Monday, July 07, 2008

Mae West: Lyrical Uplift

MAE WEST wowed the vaudeville thrill-seekers in Birmingham, Alabama — — and now a faded Southern beauty is getting a facelift. Learn more about the Lyric Theater. Here is an excerpt from the Birmingham Weekly's cover story.
• • Theatrical impresario Jake Wells built the magnificent Lyric Theater at Third Avenue North and 18th Street expressly for vaudeville in 1914, and there wasn’t another house like it in the city, perhaps in the Southeast.
• • Each of the 1,200 seats was a good one, whether a patron was on the main floor, in an opera box or in one of the two steep balconies.
• • The Lyric had remarkable acoustics. After all, there were no microphones in those days, and a comedian or singer on stage had to be audible even in the farthest seats.
• • The Lyric was elegant. The stage curtain was covered in gold leaf. Above the proscenium was a huge mural called The Allegory of the Muses, painted by local artist Harry Hawkins.
• • Best of all, the Lyric hosted the greatest names in entertainment, and people who would later become great names — Mae West, Will Rogers, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and more. . . .
• • . . . The Lyric was part of a thriving entertainment district — “the likes of which nobody in Birmingham now could imagine,” according to historian Linda Nelson — that was located on Second and Third Avenues between 18th and 20th Streets North. “Every other building was a theatre,” Nelson says. “Lights and activity and crowds and noise. It was busy. It was brilliant. Lots of places to eat, see shows.”
• • Venues like the Lyric, and the loud, fast, often bawdy entertainment of vaudeville, fit perfectly in the raucous young steel city of Birmingham — a rough, tough, unforgiving boomtown with strict segregation and a rigid class structure, but also a tremendous energy, even a kind of wildness.
• • “Birmingham had so much vibrancy in the period from the mid-1880s up to the point of the Depression,” according to Marvin Whiting, curator of the Birmingham-Jefferson History Museum, scheduled to open in 2009. “Everything about the city was alive, whether it was alive with struggle between labor and capital, or a struggle between a servant class and an elite class. It was a period of remarkable growth and also of remarkable tension.”
• • Birmingham came to a full stop with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression, which drastically curtailed production at the steel mills that had driven the growth of the so-called “Magic City.”
• • “The Depression hits, and where does the city have to go? No place,” Whiting says. “There was no smoke coming out of the smokestacks, out at Ensley or elsewhere.”
• • Another victim of the depression was Jake Wells, who owned dozens of theaters across the South but was overextended financially. When the crash came, he lost his empire, including the Lyric. He grabbed a pistol, went into the North Carolina woods and shot himself. . . .
— — Excerpt: — —
• • Article: "Bringing the Lyric back to life"
• • Byline: Jesse Chambers
• • Published in: Birmingham Weekly [Birmingham, AL 35205]
• • Published on: 3 July 2008
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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:

• • Photo:
• • Mae West • •
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Mae West.

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