Restoration of the Lyric Theatre

Norton Dill's gorgeous documentary explores the rich history of this downtown Birmingham landmark and its restoration 100 years later.

By Mike Mckenzie

A little known fact in the world of entertainment is that in the early 1900s, Birmingham, Alabama had one of the top ten theater districts in the country with 27 theaters in the downtown area.  The crown jewel was the Lyric Theatre, a vaudeville palace built in 1913. A new documentary from Birmingham filmmaker Norton Dill reveals the story of this magnificent stage from its heyday to the modern day. Restoration: The Life and Stories of the Lyric Theatre airs Thursday night at 8 on Alabama Public Television and is available on the PBS App.

The Marx Brothers once performed at the Lyric Theatre.

According to Milton Berle, who played there in 1927 and appears in the film, the Lyric was as fine a theater as any in the entire country. It was a part of the B.F. Keith Circuit, the premier vaudeville circuit with over 700 theaters in the United States and Canada.  All of the major stars played there…. The Marx Brothers, Mae West, Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, Buster Keaton and many others.  But when the first “talking picture”, The Jazz Singer, appeared in 1928, vaudeville and the Lyric Theatre began a slow, painful decline.  The Lyric closed in the 1960s and sat empty for 40 years, deteriorating to what most people thought was a point of no return.  With it’s marquee removed, the Lyric Theatre was forgotten by almost all of the local population.

The film’s telling of the Lyric’s story is done with different voices, each with a unique connection to the theater.  Anthony Slide, renowned film and vaudeville historian who lives in Studio City, California, tells us about the rise and fall of vaudeville as America’s grand entertainment form.  Jeff Greene, of Evergreene Architectural Arts in New York City, guides us through the intricate restoration of what he says is one of the finest of the 400 theaters all over the world that his company has restored.  William Bell, the second African American mayor of Birmingham, speaks eloquently about seeing shows at the Lyric during his childhood and the role the theater has played in Birmingham’s race relations.

These interviews and many others tell the story of how the Lyric was and is more than just a building.  Its story represents the changes that have taken place throughout the entire nation over the last 100 years.  The Lyric has been a safe haven for people from all walks of life.  It’s a point of connection that has helped hold a divided community together and, since it’s reopening in 2016, has helped to spark a renewal of downtown Birmingham’s business and cultural vitality.


Watch the Documentary Online

Restoration: The Life and Stories of the Lyric Theatre premiered at the 2023 Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham.

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