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A Birmingham Landmark With A Storied But Segregated History

The view from the balcony of the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, Ala.
Joe DeSciose
Courtesy of Glenny Brock
The view from the balcony of the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, Ala.

Weekend Edition's broadcast this Saturday is not the first live radio show from the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, Ala. But it's probably the first in 77 years. On Jan. 5, 1940, a variety show called Coleman Sachs and the Utopians was broadcast from this stage. I don't know what the show was like, but I'll bet they didn't interrupt it with a pledge drive.

The Lyric opened in 1914 as a vaudeville house, and I find that fitting. My father worked in vaudeville from the age of 13; I'd like to think he played the Lyric at some point.

And I like to think of what Weekend Edition does as a kind of news variety show: politics, war and peace, stage and films, sports, joy, strife and life in full.

We follow in huge footsteps here: Mae West, Sophie Tucker, and the Marx Brothers all played the Lyric.

The list of most distinguished performers here includes Merrill's Cockatoos; the Italian Musketeers; the Toots Paka Hawaiian Troupe; Sammy Watson's Farmyard Circus, who must have been even harder to clean up after than we are; Kenny the Dancing Bear, Kenny the Ice Skating Bear, and Kenny the Bear with the Human Brain. Which might make you wonder: Did Kenny go to Bama or Auburn?

Of course when this theater opened, and for most of the 20th century, segregation was the law in Alabama. Blacks came to the Lyric, but had to use a smaller, squalid entrance, and hike up three floors to sit on bare benches in the top balcony. There is no cause for those of us from the north to feel smug. There may not have been signs that said "colored entrance" in the great theaters of New York or Chicago, but audiences were usually segregated just as effectively.

When this theater was restored a few years ago, the nonprofit organization Birmingham Landmarks decided not to obliterate or disguise its history. The Historic Colored Entrance, as they call it, is here on the first floor, marked and memorialized. It reminds us not just of a painful history we share across America, but of the fact that history can turn.

It did here in Birmingham. Every crime of history can inspire the courage to grow better. Every outrage can call out new heroes. Being at the Lyric reminds us of the greats that played onstage — Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Kenny the Dancing Bear — and the greats who sat on benches in the top balcony.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.