The History and Restoration of a Harrison Treasure
The original Lyric Theater was located on the west side of the Harrison Square. It was purchased in 1919 by D.E. and Lulu Garvin Fitton, who operated it as a theater for silent movies. As talking movies became more prevalent, the Fittons realized the original Lyric could not accommodate this new invention.
J.W. Bass, a builder from Detroit, built the Lyric Theater that is standing today as
a state-of-the-art theater for ‘talkies’, which he leased to the Fittons. Broadway by Universal Pictures, the first talking picture shown in Harrison, opened on November 7, 1929. (Mr. Bass fell in love with Harrison and built several more buildings that have survived the past century with their historic charm intact, including the 1929 Hotel Seville; a Montgomery Ward’s store on the west side of the Square, which is now Fraley’s Furniture, and his own home, the Twelve Oaks Estate.)
As part of the furnishing and decoration of the theater, Agnes Bass contracted with J.W. Zelm to paint and finish the interior, including the painting of our famous murals:
The building continued to operate as a theater until 1977, when it was closed to make way for a new theater in the Ozark Mall. After sitting empty for over ten years, the building was put up for sale in 1988. At one point, the Harrison Daily Times considered purchasing the Lyric and razing it to create more parking. When she found out, Glenna Ragan, owner of Holt Memorial Chapel, purchased the theater to save it from the wrecking ball and used it occasionally to host events and, for awhile, leased it to Homer Sewell for his performances as President Abraham Lincoln. During Mr. Sewell’s tenancy, the main floor offices were converted to public restrooms and, most notably, the burlap that Continental Theaters had required to line the walls was removed…uncovering the lost treasure of the Zelm murals.
Lyric Purchase and Restoration
In 1996, Ozark Arts Council president Jim Gresham began exploring ways that the Lyric could be used for the performing arts, and on April 9, 1999, after an extensive fundraising effort, the OAC was able to purchase the Lyric Theater for $150,000.
At the time of purchase, the roof leaked, there was no air conditioning, the heat was from a 1929 steam boiler, holes dotted the walls, the wiring was insufficient, and the stage was too small for performances.
The first performance, by Albert & Gage from Austin, Texas, took place on April 24, 1999, on an inadequate stage with temporary lighting and a sound system borrowed from Gus Smith of Guitar Smith’s music store. The first play, The Foreigner, was held May 21-23, 1999 and the actors had no dressing rooms, no bathrooms and no wing space. Costume changes were made in corners or stairwells, and the actors took bathroom breaks by running out the back door, across the alley and into a bathroom at the Harrison Daily Times building. A makeshift curtain was made from a camouflage parachute from a surplus store.
A number of local businesses and individuals donated money, time and materials toward the restoration, which included installing four ten-ton heating/cooling units on the roof; building a new stage, dressing rooms, bathrooms, and a sound and light booth; rewiring the entire theater; installing a new ceiling in the lobby; renovating the balcony, which had been condemned; building light towers and grids; installing a new sound system; and dismantling the old boiler, which required the removal of 16 tons of metal. The murals on the walls were water streaked and full of holes as well as badly faded, so local artists patched the holes and restored the murals to their original glory.
In 2000, Ken Bailey, former Executive Director, and Jim Gresham, the original OAC President of the Board, were awarded the Governor’s Award for Arts Community Development for their work on the Ozark Arts Council and the Lyric. In 2001, the Ozark Arts Council was awarded both the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Main Street Harrison awards for Community Commitment. In 2002, the Lyric Theater won the state wide Main Street Arkansas award as the Best Building Rehabilitation Over $500,000.
In late January 2006, an addition was built on the back of the theater, which includes space for building and storing sets, a hospitality area (‘green room’) for touring artists, and a mezzanine for prop and costume storage.
In December 2007, the stage was expanded, a new sound system installed, and a new sound booth built.
With all the renovations to allow the OAC to present world-class productions, it became obvious that the seats were in dire need of repair. The OAC began the Adopt-A-Seat Campaign in 2007. In early 2009, the seats were removed, the concrete floor repaired and painted, and restored seats were installed.
In November 2009, the office next door to the Lyric was renovated to be the Oak Leaf Gallery, a space for local artists to exhibit and sell their work. The gallery also serves as the OAC’s ticket sales office.
Congratulations to Jordan Whitmer!
Read his award-winning essay about the history of the Lyric Theater! He won third place in the 2008 “Historic Moment in Arkansas” essay invitational, sponsored by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and Radio Disney.
[Please Note: When Jordan wrote his essay, the prevailing (and promoted) story of the Zelm murals was that they were painted by an anonymous “hobo muralist.” While Mr. Zelm’s work took some time and he painted throughout the South and his name was lost to us for decades, “anonymous itinerant muralist” would be more accurate; he was in high demand, even during the Great Depression, so he moved between jobs quite a bit, but he wasn’t someone who just ’happened along’ and painted merely for room and board, as the story went. We believe the real story is every bit as fantastic as the myth was, because the Lyric is the only place in Arkansas regularly accessible to the public to see Mr. Zelm’s work. He also painted murals in the 1923 Lamar Bath House in Hot Springs, which is now used for office space for Hot Springs National Park.]