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Where ‘The King and I’ played forever

The Lyric Theatre in Umbilo shot in 1974 with the For Sale sign up.

The Lyric Theatre in Umbilo shot in 1974 with the For Sale sign up.

Published Sep 30, 2023


Durban - In keeping with our focus on local theatre last week, the old pictures this week take in a once-proud institution in Durban’s entertainment scene ‒ the Lyric Theatre in Umbilo.

The first picture is undated and simply bears a Mercury copyright stamp and the words “Page 19, No Brides caption”. The picture advertises a show called Beautiful But Dangerous. Judging by the cars in the picture it was probably shot in the late seventies.

The second picture was published on January 3, 1974, and again the next day. The second caption reads: “Durban’s Lyric Theatre in Umbilo Road is up for sale at an asking price of R120 000. In the past few years the old theatrical landmark has been used mainly as a cinema. The owners, Capital Theatre Holdings, of Cape Town, were reported to have paid R160 000 for the theatre in 1970.”

The Lyric Theatre, probably shot in the late 70s.

In the picture you can clearly see the for sale sign has been put up. The theatre advertises the movies Paint Your Wagon, the 1969 western starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and The Last Safari, the 1967 adventure epic starring Kaz Garas and Stewart Granger.

The Lyric Theatre opened in December 1959 after its conversion from what was known as the Planet Cinema. It seated 500 people.

In 1961 Desmond Morley was appointed administrative director and presented numerous productions, including major musicals such as The King and I (1951), The Sound of Music (1959) and The Wizard of Oz (1963).

The old Lyric Theatre at 22 Sarnia Road, Umbilo, today is the Umbilo Assemblies of God: Picture: Shelley Kjonstad

In Facts About Durban, Trevor Friend remembers the Lyric as “a small theatre that seemed to have The King and I playing there almost indefinitely (or so it seemed)”.

It was rebranded the New Lyric Theatre in July 1974 (presumably after the sale) and the theatre promoted a number of local works, including the first showing before a white audience of Gibson Kente’s How Long? in 1973 and Ipi-Tombi in 1974.

The theatre closed in 1981 and was then owned by Durban Christian Centre until 1986. The building today is used as the Umbilo Assemblies of God, as Shelley Kjonstad’s picture shows.

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