying to me to help continue the legacy that the Alabama and the Lyric has and to hand it to the next generation in better shape than I found it.”