Norton Dill knows the Lyric Theatre.
As a child, he saw movies there, before the downtown theater – known for attracting vaudeville stars and showing movies – began its decline and eventually was closed for four decades.
As an adult, he and his band, the Dill Pickers, played the stage in 2022 with Three on a String.
And in between, he directed “Restoration: The Life and Stories of the Lyric Theatre,” which, finally, airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Alabama Public Television. (It was scheduled for a Monday night in September, but a technical difficulty delayed it). You can also watch it here.
Dill’s love of the Lyric started in the mid-1950s when he was about 10. His family lived near Birmingham-Southern College, and on Saturday mornings, he and his friend, Bob Clem, would take the bus and explore downtown Birmingham.
“That’s hard to imagine these days, but back then, it was totally acceptable and safe,” Dill recalls.
The boys would visit Kress five and dime sometimes, other times heading to the pet store or magic store. But one thing they would always do would be to take in a movie.
“More often than not, we’d end up at the Lyric Theatre, because in those days they were showing the kind of films we loved to see, cheesy horror films like ‘The Blob,’ or ‘Tarantula,’ or my all-time favorite, ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon.’”
Skip to 2016, when, after a massive effort from a number of people resulted in the restoration of the theater, Dill called one of them – Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, which runs both the Lyric and the Alabama Theatre – to see if he would book the Dill Pickers. Beene invited him for a tour.
“When we walked into the lobby, Brant immediately started telling stories about the Lyric,” Dill says. “About 15 minutes into our one-hour tour, I put my Dill Pickers idea on the back burner because my brain was spinning with a new decision – ‘I’ve got to do a documentary about this place.’”
The result is an hour-long look at a true Birmingham gem, which hosted the likes of Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle and Will Rogers during its heyday, had holes in the roof and pigeons living in it during the four decades it was shuttered, and is now once again a premiere venue in downtown Birmingham, hosting concerts, comedians and movies (“Restoration” actually premiered at the Lyric earlier this year during the Sidewalk Film Festival).
Dill directed the documentary, with George McMillan as executive producer, Will Hall as associate director and Guy McCullough as creative consultant. A number of people are interviewed in the documentary, including Beene and Glenny Brock, both instrumental in the restoration.
Along the way, Dill was surprised by a number of revelations:
- Early in its history, during the vaudeville years, Birmingham was one of the top theater districts in the country. At least 27 theaters were in walking distance of the Lyric.
- Jeff Greene, owner of Evergreene Architectural Arts in New York, is interviewed in “Restoration” and considers the Lyric one of the finest of among 400 theaters his company has restored.
- The Lyric has played a role in race relations in Birmingham since it opened in 1914.
- The Lyric has “phenomenal” acoustics. “I was filming from the upper balcony one day and two workers were having a conversation on stage, probably 60-70 feet away,” Dill says. “They were speaking in a normal conversational way, and I could hear and easily understand every word that they said.”
Dill experienced those acoustics when he and the Dill Pickers performed there, too.
“In each of our two sets, at some point we stepped downstage of the microphones, had them turned off and performed some acapella selections without amplification,” he says. “It was absolutely amazing to hear how the sound filled the room.”
The Dill Pickers don’t perform as much as they used to, but that doesn’t mean Dill isn’t staying busy.
The filmmaker, whose previous work includes “Music in Their Bones: The People and Music of Sand Mountain” and “Kathryn: The Story of a Teller,” a look at beloved storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, has a couple of possible documentaries in the works, as well as a feature film script, a musical theater script and score, and an episodic reality show about people keeping the cowboy lifestyle alive.
“As usual, I’ve got too many ideas and not enough time left to pursue them all,” Dill says.
“Restoration: The Life and Stories of the Lyric Theatre,” airing Monday, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. on Alabama Public Television. Also available at this link.