Lexington’s Lyric Theatre: A Cornerstone of Civic Culture

2/09/19 9:00 AM

In its heyday, business boomed in Lexington’s East End neighborhood along Deweese Street. There were doctors and dentists, lawyers and insurance agents, restaurants and entertainment venues, all catering to blacks in the age of segregation.

The thoroughfare was so popular and the services available there were so diverse that locals called it “Do As You Please” Street.

For many years, the hub of the neighborhood was the Lyric Theatre. The small movie house at the corner of Deweese and East Third Streets opened in 1948. It offered black residents a place where their kids could watch Saturday afternoon cartoons and Westerns, and parents could catch shows by legendary African American entertainers at night.

But all that changed when integration came to Lexington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Once blacks gained the freedom to patronize white-owned establishments, many East End businesses closed or moved to other parts of town. The Lyric, too, became a victim of integration, closing its doors in 1963.

Even after sitting empty and unused for much of the next five decades, a second act awaited the theater. Local activists and government officials put together a $9 million plan to restore the theater and renew its role a community hub. The Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center opened in October 2010 on the street now known as Elm Tree Lane.

As the Lyric begins its 2019 season, the center’s Executive Director Donald Mason appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the history and future of the storied theater.

 

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Rebuilding a Home for Great Music
Mason’s first memory of the Lyric is seeing the abandoned theater. He was seven years old, and he and his family had just moved to Lexington from Texas.

“I never forgot about the Lyric,” Mason recalls. “I always wanted to find a way that I could come back to the Lyric and do something positive.”

After graduating from Tates Creek High School, Mason worked as a photojournalist and in the music business, and he sang with his band, Soul Funkin Dangerous. He also helped nonprofit organizations develop younger audiences for their programming. In 2015, he became the Lyric’s executive director.

The 500-seat theater once hosted the likes of Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ike and Tina Turner, the Ink Spots, and Ray Charles. But Mason says it’s hard to get acts of that caliber today because the economics of show business have changed, even for nonprofit venues like the Lyric.

“If an artist costs $100,000, and we have 500 seats, it’s going to take a $200 ticket and selling out just to break even,” he says. “That’s really hard and a lot of pressure on not just us, but the patrons.”

So Mason looks for up-and-coming performers, or older acts that prefer smaller, acoustically rich, historic venues like the Lyric. Last summer the theater featured George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic in a concert that cost $65 a ticket. Mason says he continues to look for such bands to book for future shows. He’s also considered having the Lyric sponsor shows that would be staged in other, larger theaters around town.

Highlighting Lexington’s Diversity
Mason also plans to continue to rent his theater out to other organizations, such as the Woodsongs Old-time Radio Hour, which airs at midnight on Saturdays on KET.

Mason says the decision to bring the weekly variety show featuring folk, bluegrass and Americana music to a theater with an African American heritage was a bit controversial among some patrons. (Woodsongs had already moved from the Kentucky Theatre to the Lyric before Mason was hired.) But he says hosting the show every Monday is good for the Lyric: It fills seats on a night that is traditionally slow for many theaters, and it brings a different kind of crowd in the door.

“That’s an audience that we need to have, at least, as allies and understand that you can come to the East End and have a really good experience and not something bad will happen to you,” he says. “You need that.”

Along with hosting Woodsongs, Mason wants to expand Lyric’s offerings that highlight African American heritage and culture, such as regular events built around Kwanzaa and Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the end of slavery. Mason also hopes to add programming for children and youth, as well as events that feature women, Latino, and LGBTQ artists. In addition to the theater, the center also has a museum space that will house a permanent art collection and a gallery for rotating exhibits as well as a community room that’s available for rent for private luncheons and parties.

“This is a room that was designed to help us survive into the future,” he says, “and also be able to provide a place in the community for you to come and have a great event.”

Revitalizing the Community
With so many arts and cultural opportunities happening in central Kentucky these days, it can be hard for a smaller venue like the Lyric to compete for patrons. Mason has contacted the University of Kentucky about doing a market research study for the theater so he can learn more about potential audiences, the programs that interest them, and what they’d be willing to pay to attend those programs.

“We are always looking for smart ways to expand our brand and to listen to other people and see what people want from us,” says Mason. “I’m not a spring chicken anymore and I don’t know what’s hot. We need people to give us that information, we need people to help us build our future programs.”

As the Lyric grows its programming and its audience base, Mason hopes the theater can also foster a revitalization of the East End neighborhood. One potential idea he has is to add a restaurant to the cultural center that would hire people from the neighborhood and feature locally grown food.

“Most all of our programming is rooted in our mission, which is African American heritage and promoting and celebrating that,” says Mason. “We want people to be proud of the art, we want people to be proud of the neighborhood, and hopefully we will serve as the anchor moving forward to encourage business to come in.”

“We want to make sure that we have a healthy and thriving community,” he says.

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