Just as the popularity of Netflix and Redboxes have yielded thousands of vacant storefronts across the county once occupied by Blockbuster Video stores, television’s popularity led to the near extinction of the double purpose stage/movie theaters as well. Indianapolis was no exception to this phenomenon. Once, downtown thrived with dozens of theaters, from the grand, ornate English Opera House, Circle and Indiana Theaters to small, rinky-dink stages that popped up around the city. One such theater with rinky-dink origins was the Lyric Theater, which grew to seat 1400 and introduced Indianapolis to a young man from Memphis, TN who would become The King.
The Lyric began as a small room with a small projector and “funeral type” folding chairs seating 200 at the north corner of Illinois and Wabash in 1906. Six years later, a 1400 seat Lyric was construction by the Central Amusement Company for $75.000, built by the Halstead-Moore Company and designed by architect Herman L. Bass, who designed Indianapolis auto baron James A. Allison’s mansion, now on the campus of Marian College. Three years later in 1919, the second incarnation of the Lyric was closed for remolding, this time designed by architect Kurt Vonnegut Sr., still a well known name about town. The interior was totally rearranged (the previously west facing stage now facing south) and a ballroom added both to serve for all the uses a ballroom may serve, but also to allow patrons to queue up out of the weather.
The Lyric underwent yet another remodel in 1926, adding state of the art air cooling and stage lighting systems. Heading into the 30s,the Lyric, with its new ivory and gold lobby, was widely regarded as one of the finest theaters in Indiana and added to their reputation by bringing in the largest theater organ in the state in 1927. The Lyric’s eclectic mix of moving pictures, Vaudeville acts and musicals helped it survive the Depression, only closing its doors for a semi-frequent remodel. It hosted Frank Sinatra’s Indianapolis debut with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1940 and was the first theater in the city to show a Stereophonic Sound Film, Fantasia in 1942
Still going strong throughout the 50s, the Lyric would also host the Indianapolis Debut of Elvis Presley, at the bottom of the bill that featured June Carter and her sisters and headlined by country music pioneer Hank Snow who you can clearly make out in the bill below. Elvis would, of course, return to Indianapolis 22 years later to play his last show at the now also demolished Market Square Arena.
According to the book Indianapolis Theaters from A to Z by Gene Gladson, the Lyric holds the record for the longest showing of a single film, that being The Sound of Music from March 31st, 1965 through January 17th, 1967, which to me at least, seems less a testimony to the splendor that was the Julie Andrews epic and more a harbinger of things to come. Changing tastes and the developing needs of a growing city led the Lyric to close its doors around 1969 and would follow the lead of its neighbor, the English Opera House, and be demolished soon thereafter. The parking structure and storefronts certainly serve a need for a city highly dependent on their cars and there truly are a finite number of theaters a city of our size can keep in business. But I’d happily trade a few extra parking spaces and a quality breakfast to see a show in what was once touted as Indianapolis’ finest theater.