W hen it opened a couple of years ago, the legend of Lyric Hall dwelled on the past: how the back end of an old building in Westville had been elegantly renovated back to one of its original purposes, a theater stage.
Since then, the talk has become less about the hall itself—though it remains a shiny gem, an immaculate small proscenium stage with old-fashioned footlights and lush curtains and a piano which used to belong to film star Basil Rathbone—and more about who’s been treading on that stage.
Lyric Hall has hosted dozens of events, including silent movie screenings and vaudeville events which hearken to its heyday as a movie house when the pictures didn’t yet talk.
But while some event promoters might insist on only booking similarly lush and classic entertainment into such an atmospheric space, Lyric Hall has opened its antique doors to everything from modem jazz to experimental theater, spoken word projects and rock shows. Film screenings have ranged from a fundraising party for Stephen Dest’s locally-lensed feature My Brother Jack to Janluk Stanislaus’ documentary of graffiti artists Nou Yorkers.
This weekend of May 5 & 6 is an excellent example of the sheer diversity of Lyric Hall’s programming. On Saturday night at 7 p.m., Zelphia Hunter presents Out of Egypt: One Woman’s Poetic Journey to Freedom, her original blend of “spoken word, jazz, dance and good fellowship” featuring fellow local performers Maryama Shari Caldwell and Kalim Zarif. On Sunday at 2 p.m., the Hall hosts a birthday celebration for living legends of stage and screen Celeste Holm (the Oscar-winning Gentleman’s Agreement and All About Eve actress, who turned 95 on April 29) and Elizabeth Wilson (whose Broadway and Hollywood debuts were both with the classic William Inge script Picnic; Wilson turned 91 on April 4), coupled with a screening of the documentary Broads, in which both Wilson and Holm appear. The following weekend, Lyric Hall will participate in the 15th annual Westville ArtWalk celebration.
The Lyric’s eclecticism comes courtesy of its hands-on restorer/proprietor John Cavaliere, who not only oversees the stage area at the back of 827 Whalley Avenue but also runs his respected antiques-restoration business out of the other rooms of the building. He also lives there, with his cat Maurice. Cavaliere loves that the Nou Yorkers screening drew “people of every age group, every stripe,” and he’s just as pleased to be arranging a community screening in June of a new documentary The New Haven Green: Heart of a City, narrated by Paul Giamatti.
The Lyric’s stage builds upon the building’s former glories, and has in fact transcended them. Cavaliere says that New Haven historian Colin Caplan researched the site and determined that the original silent movie house there lasted just five years and “was not successful.” The building has a longer legacy as an auto repair shop, and for other utilitarian roles it played in Westville when the neighborhood was still a factory town known as Hotchkissville.
That original shortlived theater wasn’t even named Lyric Hall; it was known as West Rock Theater. Cavaliere borrowed the Lyric name from an historic opera house in New London, a city he’s nearly as fond of as he is of New Haven. The huge wooden sign outside the building was hand-carved by friends of Cavaliere’s from lumber taken from a demolished building in New York.
Cavaliere personifies the Lyric, but insists, “I’m merely the steward. I just fell into this. I don’t know the first thing about show business. This place is bigger than me, bigger than all of us.” He likes to encourage young artists and presenters to bring new ideas to the space. Jose Oyala of Taco Hut music production, who’s booked over a dozen music concerts into Lyric Hall, says he heard about Lyric Stage from accordion player/composer Adam Matlock of the band Anhistoric. “I walked in the side door and was amazed. There’s nothing really like it. Everyone is welcome. It’s welcoming, warm. I love just hanging out there. It makes me happy to bring my age group into a place like that.”
Cavaliere enjoys the community and energy which his renovation project has fostered. He’s also found that the theater is “built-in marketing for the antiques restoration business.” The entire building is stocked with impressively restored furniture, paintings, clocks and other furnishings. The theater’s storied past is accented by a framed paper fan emblazoned with the image of silent film star Mabel Normand which hangs in the corridor outside the small auditorium.
Lyric Hall’s newfound limelight is just beginning to beam. “Here’s the game-changer,” Cavaliere predicts: “I consider myself a technophobe. When I’m in front of a computer screen, I feel I could be going outside instead, or painting… So I was resistant to getting a website because to parlay the vibe, the feeling of this place would take a genius. Then I realized I’d found that genius.”
The site, the work of Cavalier’s Westville neighbors George Corsillo and Susan McCaslin of the Design Monsters studio, will launch later this month and improve greatly upon the hall’s existing Facebook page. It should build Lyric Hall’s online community and help visitors navigate the theater’s ever more packed schedule.
“I would feel successful,” John Cavaliere says, “if the place were used morning, noon and night of every day—whether it’s for dance classes, spelling bees, cabarets, or poetry readings. It’s like a giant stage set, this place. Every day is theater, some wonderful new act.”
827 Whalley Avenue, New Haven (map)
(new website forthcoming)
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.