Back in its heyday during the Forties and Fifties, the stretch of NW Second Avenue from about Sixth to Fourteenth Street in Overtown where the Lyric Theater sits was a nightlife hub known as Little Broadway. Several black-owned hotels and clubs thrived there, as did the intimate Lyric, a 400-seat facility built by Geder Walker in 1913 as a silent-film and vaudeville playhouse.
Of course in this city, little is everlasting, especially good times. "Of all the entertainment spots that were along that street, all of them are gone -- all of them except the Lyric Theater," says Derek Davis, executive director of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. "The funny thing is the first one built is now the last one standing." A rueful situation, but not completely sad. The Lyric is still around thanks to the efforts of the adventurous Archives.
By the late Eighties, the theater was owned by a church known as the House of Prayer, but it didn't seem to have a prayer itself. The Black Archives endeavored to save it, stepping in and plunking down about $40,000 for the building, which was empty and in extreme disrepair. "It was basically a crackhouse by that time," Davis says. "The roof had been open, birds were in, and there was just filth everywhere. When we first got the building, it took about $10,000 just to clean it up."
Twelve years later the Lyric has been restored somewhat, but not completely renovated. There's still plenty of work to do on the lobby, bathrooms, and stage. Dressing rooms need to be added, and expansion is necessary if the facility is going to fulfill its potential as a centerpiece in what the Archives hopes will eventually become the Historic Overtown Folklife Village, a two-block area honoring the glory days of the past. The missing element: money.
Supporters hope to get the financial ball rolling this weekend with a series of events dubbed the Lyric Theater Grand Reopening Weekend, which pays tribute to the literary, visual, and performing arts of Overtown and the Harlem Renaissance. Festivities include a lecture by Duke University history professor John Hope Franklin, a two-day pan-African bookfest, and a black-tie grand-opening concert featuring jazz trumpet player Melton Mustafa and his big band.
"You need to find ways to express yourself," Davis says. "The Lyric helps to bring the black community into the overall entertainment and tourism industry in South Florida. It changes Overtown, which has been a sore spot for a long time, and uses some of its history to make it a bright spot."