Tour Historic Overtown's Lyric Theater

Overtown

By: Shayne Benowitz

Once the epicenter of Miami’s Little Broadway, the Lyric Theater lives on today as a fixture of Overtown.

Historic Overtown and its once bustling music and entertainment district has a mythic quality with stories passed down from generation to generation in Miami’s black community.

Rewind to the 1950s. Imagine a Little Broadway district northwest of downtown Miami, glittering with the bright lights of nightclubs and music halls. Headlining names included James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. Sitting at tables in the audience, enjoying dinner and drinks, were sports heroes Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. From the theaters to the street corners, the echoes of doo-wop, blues, jazz and soul floated across the neighborhood.

Stars didn’t just perform in Overtown, they were born and raised there. With hits, like “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” soul legend Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame grew up in Overtown. Other local talent, like comedian Flip Wilson, got his start there.

All of this came to an end in the 1960s when two expressways were built through the center of the neighborhood, fracturing the community and displacing more than 20,000 residents. The Mary Elizabeth Hotel, where African American luminaries once stayed, including Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston, is long gone. So is the popular club Knight Beat, the Sir John Hotel, the Harlem Square and many other once iconic fixtures of the neighborhood.

Still standing, though, is the historic Lyric Theater.

The History of the Lyric Theater

Once called “the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland” by Miami Metropolis, Georgia native Geder Walker built the Lyric Theater in Overtown in 1913. Through the years, countless legendary performers graced the stage, including Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammie Davis Junior, Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday.

After Walker’s death in 1919, his wife Henrietta continued to operate the theater until 1959 when it became a church. In its various iterations it was used as a movie theater, performance hall and community auditorium. As a result of the turbulence of the 1960s, the Lyric was shuttered for decades until 1988 when the Black Archives History and Research Foundation purchased it and began the restoration process. It’s now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

A Legend is Reborn

The Lyric reopened for the first time in 2000 debuting a new lobby, box office, concession stand and Black Archives administrative offices. Since then, it’s seen a revival of its glory days. Missy Elliott threw a party at the Lyric during the 2005 MTV Movie Awards and, in 2002, the late Whitney Houston filmed a music video there. In 2010, local documentary filmmakers Rakontur Productions screened their critically acclaimed film “The U” about the University of Miami’s football team at the Lyric. It’s also hosted events during Art Basel Miami Beach with exhibitions highlighting the unique history, art and music of the neighborhood.

The Lyric Theater Today

After another phase of renovations, the Lyric re-opened its doors once again during Black History Month in February 2014, reclaiming its title as the oldest operating theater in Miami. Under the stewardship of The Black Archives, it’s now a part of The Black Archives Lyric Theater Welcome Center Complex with the expanded goal to create a vibrant social gathering hub in Overtown.

The complex boasts a theater with additional wing space, a fly loft and loading docks, allowing for upgraded production quality. There’s also an additional studio theater and a gallery for art and history exhibitions, as well as meeting space, a scene shop, a catering kitchen and expanded administrative offices.

Today, the Lyric is used for a variety of performances and programs, including standup comedy festivals, spoken word acts and jazz concerts. Every month, Lyric Live is a Live at the Apollo-style interactive talent showcase hosted by a comic with the support of a live band and DJ. A Bahamian Junkanoo band acts as “the sandman” ushering unpopular acts off the stage. It’s also home to educational programs like the South Florida Marching Band Precision Camp for student musicians and band directors.

The Lyric represents a point of pride for Miami’s black community and it will continue to celebrate the history and culture of Overtown in the years to come.

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