Lyric Theatre’s rebirth a long-awaited dream

July 16, 2009

Sometimes a dream deferred can come true.

You could see that dream in the faces of many of the 200 people who gathered Thursday morning at the corner of East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane to break ground for the long-delayed Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center project.

The crowd included community leaders and city officials, some of whom had worked for 18 years to restore the Lyric, an icon of Lexington’s African American community.

It also included many longtime Lexingtonians who have been waiting 46 years for their Lyric to reopen.

They’ll have another year to wait before the cavernous shell of a theater is rebuilt as a city-owned performing arts and community center.

“It means a number of years of frustration are over,” said Robert Jefferson, a former Urban County Council member who helped start the long crusade. “This is a very emotional time for me.”

After a 1987 fire damaged the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street and the city announced plans to restore it, Jefferson urged then-Mayor Scotty Baesler to appropriate $250,000 for the Lyric.

It was only fair, Jefferson said: “As a native Lexingtonian, I hadn’t had the right to go to the Kentucky Theatre because of segregation.”

But it would take years of struggle and legal disputes before Mayor Jim Newberry, the Urban County Council and a dedicated group of community activists would succeed in putting together the Lyric’s $9 million renovation and operating plan.

Many of those who came out remembered the Lyric as the place where black Lexingtonians came to see movies, vaudeville shows and jazz musicians from 1948 until the theater closed in 1963.

Tassa Wigginton said her childhood Saturdays were spent at the Lyric, visiting with friends, eating popcorn and watching cartoons and movies.

“We came with a quarter; 10 cents to get in and 15 cents to spend,” she said. “One day when I was a teenager my daddy let me come with him to see a stage show and I thought I was in seventh heaven.

“This was really the community center,” Wigginton said. “This and Dunbar High School were the pride of the black community.”

Don Garrison said he began working at the Lyric selling tickets and ended up as its last manager. “I was here the night we shut it down,” he said, noting the irony that desegregation ruined the Lyric’s business.

Julian Jackson Jr., another early supporter of the Lyric’s restoration, said he hopes the new facility will preserve the East End’s colorful history.

Many people know the area was once home to Lexington’s pre-Keeneland race track and the famous black jockeys Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield. But Jackson said they may not know of other neighborhood greats, such as the opera singer William Ray and the inventor Joseph Bailey Lyons.

As with the Lyric, desegregation led to decline in the historically black East End — a decline that has been in rapid reverse over the past decade, thanks to work by the Urban League, city government and many others.

S.T. Roach, the legendary basketball coach at the old all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was thrilled to be able to attend Thursday’s ceremony.

“I’ve been waiting for this for many years,” said Roach, 93, who once worked at the Lyric and ran an ice cream bar next door.

Roach recalled the vitality of the old East End and thinks the Lyric’s restoration could kick the neighborhood’s renaissance into high gear.

Former councilman George Brown agreed.

“I think the new Lyric will become a meeting place, a community place, a place for new artists to be discovered,” Brown said. “Who knows what could be spawned here, from Third and Elm Tree Lane? Only the mind can imagine.”