The Lyric Theatre—‘Jewel of the Historic Harrison Square’

Jun 24, 2015

Built in 1929, the Lyric Theatre in downtown Harrison, Arkansas originally served as a venue for “talkies.”  Talkies came after silent pictures and were the first films to incorporate dialog, music and other forms of sound along with the film. Over the years the theatre has experienced several changes, but for many people it remains a vital part of the community’s history, culture and memories. 

Vive Allen with Ozarks Arts Council is operations manager for the Lyric.  The council has owned and operated the building since the 1990s when the group first formed.  Allen shares the Lyric used to be a commonwealth movie theatre for most of its early life up until the 1970s.  She reminisces about seeing matinees there as a child, beaming with pride as though she were speaking about a beloved family member. 

“And it’s a wonderful old building.  The murals you can see on both sides of the theatre.  They were painted directly on the walls in the late 20s early 30s right after the Depression.  Everyone around said that [the artist] was a hobo artist—so we call them the Hobo Murals—and he was probably  traveling through for food and shelter, after the Depression,” says  Allen.

Allen describes the murals that line the walls of both sides of the theatre.  She explains that as the years went by, the walls had been covered to provide better acoustics for movie-goers and the paintings were lost until rediscovered when the Arts Council first began renovations.

“As you can see on the murals he did them kind of like windows, and there’s a [painted] curtain rod across the top and you can see the tops of the curtains—as if you were looking outside and this is what you would see out of your window,” explains Allen.

The theatre closed in the 1970s when it could not compete with larger commercial movie theatres.  It sat empty and in disrepair for many years.  There had been talk of tearing the building down, but local businesswoman Glenna Reagan purchased the building and held music shows there in an effort to preserve it.  Several years later the Arts Council was formed and purchased the Lyric with a goal of a community center dedicated to the arts.

Time, money and “blood, sweat and tears” all went into the project as restoring the Lyric became a labor of love, explains Allen.  Many years of sitting vacant and unused for long periods of time took a toll on the building.  The OAC originally paid $164,000 for the building, and since has invested over $425,000 for renovations. That has gone toward a new light and sound system, building the annex, restoring seats, adding a new roof and restoring the balcony.

“I know when they were doing restoration the balcony was off limits.  There were several men from the community who inched their way up there and replaced the floor in the balcony,” shares Allen.

Allen explains that the initial restoration process took between 1 to 2 years to make the Lyric operational, but it remains an ongoing process.  She says they have around 100 volunteers that help with everything from working on renovations to working events at the theatre.

Ozarks Arts Council is a non-profit organization that relies on membership, patrons and community support.  All of the money for care, maintenance and renovations of the building come from local corporate sponsors, membership organizations and event ticket sales.  Allen explains that appealing to a wide range of interests is important.

“That people will pay to come to.  Because it takes quite a lot of money to heat, cool and light a building this size,” explains Allen.   

The Lyric now hosts live theatre productions, musical events, movies, and community events.  As officials look toward the future of the Lyric, Allen says it is important to be versatile and appeal to a variety of people. 

The Lyric is home to several membership organizations that hold events and productions there including The Theatre Company, North Arkansas College, Children’s Choir of the Ozarks, Twentieth Century Club and Women’s Book Club. The Harrison School District and Boone County Library also use the building for various events and shows.

REPORTER: Why is it important for the Lyric to be here?   

ALLEN: Well, oh my… This is an icon of the square.  It is a jewel on the Historic Harrison Square and we are so fortunate to have it.  It’s a building that can be used for so many different things.  The architecture—it is part of our downtown historic district.  There are so many reasons that I personally can think of—but of course I love it—so that gives me a different perspective.  It’s just a good community asset.

Even through financial hardships like the economic downturn a few years ago, the widespread love of the building fueled many volunteer hours has helped ensure the Lyric’s survival, Allen says.  While funding can be an ongoing struggle, love and support for the facility has been everlasting.

“Many buildings like this around this state and around the country have been torn down for parking lots.  And now that there’s a new focus on historic preservation and remembering our past, people are sad that that has happened,” shares Allen.

As officials look toward the future, Allen explains, they plan to continue to build upon its existing membership base and expand on events and uses for the legendary Lyric Theatre.