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The location of the former Lyric Theater at 121-135 North Illinois – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

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.

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The site of the Lyric Theater in 1919 – IUPUI Baist Map, 1919

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.

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The Lyric in the 1930s – Photo cinematreasures.com

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

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Patrons spill out of the Lyric in 1955 – Photo cinematreasures.com

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.

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Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock in 1957, his star soaring just two years after playing The Lyric

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.

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Elvis received low billing for his Indianapolis debut, but not as low as “The Blue Moon Boys”

 

10 responses to “The Lyric Theater”

  1. Bob Hueber says:

    Saw “Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandents” and a live Easter passion performance at this theater in the 50’s.

  2. Mass Ave Crumudgeon says:

    The best part of the Lyric was next door at the Lyric record shop. even in the late Sixties you still had to hand the guy at the counter the empty record sleeve and he would put on the record for you to listen to in a booth along the wall. That’s how I bought my mono copy of Pet Sounds.

  3. Louis Mahern says:

    I saw South Pacific there.

  4. Ted Meek says:

    i viewed the “Sound of Music” there as a freshmen in high school with my first real date. I took her back home on the bus. It’s probably why she never went out with me again. 🙂

  5. d m shea says:

    Small fun anecdote re the Lyric Theater location. For many years, I think spanning from vaudeville to motion pictures, there was a “fraternity” of theater connected performers and buffs. Not really a fraternity but a national organization whose name eludes me–I know it had a show biz connotation as well as camaraderie and concern for past-prime performers, and I think it was headquartered prior to following in quarters up over the Lyric. Can anyone out there remember the name?

    However. along in the very early 50;s it must have either folded its tents or moved to another location. Because a well-loved and notable “gaming” connected guy whose initials were J.P.,nickname “Peach” took it over to create what the anti-gaming newspapers dubbed “a downtown upstairs after-hours gaming club” –the “Business and Professional Men’s Club”—in that era the Delaware and Mass “Printers Club” was a dominant oft-raided after hours spot where you would find more gamblers and young out on town folks than printers! Likewise, the B & P had more “boozing” and “players” than business or professionals.

    The food was great–priced so cheaply that underpaid news folks flocked there for lunch–I don’t remember if there was an actual membership requirement because it was one of our favorite late nights as well as lunch –and I never remember joining. But even though we reporters had to “write up” JP often, he was an absolute favorite who was also a loving family man with big family (some still around which is why not using his name.) To “enter” from downstairs Illinois, there was a locked door and a buzzer I remember, then a flight of stairs with another locked door with small window. There you “tapped” the glass with a coin, half dollar worked best, and got buzzed in. Proprietor JP was always at every table, greeting, grabbing the tab especially for media and off-duty law enforcement. Latter returned the favor by alerting JP ahead of a scheduled “raid.” For instance, there was a socially-connected Jr.League,League of Women Voters type who truly believed inflated political claims that Indy was gaming-free. One night some of us invited her as we made the rounds to Slovenian, West Side Social & Outing, and some other gaming spots–ending up for drinks and dinner at B & P, But mid-meal, (knowing the prominence of some of the names at our table) proprietor JP came over and quietly warned one of us “you might want to finish up as we’re going to be raided in about an hour.” When told, said woman scoffed “that’s ridiculous, how could they know they were to be raided” and opted to stay on–which we did. In about an hour there was hard knock at door (no coin tap) and by that time the back room slots,pin balls had vanished into storage rooms.:” A few uniforms came in, did a perfunctory “look” around and left (no doubt with pockets a little heavier)–and that next day headlines acclaimed the law and order raid. I can’t remember dates it opened–and later closed. But it brought more traffic to that Illinois spot than even Elvis.

  6. Anonymous says:

    3.5

  7. Paul Page says:

    I was the last manager of this incredible theater before I went to work for WIBC and eventually became the Voice of the 500 Mile Race in 1977 and on to ABC/ ESPN.
    The last film presented was “Shoes of the Fisherman” with Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, and Oskar Werner. The lobby was narrow but featured crystal chandeliers and a grand stairway to the balcony. The basement had small old dressing rooms with the names of cities on the doors. And one large room where Indianapolis police officers would shoot at stand ups of movie stars.
    At the closing we still had union projectionists and stage hands to open and close curtains. There was a closed off second box office and stairway that led to the upper balcony. The office was on the second floor and had high ceilings and windows with a view of Illinois Street. When it closed the other two Greater Indianapolis Amusement the Circle and the Indiana on Washington Street remained open and are still open at this writing.
    A marveled at the history and was especially struck by the fact Elvis made his first big Indiana appearance there with Roy Acuff and his last ever appearance at Market Square arena 3 blocks East.
    Paul Page

  8. Wayne Merrill says:

    Anyone know any info on the New Ford Tudor sedan they gave away Monday June 30 it was hosted by Smith- Moore company i found a ticket from this giveaway

  9. Betty Sciscoe says:

    I saw Elvis Presley’s show at lyric theater long time ago will never forget it!

  10. Shane says:

    The Blue Moon Boys was Elvis’s band.

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