Lyric Theatre
Hamilton, ON

“Don’t walk off of the plank–you’d probably die.”

“Looks pretty solid, but what is it?”

“Chicken wire, asbestos and a little plaster with paint on the bottom–watch.”

Looking up at the arch--the symbol of the original Lyric.
Looking up at the arch–the symbol of the original Lyric.

He tossed a golf ball sized bit of crumbled brick onto the material, then, with a little ripping noise, the chunk tore through the surface leaving a neat round hole behind.

We could hear it ricochet across the wall, and then the floor below. I would make sure to stay on the plank as the two of us moved across the suspended ceiling. The steel bands holding up the ceiling we were using as a floor were marked with rust: they did not exactly inspire confidence.

Making sure to keep my balance, I followed my Canadian comrade across the false ceiling toward the light pouring in. The roof had fallen in years ago in the corner, and it was now resting on the old balcony. Sunlight streaming through the gap, past the pigeons and Art Deco flourishes nested into the walls spot lit the profound beauty of the space as if the ruin itself was on stage.

When I wasn't paying enough attention on the rotten balcony, I accidentally put my foot through a rotten floorboard. I snapped a picture to remember the moment.
When I wasn’t paying enough attention on the rotten balcony, I accidentally put my foot through a rotten floorboard. I snapped a picture to remember the moment.

The History

Jef throws open the back door of an alley for the trailing photographers and historians.
Jef throws open the back door of an alley for the trailing photographers and historians.

Before this erased treasure was built, in 1912 a contest was held in its home of Hamilton, Ontario to name it. ‘Lyric’ was chosen by 80 people, among whom the $200 in gold was divided.

The next year, The Lyric Theatre opened, a renaissance revival-styled vaudeville and film house with 2,300 seats.

Soon, though, the vaudevillian performers lost their popularity, leading Lyric to remodel itself into a pure movie theatre in 1920. The change must have rash, however, because by 1922 the stage was again shared by live and remote actors in a new interior by Kaplan & Sprachman, a Toronto-based architectural firm that rebuilt many such theatres. In 1967, the interior was redecorated a third time, this instance in the popular style of Art Deco.

1944. Note the murals to compare to my 2005 picture.
1944. Note the murals to compare to my 2005 picture.
Construction lights were still plugged in from the last inspection. Note the murals on the walls.
Construction lights were still plugged in from the last inspection. Note the murals on the walls.

One questioning the significance of The Lyric to Hamilton need only know that when the famous Marx Brothers performed in the city, this was their venue. Vaudveville died a second death in Lyric, and it became again a dedicated silver screen film house. Movie-going audiences were very pleased with the installation of air conditioning in 1940, hopefully more so than the name change from ‘The Lyric’ to ‘The Century’. After a full life, Century closed in 1989.

The last movie to show was ‘Lethal Weapon 2’… what an odd note to end on. The vacant theatre was then purchased by a firm, Johnstone and Cameron, in 1990 for $500,000.

The old movie theatre sign was sitting right inside the sealed front doors.
The old movie theatre sign was sitting right inside the sealed front doors.

A Song Cut Short

Almost a decade later the still-disused property was up for auction when Zoron Cocov bought the old Lyric for $140,000 to convert it into 62 apartments with commercial space. However, the building remain undeveloped. Cocov complained that Hamilton’s bylaws were too restrictive; that there was no possible way for him to comply with city policies.

So, the building sat empty, half-dead and dying slowly. The roof came down from the weight of winter snow, crashing ruthlessly into the balcony. Now, at the end of a plank surveying the damage, a tree grew through the rotting wood. A railing that protected spectators allowed me to climb into the wreckage to consider the thousands of people who sat here on warm July afternoons.

A nice view of Hamilton from the roof of the theater.
A nice view of Hamilton from the roof of the theater.

“We’d be just in time for the matinee,” I thought out loud, climbing back down.

“What?” my friend said, overhearing my mutter.

“Nothin’” I drawled, brushing the dust off of the camera.

He went on, “How do you like the place? It’s one of my favorites… I never want to see it change, but…” motioning toward the blue sky where a roof should be, “…just a matter of time, I guess.”

“Yeah… always is.”

The time came in the middle of January, 2010.