Lyric Theatre

303 North Neil, Champaign, Illinois
(57 North Neil before street was renumbered)

Opened Friday 20 October 1911

Closed circa 1919

Herbert H. Johnson (almost always listed as H.H. Johnson) and his wife came to Champaign from Piqua, Ohio, and would immediately begin installation of an “electric theater” according to a story in the Champaign Daily Gazette of Tuesday, 12 September 1911.  Mr. Johnson had several years experience in all branches of the business.  It would “be, according to the plans, the swellest of its kind in the Twin Cities.”  Mr. Johnson promised “to give Champaign an electric theater worthy of any metropolitan city.” 1

The Lyric opened on Friday, 20 October 1911. 2

Ad from the Wednesday 18 October 1911 Champaign Daily Gazette

The Lyric was located at 57 North Neil Street (the second storefront north of Church) in the Kariher building on the north west corner of Church and Neil Streets.  The address became 303 North Neil when the street was later renumbered. 3

H.H. Johnson worked with Mr. Powers of the Chicago Decorating Company on the design of the theater’s façade. 4

All of the pictures available show a unique design for Champaign and Urbana, although not for the industry nationwide.

An article in the Monday, 16 October 1911 Champaign Daily Gazette described the new Lyric Theatre:

“The theatre is beautifully decorated, J. Harry Wilson of New York, a scenic artist of ability, doing the work.  The statuary work is in the hands of the Decorator’s Supply company of Chicago, which has followed the design of the Sittner theatre in Chicago.  The interior is done in delicate tones and of floral design, with plastic relief and Italian friezes, the lobby being in white and gold and landscapes.  A scene of beauty awaits the patrons.  It will be fitted with the latest and most comfortable opera chairs.” 5

Mr. Johnson also worked with Mr. Carbough, an expert operator, to procure the projecting “machine the likes of which Mr. Johnson says is not in Illinois.” 6  The equipment is absolutely fireproof and enclosed in a fireproof room. 7

A feature employed by many moving picture houses was a vocalist who would entertain the audiences by singing between the films.  A story in the 15 November 1911 edition of the Champaign Daily Gazette reported that “M.P. Harvey, known to the public in central Illinois as “Moving picture Harvey” is appearing at every performance at the Lyric theater.”

The Gazette reported his accomplishments:  "Mr. Harvey was formerly with the western company of the “Time, the Place and the Girl” and was with one of Jake Stenard’s big acts on the Sullivan & Considine circuit.  He has a strong, clear voice and the feature of his work is his enunciation and no matter how fast the words are sung they can be heard in any part of the house."

"At the state encampment of the Illinois National Guards at Camp Lincoln, Springfield, Mr. Harvey was the vocalist with the Fourth Regiment band and was the guest of Adjt. Gen. F.E. Dickson.  The Springfield papers remarked on the wonderful carrying powers of the voice and he was offered engagements by three theaters in that city but has been secured by the management of the Lyric." 8

Ad for the Lyric from the 1913 Illio.

Sanborn Insurance map from 1915 showing the Lyric in lower right.  Also shown is the Park Theatre (known as the Art since 1958) and the Crystal/Neil at 315 North Neil.

Ad appeared in the Thursday

5 December 1912 Champaign Daily Gazette.

Ad appeared in the Saturday 28 December 1912 Champaign Daily Gazette

Ad appeared in the Tuesday 31 December 1912 Champaign Daily Gazette.

Another feature in movie theaters for several years was the newsreel which showed a collection of current events and news items each week.  Pathe was a major newsreel producer.  Here is the story in the Champaign Daily Gazette of 11 May 1912 that described Mr. Johnson and Mr. Harvey appearing in the national newsreel.

“In the Pathe weekly of current events which is being shown at the Lyric this afternoon the pictures of H.H. Johnson, manager of the Lyric, and M.P. Harvey, singer at that place, loom up distinctly in the procession of the moving picture managers during their national convention in Dayton, O., several weeks ago.  They are carrying a big banner on which is the wording, “Lyric, Champaign, Ill.,” in big letters.  The Pathe picture will be seen at picture houses all over the country and is an excellent ad for the enterprise of our city.  The likenesses of both Johnson and Harvey are excellent and they are wearing ‘the smile that won’t come off.’” 9

Ad appeared in the Saturday 5 July 1913 Champaign Daily Gazette.

Ad appeared in the Saturday 12 July 1913 Champaign Daily Gazette.

A 20-foot extension to the west end of the Lyric increasing the seating capacity to about 400 seats was soon to be completed.  The Champaign Daily Gazette of 29 May 1913 reported that “H.H. Johnson had workers excavating for the extension.  The addition would include a new main exit in the form of a four-foot wide door into the Kariher building’s elevator lobby where patrons would then exit out to Church Street.   The seating plan was rearranged in addition to the increased capacity and a new indirect lighting system installed.” 10

The most exciting feature of the new addition would be the $500 “mirror screen, which will give the following results: Absolutely no eye strain, absolutely perfect pictures, front seats equally as good as those in the rear.” 11

A report was made on the progress of the work at the Lyric in the Champaign Daily Gazette of 14 June 1913.  The rear wall had been removed and two heavy steel beams installed to carry the upper wall.  It was estimated the work would take about two more weeks.  The house remained open each afternoon and evening throughout the work. 12

Ad appeared in the Saturday 19 July 1913 Champaign Daily Gazette.

The addition was complete and the mirror screen first introduced to patrons on Saturday afternoon, 19 July 1913.  The Lyric’s new mirror screen was made of the finest plate glass by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass company in their factory at Ford City, Pennsylvania.  It measured nine feet six inches by 12 feet eight inches and weighed in at 1450 pounds. 13

The Mirror Screen

The Champaign Daily Gazette of 31 May 1913 described the mirror screen:

The cost of this wonderful projection surface will be $500.  You can readily get an idea of this cost when you understand that it is a large plate glass 9 feet six inches by 12 feet 8 inches.  The glass is the finest plate glass made in the world, the back surface is silvered with solid silver in exactly the same way that the finest mirrors are made, the front surface is depolished, then finished to a beautiful snow white.

The picture on the mirror takes on the perfect image of roundness and the perspective of life and reality.  The results must be, and are, the same as when you stand before a mirror and see your own reflection in a perfect manner.  A motion picture is nothing but light, it is really light reflected; it is this reflection of light that makes the picture visible to the eye.  The object of all screens or curtains is to reflect the light of the picture, and the more and better this light is reflected, the better will be the picture.  The mirror is the most perfect and powerful reflector in the world, being impossible to equal.  The mirror eliminates all eye strain, by reason of the fact that the light rays reflected through the snow-white surface are wonderfully diffused.  The results are identical in effect as when a ground glass or the sunlight falls through an opalescent window.  On account of the softness of the light the front seats are just as good to view the picture from as the rear.  To sum it up it means absolutely perfect motion pictures. 1​

The mirror screen plus these improvements noted by the Champaign Daily Gazette cost a little over $1,500.

The extension to the Lyric includes “wide exits at either side of the room and just ahead of the first row of seats, one leading to the alley and the other leading through the elevator lobby on Church street.  This lobby will be well lighted at all times.  The ventilating system has been added to and a twenty-four inch exhaust fan will be seen in operation at the left hand side of the miniature stage.  This fan pulls in several thousand cubic feet of air per minute, getting its supply from the roof.  The fan equipment will give a complete change of air every three minutes, the fresh outside air being brought in at each end of the house, and the foul and used air is taken out in the center of the room by a powerful exhaust fan installed in the roof.” 14

The Champaign Daily Gazette reported in its 22 September 1913 issue that the motion picture business publication Motion Picture World had recently done an elaborate story on one of H.H. Johnson’s publicity campaign for the Lyric.  As a result, Johnson was receiving inquiries from moving picture theatre proprietors across the country asking for further details of Mr. Johnson’s publicity work.  The inquiries usually asked for back issues of The Daily Gazette containing Mr. Johnson’s ads and the reading notices concerning attractions at the Lyric which appear exclusively in the Gazette.  One of the letters came from former University of Illinois student E.G. Brayton, who was then operating a moving picture show at Mt. Morris. 15.

Dr. H.C. Kariher, owner of the building housing the Lyric, had purchased the Lyric theater business from Herbert H. Johnson according to a report in the 7 May 1915 Champaign Daily Gazette.  Dr. Kariher didn’t elaborate except to say the theater was still operating under the same management as before.  H.H. Johnson, was then owner/manager of a theater in LaFayette, Indiana. 16

Bert H. Cooper had established the Park Theatre in 1913.  He, with building owner Isaac Kuhn, literally built it from the ground up.  Under Cooper’s “direction there was built up from a vacant lot a well-patronized theater which has become one of the best known in the United States.” 

(Left) 

A joint Park and Lyric ad from the Daily Illini, 2 March 1918.

The Champaign Daily News reported on 13 April 1917, that Mr. Cooper had sold the Park Theatre business to Dr. H.C. Kariher and Clarence Walton, proprietors of the Lyric Theater.  Mr. Cooper did not reveal details of his future plans.  Dr. Kariher and Mr. Walton intended to operate the two theaters under the same management and continue the high grade of entertainment both theaters were known for. 17

Ad appeared in the Wednesday 28 April 1915 Champaign Daily Gazette.

The Champaign Daily Gazette reports “musical chairs” in theater staffs.

“A slight change has been announced in the theatre staff of the new Orpheum and the Illinois theater in Urbana.

E. Lewis Goldberg, who was for some time connected with the Walker Opera House and who has been treasurer of the Orpheum since the beginning of this season, will take the managership of the Illinois Theater.  Today is Mr. Goldberg’s last day at the Orpheum.

Mr. Goldberg’s position at the vaudeville house will be taken by Edward Snyder, who is at present assistant manager of the Lyric theater.  Mr. Snyder will take up his new duties next Monday.

Joseph F. Kuechler, present manager of the Illinois theater, will go to Decatur, where he will be connected with the Empress theater.” 1​

The Lyric closed circa 1919.