By Bobby Simmons
Imagine it for a moment. The warm glow of fluorescent neon in manifold colors. An electric hum from the lights emboldened by the electric atmosphere of shuffled feet on concrete, and excited conversation between friends, lovers, and locals of all kinds. People of a different time, a prosperous time, collected together in anticipation of the week’s main event at 103 E. Erwin, the first run show at the Liberty Theater in the heart of Tyler’s bustling downtown.
This snapshot of 1950’s era Liberty Theater is Americana at it’s finest, a slice of the American dream in downtown Tyler in the years of prosperity following WW2 and the victory of the “greatest generation.” According to one source, the Liberty Theater opened it’s doors on June 18th, 1930. It started as a cinema and operated successfully for decades until the 80’s as the majority of Tyler’s commerce shifted south, to the new developments of shopping centers and department stores. In the last years before closure, the Liberty had various owners with their own plans on how to restore it to glory, all of them unsuccessful.
While the community input portion of the Tyler 21 Comprehensive Plan was being carried out in 2008, it became clear that the community had an overwhelming interest in revitalizing Downtown Tyler. Somewhere during this process of Tyler 21 planning, City Manager Mark McDaniel says “all of a sudden, we get a call from Nancy Wren (Executive Director of the East Texas Symphony) and she’s interested in talking to us more about this crazy idea about Liberty Hall being opened downtown as a concert hall.” The East Texas Symphony’s main mission is carried out at the Cowan Center, but they took an interest in Liberty Hall serving as the Anchor Tenant because, according to Wrenn, “we find that meeting the audience on a more intimate level, particularly children, will allow us to identify with the needs of the audience, and they with our mission.”
Even though other people had tried to do something with the theater in years past, never before had there been the broad communication and cooperation that was facilitated by the Tyler 21 initiative. With the support of the public, the City went to work on revitalizing the downtown district. Several projects were completed, such as the Heart of Tyler, Gallery Main Street, Tyler Main Street Offices, and now Liberty Hall. After the city finalized the plan and purchased the building, Mayor Barbara Bass, the City Council, and the East Texas Symphony came together for a massive fund-raising effort that would inevitably succeed and provide the dollars needed to make the vision a reality. According to Mark McDaniel, Mayor Barbara Bass was an integral part of the fund raising process and he credits her with raising 75% of the budget for this project.
The City chose to work with Butler Architectural Group for the remodeling design that would transform the old Liberty Theater into the new Liberty Hall. They chose to incorporate mid-century styles and designs within the overall contemporary and modern structure. They specifically designed every aspect of the lines, colors, and ornamentation to reflect the golden era. They wanted an ambiance that would allow visitors to be immersed in a vivid and intimate theater experience, capturing the same electric atmosphere that was here during the 1950’s.
This feat of public and private participation was in itself an overwhelming success from which the city has only just begun to reap dividends. This project has fortified the composure of those who hold a dynamic and inclusive vision for the future of Tyler’s business and social networks. The fact that so many local businesses and individuals were willing to freely invest in the local quality of life through this project was an enormous achievement. Over one million dollars of private donations has breathed new wind into the sails of those working to reshape the downtown atmosphere. So the question is, “Did the spark start a fire?” Well, according to Executive Director of Liberty Hall, Anne Payne, the theater has been a huge success.
I was able to have a conversation with Anne about the theater and it’s role in the development of the downtown district over the last two years. As they are moving into their third year now, she’s excited about the things they’ve accomplished and the things they’re planning for 2014. At her estimation they’ve seen between ten and fifteen thousand foot-traffic visitors per year on average and she expects this years numbers to march in lock-step. Liberty Hall has also been a crucial component of bringing more people downtown for food and shopping. The business relationships downtown seem to be flourishing and Liberty Hall is a welcome companion as more cooperation and development has new visitors discovering the nightlife oasis of downtown Tyler. A resident of over twenty years, Anne laughs and says that she thought she knew everyone, but in her time at Liberty Hall she has been pleased to see how many new people are coming to be a part of what’s happening in downtown.
One Tyler resident remarked that, “It’s really like a little Austin right here in Tyler. Where are you going to take someone to show them something special about your city? With all that’s developed over the last few years, you now have a downtown with a pulse, a feel, and a rhythm all its own. There are still some misguided misconceptions about parking and safety, but the city is doing great to address those concerns and prove that Tyler is a good nightlife destination.”
When people come to Liberty Hall, they can expect to see the best entertainment that East Texas has to offer. The theater has continued in it’s original purpose by showing classic films on the big screen. It offers residents a chance to relive their favorites in an atmosphere unlike any other. The charm and intimacy of this venue allows the classic films to touch people with a degree of nostalgia that can’t be found in a mega-multiplex. The theater also schedules and plans the movies in accordance with special events, so visitors can expect to see a holiday classic in the coming weeks.
Building on a fantastic tradition of movie-going, the architects redesigned the theater to accommodate live performances as well – a part of the original vision of the East Texas Symphony. Now, this 350 seat venue offers an up-close and personal experience for fans of live music. In many cases the performers will have a “meet and greet” with the audience after the show. Since it’s grand opening, Liberty Hall has hosted the East Texas Symphony regularly, as well as great acts like Bob Schneider, Asleep at the Wheel, Ralph Stanley, Gary P. Nunn, and too many others to list.
Last August the Liberty had it’s first Battle of the Bands event “Rock Paper Scissors.” This was a great opportunity for local talent to perform in a sit down theater as opposed to a club atmosphere. It’s also proved to be a great way to gather more local support and bring in a whole new group of people to the theater, especially a younger crowd. There will most likely be a repeat in the summer of 2014.
In addition to these musical experiences, Liberty Hall also showcases outstanding performances of live theater. This year the Liberty is working with a local professional acting group, Apex Entertainment, providing them a home base to perform shows like “39 Steps” and “Rent.” Apex also put on an educational summer program for kids last August and plans to do the same in the summer of 2014.
Another important part of the new format has been the introduction of stand up comedy to the mix. The feedback on these performances has been so positive that it has now become a big part of what Liberty Hall is doing every month, booking great family friendly acts like national performer Henry Cho, who performed in November.
The diversity of it’s events makes the theater stand out from other venues, but it also presents the challenge of balancing the schedule so that it accommodates the interests of the various demographics in Tyler. “We’re always trying new things to excite and entertain the public through the theater. Our rentals are really increasing as well. We are open to the public for event rentals like private social events, weddings, and even fashion events. Event rental is a good part of the revenue that keeps the theater going and even adds to the diversity of our impact. We’re planning much more through 2014 and always looking for public input because it’s crucial to the future of the theater” said Payne.
“It takes time but we are growing. Social media’s impact is incredible. We’ve only been open for two years and we have over 4,500 people watching the website. It’s where we get a lot of feedback on what we are doing. It’s been a crucial part of the success that has allowed us to get the word out and do so much more with our budget.”
If walls could talk, the walls of Tyler’s Liberty Hall would have many stories to tell. Stories of a bygone era, stories of strenuous efforts and eventual triumph, and most importantly, the stories that have yet to unfold.Liberty Hall 103 E. Erwin St., downtown Tyler (903)595-7274
Upcoming events are on their website, Facebook and Twitter pages.
Tickets are available online at libertytyler.com.
Liberty Hall is a department of the City of Tyler.