The historic Lyric Theater, Miami’s oldest entertainment venue, symbolizes a time when Overtown was a bustling cultural hub: Jazz icon Duke Ellington thrilled audiences on its stage; poet Langston Hughes recited there; soul songstress Aretha Franklin charmed concert-goers with her gospel tunes.
Over the decades the theater, built in 1913 by black tycoon Geder Walker, was either treasured or neglected.
Thursday evening, the renovations and expansion to the aging icon were unveiled to about 100 guests. Community leaders and organizers say the historic theater will once again bring the arts — and job opportunities — to Overtown.
“This is only the beginning,” said Dorothy Fields, who led the effort to save the building from demolition after it fell into disrepair in the 1980s. “My vision is that people will come from all over the world to celebrate black culture at The Lyric Theater. That’s my hope.”
Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation, successfully lobbied to have the theater, at 819 NW Second Ave., listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
The Lyric once anchored the strip known as “Little Broadway” during segregation when black entertainers could only stay in what was then known as Colored Town.
The neighborhood’s businesses and entertainment corridor thrived before Interstate 95 tore through the heart of the community in the 1960s.
“It was literally slated to be demolished at one time,” said Fields, whose family lived across the street from the theater. “ This is a place of pride,”
In 2000, the Lyric reopened as a community theater. In 2004, the county set aside $10 million for its restoration and expansion. It continued to host some community events - but closing to the public while the final stages of the expansion was completed.
The theater “built by the hands of black men” now boasts a banquet hall, an expanded stage and a new wing for art exhibits and archival collections.
Attendees Thursday night were treated to a viewing of The Black Miami, a documentary that includes a segment on the theater.
“To be able to share a film in one of the most historic buildings in Miami about Miami’s black community is beyond words,” said producer Carlton Smith, of Pompano Beach.
Longtime activists and preservationists said the building’s restoration is a dream realized.
“This is the single most important building in Overtown,” said Marvin Dunn, author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, who attended the preview opening. “In 30 years, it is the biggest step forward I’ve seen toward revitalizing this jewel called Overtown.”
The restoration has not been without controversy. An unlicensed contractor on the restoration project was arrested on fraud charges in 2012, accused of collecting unemployment benefits while also receiving more than $600,000 from his work.
Work on the project was halted as police and prosecutors looked into possible fraud.
But on Thursday, with the project complete, it was all about the future and possibilities for the impoverished Overtown neighborhood.
“This has been years in the making. It hit a lot of roadblocks, but here we are,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson. “For the African-American community it is fitting that we are opening during Black History Month. It is here we will continue to entertain and showcase our culture.”
Organizers see the theater as a catalyst for change at a time when developers have plans to invest as much as $250 million in the surrounding area to build to build apartments, a hotel, shops, restaurants and music venues.
“Historically, Overtown was all about arts and culture. We want to bring that back down there,” said Kamila Pritchett, development coordinator for the Black Archives. “We want people to walk to Jackson Soul Food after a show and appreciate what’s here.”
On Friday evening, the theater will host its first amateur night “Lyric Live.” The show, which will be be on the first Friday of every month, will feature performing artists vying for a $500 prize. In a manner similar to amateur night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, the audience’s applause or boos will determine the finalists.
Other programming is expected to include spoken-word poetry, jazz performances and community lectures.
“My vision is that people will come from all over the world to celebrate black culture at The Lyric Theater,” said Fields. “That's my hope. It's been a labor of love. It's still a labor of love.”