A look at The Lyric as it moves through the history of Oxford

Posted on Dec 4 2015 - 10:54am by McKenna Wierman

In the daytime, a quiet, white-brick building stands downtown. The chipping paint on the exterior has probably been there for decades.

In the late 1800s, a livery stable owned by William Faulkner’s family stood at 1006 Van Buren Avenue. The location was prime for the horses who pulled buggies around the Square in downtown Oxford, who were held and fed in the stable. A little over a month ago, Mac Miller preformed to a wildly enthusiastic sold-out show in the exact same space.

Perhaps one of the most colorful and historic buildings in Oxford, the Lyric Theater has gone through nearly as many transitions as the town that surrounds it.

(Courtesy: Ole Miss Yearbook)

(Courtesy: Ole Miss Yearbook)

General manager at the Lyric Lindsay Dillon-Maginnis said what we know today as the Lyric has been a part of Oxford’s history in more ways than many people realize.
“It’s existed since the 1800s as something or another,” she said. “Most people don’t notice this, but in fact, there are marks on the floor over there where it was a garage, like a body shop, and the painted marks where you would park you car are still in the floor. So, even the floors have been the same since it was redone.”

It was nearly a century before the bones of the Lyric ever played host to any musical acts. After the building served as Oxford’s livery stables until 1913, the space became Oxford’s very first theater, hosting both live theatrical performances as well as silent film viewings.  In 1924, the Lyric advertised its “amusements of the week” in the University of Mississippi yearbook. The theater was owned and managed by Robert X. Williams, Jr., son of the mayor and cousin in-law to William Faulkner, who often left well-wishes in the backs of Ole Miss yearbooks. Over time, the motion-picture theater would come to play a major role in Oxford’s history, hosting movie premieres that would be talked about for decades to come.
“The biggest one was ‘Intruder in the Dust,’  that I know of,” Dillon-Maginnis said. “William Faulkner actually attended it. That was probably the biggest thing to come through because it was the first movie premiere that was actually in Oxford. Before that it was just a normal silent movie screen.”
But the glory of the Lyric hasn’t always shined so brightly. For Dillon-Maginnis, who grew up in Oxford, her first memories of 1006 Van Buren are of offices. The building was abandoned in the 1970s for several years until it was purchased by Watt Bishop, who sought to repurpose the space as health center office spaces in the early 1980s. The Lyric sheltered a dental practice, a dance studio and a copy business over the next few decades until the 2000s, when it was rescued from a dull fate.

(Courtesy: Ole Miss Yearbook)

(Courtesy: Ole Miss Yearbook)

Bishop’s son Bradley, along with college friend Tim Sims, began renovating the building in 2007 with the intention of re-opening the Lyric as an entertainment venue for the community. Since then, the Lyric has hosted performances by artists like Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Tyler, The Creator, Grace Potter and many more.
In June of 2012, The Flaming Lips came through during their “Most Concerts Played in a 24-Hour Period of Time” tour. Some artists, like The Lumineers, played at the Lyric right before making it to the big time. Others, like Corey Smith and Cherub, keep coming back year after year.

“We build these repertoires with these artists and they want to come back, while others just kind of pass through,” Dillon-Maginnis said. “Those are the shows that do so well, and then they go on to do even bigger shows from there.”
Originally, Dillon-Maginnis said the Lyric was supposed to host as many concerts as any other theater in the South, such as The Varsity in Baton Rouge or The Pageant in St. Louis. But over time, it became apparent the seasonally-populated Oxford would not be able to provide a demand for concerts year-round. So, the Lyric did what it’s done for nearly a century— it adjusted.

“I think the idea was completely to be a music venue all the time,” Dillon-Maginnis said. “We made sure that our space was as neutral as possible. You know, we’ve done MFA fights, we’ve done midget wrestling and turned it around and done a wedding reception the next day. It has to be a malleable space in order to really fit in this town.”

Events at the Lyric range from concerts and private social events to wedding receptions and community activities. Dillon-Maginnis said one of her favorite events was an indoor pool party one hot and lazy summer.

“We put a pool in here for a summer and we had bands play,” she said. “You could get in the pool, we had ping pong and that was probably my favorite event that we’ve had ever here. It was really neat, the swimming pool was 26-feet around and we had all these great lights. Bands would play so you could get in the pool and drink while you were watching your show, and that was really neat.”
By the time the Lyric reopened in 2008, its entire interior had been gutted. It was condensed from three stories down to two. A shower, a small laundry room and a spiral staircase leading to a modestly decorated green room were added to accommodate touring performers. Over time, the window for Oxford Canteen was added so customers could be served in the alley between the building and South Depot Taco Shop. Amelia, the small shop in what was originally the ticket office, opened in 2009. Dillon-Maginnis said the Lyric carved out little niches for people to do other business while the theater sleeps during the day.

But even as the Lyric evolved over the past hundred years, it has maintained its soul. Its high ceilings are filled with echoes of its days as a stable, laughter from movie audiences long gone, applause from shows that drew their last curtain decades ago. On the face of the building, a pyramid-like pattern in the brick outlines where the famous Lyric marquee once hung. Dillon-Maginnis said by 2016, the theater hopes to have the historic appendage once again igniting the street outside 1006 Van Buren, just like in its heyday.

“We really want it back. We’ve gotten so close and they’ve turned us down, but it is historic,” she said. “Bringing it back is something we all really want and I don’t think the city can disagree. I think their hesitation was the lighting, but we would be tactful with it.”
The Lyric Theater goes beyond providing entertainment for the community. It’s the pearl of Oxford, the white brick building that has sat patiently on the Square for more than a 100 years, bearing witness to history. It’s our church of celebration, our living museum of society, music and live entertainment— a true-born child of Oxford.