By: Shayne Benowitz
Overtown, and its once bustling music and entertainment district, known as Little Broadway, has a mythic quality today, with stories passed down from generation to generation in Miami’s black community. Go back to the 1950s. Imagine an avenue glittering with the bright lights of nightclubs, fashionable hotels, restaurants 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 Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Other local talent, like comedian Flip Wilson, got his start there. Soul legend Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame, with hits, like “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” grew up in Overtown. From the theaters to the street corners, the melodic echoes of doo-wop, blues, jazz and soul could be heard throughout Overtown.
Today, the landscape in Overtown has changed. In the 1960s, two expressways were built straight through the center of town, fracturing the community and displacing more than 20,000 residents. The Mary Elizabeth Hotel, where such African American luminaries as Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston, once stayed is long gone. So is the popular club Knight Beat, the Sir John Hotel, the Harlem Square and many more.
The Lyric - Then
Still standing, though, is the historic Lyric Theater. Thanks to the efforts of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation, who purchased the theater in 1988, it was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1989, and finally reopened in 2000. Built in 1913, this 400-seat theater was the venue for countless legendary performances. Artists that performed in the Little Broadway district anchored by the Lyric included Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammie Davis Junior, Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday.
Geder Walker, originally from Georgia, moved to Miami before the turn of the century and went on to build the Lyric Theater that he owned and operated until his death in 1919. It was once called “the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by colored people in all the Southland” by Miami Metropolis in a 1915 article. Through the years, it was used as a movie theater, performance hall and community auditorium. After Walker’s death, his wife Henrietta continued to operate it until 1959 when it became a church. As a result of the turbulence of the 1960s, the theater was shuttered for decades.
The Lyric – Now
After the acquisition of the theater by the Black Archives, the theater has gone through a series of renovation phases. It reopened for the first time in 2000, and then underwent more renovations in 2004. This included the construction of a new lobby, box office, concession area and administrative offices. Over the last decade, the Lyric has seen a revival of its glory with a variety of entertainers and events utilizing its facilities. The late Whitney Houston used the Lyric as the location for the filming of a music video in 2002. During the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, Missy Elliot threw a party there. The Lyric has hosted exhibitions and events during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007 and 2012, with programming highlighting the unique history, art and music of the neighborhood. Local filmmakers Rakontur Productions chose to screen their critically acclaimed documentary about the University of Miami’s football team “The U” at the Lyric in 2010.
The Lyric opened its doors once again during Black History Month in February 2014, reclaiming its title as the oldest theater in Miami. The newly expanded theater includes additional wing space, a fly loft, loading docks, a studio theater, meeting space, a scene shop, exhibition space, catering kitchen and an expansion of the administrative offices. Renamed The Black Archives Lyric Theater Welcome Center Complex, the goal is to create a vibrant social gathering hub.
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Once a month, the Lyric hosts Lyric Live, a variety show similar to The Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night at the Apollo. Hosted by comedian Chello with music by Jody Hill and the Deep Fried Funk Band, come out for an evening showcasing Florida’s unsigned talent. The audience helps decide which singer, rapper, spoken word artist, dancer, musician or even magician will go home with the $500 prize.
The Lyric represents a point of pride for Miami’s black community and it will continue to celebrate the history and culture of the Overtown community in the years to come.
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