Between old City Hall and the Mining and Historical Museum standing back from Naco Road sits a familiar block. On the side by Review Avenue, the green-sided building has been a dentist office for as long as anyone can remember. On the opposite corner by OK Street, Dugan’s Funeral Home was a fixture for a century. The building in the middle houses a realtor. Above the entrance is one word chiseled into the stone: Lyric.
From its earliest days as a mining camp, Bisbee always had entertainment and art. The early settlers worked hard and lived primitive lives as business grew, the town expanded and more people arrived to work and make a home. Mining company bands thrived playing concerts for the community and taking part in every celebration. Live theatre and Vaudeville attracted big audiences in several venues. Up the hill from Brewery Gulch the Opera House gave Opera Drive its name. The Royal Theatre occupied a prominent spot on Main Street. The Grand Theatre at the mouth of the Gulch later became the Orpheum. And on Bisbee Road, the one best known to later residents was called The Lyric Theatre.
The first Lyric was located up Brewery Gulch and was built around 1913. A few years later, in 1917, it moved to its present location, formerly the OK Livery Stable and Feed Store. It was built by the Lyric Amusement Company as part of a chain of Southern Arizona theatres owned by John Diamos of Tucson. At one time he controlled movie palaces (as they were called) in Tucson, Bisbee, Douglas, Nogales and Tombstone. Bisbee’s Lyric was the last original house in the chain.
Large and luxurious, it was built for both moving pictures and live stage shows. Vaudeville troupes made regular stops in Bisbee and the Lyric was a busy place. In 1930, Twentieth Century Fox leased the entire chain and completely refurbished the Lyric adding a distinctive marquee that many Bisbeeites still remember. Fox did not last long. The company went bankrupt and the Diamos family took the theatre back. By 1935, the Lyric Amusement Company had disbanded as family members pursued other interests. Nick Diamos, one of the sons, took over the Lyric.
When Nick’s daughter, Alexandria, married a young artist, Nick gave him a job as manager of the Lyric—a position Ted DeGrazia held for several years. During that time DeGrazia, who became Arizona’s best known artist, began to develop a distinctive artistic style. He designed Art Deco plaster relief plaques for the walls of the theatre. However, contrary to Bisbee myth, there are no early DeGrazia murals buried under layers of paint at the Lyric. But it does make a good story.
Another good story claims that the Lyric was host to many world famous stars and attractions. While there were no doubt many minor or future stars either on its stage or on the movie screen, there is no clear evidence that either Harry Houdini or the Ziegfeld Follies were among them. Possibly some performers who crossed the Lyric stage dropped a few names that eventually became part of the lore. However, that’s too bad. Bisbee fans would have enjoyed the world’s most famous escape artist and Flo Ziegfeld’s famous “girls” as much as folks in any other booming city. The variety of live acts was wide—there is evidence that boxing matches were staged there and that minstrel shows stopped by.
If minstrel shows did play at the Lyric, it would have been a reflection of the nation’s conflicted growing pains and the social customs of the times. The Lyric was segregated—African Americans had to sit in the balcony, a practice that continued for many years. One young person who worked there in the mid-1950’s recalls her discomfort enforcing the policy—sending people she knew upstairs only because of their race.
Gradually live shows came to town less and less. Vaudeville died a final death as talking motion pictures took the country by storm. The movies thrived. On Saturdays kids flocked to the Lyric for the matinee that featured cartoons, newsreels, serials and movies plus a contest or drawing held on the stage between features.
The old movie house slogged on through good and bad times. By 1978, three years after Phelps Dodge ceased all mining operations in Bisbee, the old place was showing its age and ticket sales dropped. The balcony was closed; the projectors were old and needed repair; the building was in need of a lot of sprucing up which would cost money. Finally, after many years as a place where townspeople went to relax and have some fun, where shy teenagers held hands and had their first kiss and where many young people had worked to earn a little money, the Lyric closed.
It sat empty and silent for several years. Ideas about how it could be reopened or used for other activities came and went until The Bisbee Realty purchased the property in 1989. In March of that year, the familiar marquee was taken down and the original name, carved into the front of the building was revealed. The Realty eventually remodeled the front area to use as offices, but the main auditorium and stage were untouched and remain now, perhaps awaiting a second chance.
As a center of community and social life, the Lyric was part of Bisbee’s identity for many years. If ghosts exist, then ghosts of the town’s past surely linger there. Standing on the long- silent stage or walking around the old seats now covered with dust or looking up at the water stained ceiling and its still visible decorative design, it is not hard to imagine voices of actors or singers filling the big room. It is just possible to hear the eager chatter of kids rushing for their seats to watch another thrilling episode of their favorite cowboy hero or the laughter of audiences watching the latest Hollywood hit.
The carved stone name on the front of the building says “Lyric”. It means “like a song” and was a fairly common name for a theatre and movie house in earlier times. No doubt many visitors to the town don’t notice it. But inside, behind the modern offices, are memories of moments and of a time in Bisbee’s history when going to the Lyric was the thing to do and when for a few pennies you could recharge your imagination and for a little while forget the world outside.