BRIEF HISTORY OF THE LYRIC THEATRE
Visiting the Lyric Theatre for the first time is an unforgettable experience. If you’re not awed by the original 1930 tapestries, the golden glow of the replica lanterns, or the charm of the restored lobby and auditorium, you’ll at least be impressed with our family and student friendly prices and the best tasting popcorn in Southwestern Virginia!
While we hope you’ll visit our theatre in person, the brief history and the renovation photos section will give you a sense of the space and the incredible community effort that brought the Lyric back to life after nearly a decade of darkness
Architectural Design and Masks
Originally constructed in 1929 and opened on April 17, 1930, the Lyric Theatre is a blend of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, designed by Roanoke architect Louis Phillipe Smithey. Most notable on the Lyric’s façade are the traditional Comedy and Tragedy masks.
The original Lyric masks adorned the theatre’s parapet from 1930 until sometime in the 1950s. After some wear and tear, the masks were deemed a potential danger to passers-by and were taken down. After living for a while in the yard of a Blacksburg resident, the masks mysteriously disappeared sometime in the 1980s. Many myths abound as to what happened to the original masks: some say they are now at the bottom of a lake; others insist they have long been sold at a flea market. The replicas, designed and built by from Vivian Appler and John Luttman Studios, were unveiled shortly after the Lyric’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2006.
1909 – The Lyric Theatre was first opened in 1909 on the corner of Wilson Avenue and North Main Street in downtown Blacksburg. The following year (1910), however, the theatre was moved to a more prominent location on the corner of Main and Jackson Streets; the site of the current Wachovia Bank Building.
1920s – There was one further move before the Lyric moved into the building it currently occupies on College Avenue. This third move has never been documented, but most accounts suggest it was somewhere in the early 1920s. What is known, however, is the exact location: 126 North Main Street, immediately adjacent to what was then the Preston Hotel.
Towards the end of the 1920s, the three founders of the Lyric–R. Floyd Plank, Vane E. Kelsey, and R. C. Whitsett–decided that, with the advent of “talkies” after 1927, they needed to build a major new facility that included a top-of-the-line sound system. Space was acquired within a major commercial and apartment complex that was being planned and constructed on College Avenue.
1928-1930 – Work was begun in 1928, and the new Lyric opened its doors in April 17, 1930. The Lyric was a premiere movie house, with a seating capacity of 900, state of the art equipment, an orchestra pit, and (quite a luxury for the time) air-conditioning. In fact, it was one of the very first cinemas in Virginia to show sound pictures. The theatre’s seating capacity was reduced to 477 after renovation in the 1990s.
1940s-1989 – The Lyric founders ran the theatre for a time as a team. The Kelsey family eventually took over the theatre’s management and continued to operate the Lyric as a movie theatre until 1989.
During the Kelseys’s management, a number of changes were made to the theatre’s original design, most notably a “modernization” in the 1950s. At that time, the original corner screen walls on either side of the stage were removed to make way for a new CinemaScope screen, the tapestries along the sidewalls were covered up by gold curtains, and the original lanterns were removed.
1989 – In 1989, the opening of a new multiplex combined with the changing nature of film distribution and advent of home video forced the theatre to close its doors.
From 1989 to 1994, although closed as a film house, the Lyric continued to have a life as a large classroom rented to Virginia Tech and as the Democratic Party Headquarters each fall.
1994-97- A group of citizens lead by the Downtown Merchants of Blacksburg (now Downtown Blacksburg, Inc.) banded together to create the Lyric Council, which was determined to reopen the Lyric and return it to its former glory. In return for raising the funds required to renovate the theatre and hosting regular programs, the Blacksburg Realty Property Partnership, then the property owners, granted the Lyric a 30-year rent-free lease. 1996-In February 1996, the Lyric was reopened for the first time in eight years. The theater was operated as a partially renovated space for two years while money was being raised for the full-scale renovations.
1998-1999- The theatre closed for seven and a half months to allow renovations to be completed. Finally, in October of 1998, the renovated theatre was opened to the public with regular programs. The Lyric celebrated its second grand opening in 1999.
2006- The façade of the theatre was not part of the 1996-98 renovation. In 2006 Lester Properties repaired the crumbling façade wall and the Lyric Council replaced the original masks that adorned the Lyric’s parapet from 1930 until sometime in the 1950’s. The original masks had been deemed a hazard to passers-by. The replicas, designed and built by Vivian Appler were unveiled and installed after the 75th anniversary celebration.
2013- For several years, the film industry had been transitioning from 35mm print film to digital cinema. It was essential that The Lyric make this transition if they were going to continue to show current films. Through the support of a community fund raising effort, the theatre was able to install a state-of-the- art 4K digital projector in the summer of 2013.
MORE HISTORY AND INFORMATION
If you’re curious to find out more about the Lyric’s history and renovation, here are a few good places to start:
- The Library at Virginia Tech’s Special Collections houses a number of original documents about the Lyric, including blueprints and photographs. Some of these items can be viewed online or you can view the originals by visiting special collections in person.
- The Roanoke Times has written a number of stories about the Lyric over the years, including coverage of the renovation and restoration, investigations of the missing Lyric masks and ghost stories, and features of the many diverse events held at the Lyric. Visit the Roanoke Times Online Archive for articles written since 1990, or Virginia Tech’s Library for articles written before 1990.
- Barbara Smith’s book Haunted Theaters (Ghost House Books, 2002) devotes an entire chapter to strange happenings at the Lyric.
- Stay tuned to our website. We plan to add photos and videos to our Community Calendar section as we document the Lyric’s living history.