On the wall of the office of the staff of Allentown’s Symphony Hall, recently renamed the Miller Symphony Hall, after the prominent local family whose philanthropy saved it from the wrecker's ball, is a vintage poster (circa 1940) advertising a boxing match to take place on the theater’s stage. To some, the idea that prizefighters would be shedding each other's blood in roughly the same spot where the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt performed and classical violinist Jascha Heifetz played may seem a little odd.
But as Shelia Evans, the Allentown Symphony’s Executive Director, and the rest of the staff know, this was all part of the hall’s history. In the 1930s and 40s, it seemed that the Lyric Theater, as Symphony Hall was then known, had its best days behind it. Boxing matches and appearances by ecdysiasts with nom de theatre like Busty Russell and Ding Dong Bell, that suggested their talents were more physical than strictly theatrical, were considered all it was good for.
This transformation would have come as a surprise to those who were there in 1899 when the then Lyric Theater opened. Allentown’s first theater had opened in 1869 at 8th and Hamilton Streets. Officially known as the Academy of Music, it was called Hagenbuch’s Opera House, after the man who opened it. It lasted until 1888 when it was converted into a grocery store. The next Allentown theater that opened the same year the opera house closed was known as the Academy of Music. Located at 6th and Linden, the current site of the Morning Call, it remained popular until it burned down in huge fire in 1903. Its most popular shows were productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in Pennsylvania Dutch.
The Lyric’s opening was hailed in the press which only passed over briefly the fact that it had been built as the Central Market Hall, a farmers market that was unsuccessful. But by the late 1890s concerts were being held there and finally it was decided to convert it to a theater. Right next to the Lyric was the Orpheum theater that was primarily a vaudeville house.
The Lyric was designed as a legitimate theater for plays. Its name came about as the result of a contest, a five dollar gold piece being offered for the best choice. There was some confusion at first when two people submitted the winning name. But hard feelings were smoothed over when Mrs. Robert Iredell, whose husband owned the Allentown Chronicle and News newspaper, agreed to share her box on opening night with the winner.
The Lyric opened with a comic opera production based on the life of 18th century Prussian King Frederick the Great. For the next 30 years it was to become the community’s showplace. Its speakers included Booker T. Washington and two U. S. presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
By the early 1920s the Lyric sported a new neo-classical façade, done by Allentown’s first Jewish architect, David Levy, and had become one of the nation’s leading “tryout” theaters, a place where shows appeared before being taken to Broadway.
Comic actor Eddie Cantor, who appeared at the Lyric as a child actor in the early 20th century, noted in the 1950s, “if your play was good enough for Allentown it was considered good enough for New York." Why this was is not clear but some old theater hands suggested that Pennsylvania German audiences were noted for “sitting on their hands,” and only grudgingly giving applause. One wonders what the conservative Pennsylvania German audiences made of the “Emperor Jones,” a drama by Eugene O’ Neil about an African-American dictator that was among those that went into tryouts there.
In 1926 the Lyric stepped briefly into an international spotlight when it became the first theater in America to show “Ashes of Love,” a play written by a titled English lady, Vera Countess of Cathcart, whose scandalous divorce led to her briefly being kept out of the U.S. on grounds of “moral turpitude.”
We do know what at least one resident of Allentown thought of the drama. Morning Call theater critic John Y. Kohl wrote on his copy of the program, now in the collection of De Sales University’s theater department, “this was undoubtedly the worst play ever to come to Allentown.”
“Wall Street Lays An Egg” read the headline in the theater newspaper Variety when the stock market crash of 1929 jolted the country. It might have added that it laid an egg on Broadway as well. The number of plays headed to the Great White Way plummeted. And with the arrival of talking movies and the gradual perfection of sound technology the stage faced a rival it had never had before.
For the Lyric it meant an entirely different role. There were not enough plays to keep the theater running full time. So they began to book other sorts of entertainment unlike those they had run before. Prize fights and strippers may not have been the most decorous forms of entertainment, but they “filled the hall,” as the saying went, and paid the rent.
But classical music, thanks to the Allentown Symphony Orchestra and the Allentown Community Concert Association, did not disappear entirely from the Lyric. The theater’s 1,450 seats were sold out for many performances.
The late Karl Y. Donecker, president of the Concert Association from 1940 to 1956, estimated that a minimum of 4,000 and 5,000 local concertgoers attended concerts at the Lyric from 1945 to 1952.
It was in 1959 that the Miller family extended its hand to the Lyric that helped it make its transition to Symphony Hall. Thanks to a complete overhaul in the 1990s it is once more a city showplace.