Historical Vignettes: Stuart's three Lyric Theatres have offered entertainment since 1914

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Alice L. and Greg E. Luckhardt
Posted May 8, 2012 at 9:36 a.m., updated May 8, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.

STUART — The Lyric Theatre in downtown Stuart has been operated not only as a movie house, but has also provided a venue for various forms of entertainment since 1926. Hollywood movies, perhaps a stage play, recital, variety show, or a diversity of other performances have all been enjoyed by the community, through the years, at the Lyric. However, most people probably don't realize that the Lyric which has been such an integral part of the social scene in Stuart for more than eight decades was not the first theater in town. In fact, two other Lyric Theatres preceded it, all built by the Hancock family.

John C. Hancock came to Stuart in 1902, erected a large family home on Atlantic Avenue, grew pineapples, was appointed Justice of the Peace in 1903 and in 1905 opened an insurance agency. In 1909 the Hancocks, J. C. and Mamie, moved to a larger town, Jacksonville, where they owned and operated two theaters, while son, Fred, was at school in nearby Georgia. After Fred completed his studies, the Hancocks returned to Stuart.

Plans for the first Lyric Theatre began in early 1913. The structure was to be built by J.A.Y. Speirs of concrete block and had a main auditorium measuring about 40 feet square with a large stage approximately 40 feet wide by 20 feet deep. The establishment would be electric lighted, feature modern motion picture equipment and have a seating capacity of 200 to 250, more than adequate at the time and thought by some to be possibly too large, considering there were only about 300 people in the town.

Located on Osceola Avenue, near what would later be Haney Circle, it opened in June of 1914. There was no electricity in Stuart, so Hancock had his own power generator installed. Three reels of film were shown every Wednesday evening and tickets were 5¢ or 10¢ depending on the seat location.

On other evenings there were sometimes live musical shows or plays presented. The Gem Theatre of Fort Pierce leased the Lyric for a period of time and offered moving pictures every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. There was no charge for any school events held at the Lyric, which was the site of the graduation program in 1916. That year marked the first time in the Stuart school's history where diplomas were issued for grads (Ethel Madsen and Merle Smith).

The theater, managed by Fred Hancock, continued to serve the community, but the need for a new, larger structure in a better location was soon evident. (After the first theater closed, the building was used for various purposes, including a church.) By early 1917, architect's plans and specifications had been submitted and approved, with local builder Sam Matthews being contracted for the job. It was to be located on Railroad Avenue (Flagler) behind the post office and near the Sanitary Market.

The block foundation was laid and the framework begun as the building started to take shape within view of the passing trains. Judge Hancock stated that he would have preferred the structure be of concrete, but due to building conditions and costs at the time, it would instead be constructed of wood. With seating capacity of at least 400 and measuring 40 x 75 feet with a stage 20 feet deep and 3½ feet above the main floor, there would also be a dressing room under the stage extending another 3½ feet below the floor level. "Gingerbread" detailing was added to the building giving it an attractive appearance. The completed theater was considered one of the nicest on the East Coast. Fred Hancock, however, was in the military for a period of time and could not manage the theater until after he returned from service in December 1918.

With the land boom of the 1920s, the third, grandest and last theater built by the Hancocks, whose construction had begun May 27, 1925, opened on March 15, 1926, to large, enthusiastic crowds, exceeding the 1,000-plus seating capacity, some actually being turned away! “Skinner’s Dress Suit,” starring Reginald Denny was the first movie to be shown. The new theater was located on the approximate site of the previous theater, which was moved to the east side of Osceola, becoming the Hartman & Moore Grocery Store. (The building was eventually condemned and torn down in 1936.)

The $100,000 two-story fireproof concrete structure, built by contractor Fred Walton & Sons, was a modified Spanish Mediterranean style tile and stucco building, even featuring a "penthouse" above the second level (unfortunately destroyed by the 1928 hurricane). The interior of the theater was elegant and comfortable; the projection equipment and screen were modern, impressive - the finest available.

Fred Hancock continued to operate the theater until 1937, the last show presented under his management being on Monday, Aug. 30 of that year. The Lyric has survived the poor economic times of the Depression, the fury and destruction of hurricanes as well as business competition and other situations endured by various owners through the years, but it still remains as an iconic entertainment center in Stuart.

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