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Amy Malysa of the Lyric Theater Project in Blue Island, Ill., sits in front of a projector dating back to 1960.

by Lynn S. Schwebach
Looking back on her life, Amy Malysa observes a pattern: about every 10 years she reinvents herself – which she admits, on further reflection, is a way to continually express her creativity while giving back to those who have gone before.

Sitting in the Mexican restaurant Tenochtitlan on Western Ave. in Blue Island, Ill., she ordered a strong coffee with cinnamon, telling the waitress that she loves cinnamon and to make sure they add “a lot.” We sat in front of a window that looked out across sun-drenched Western Ave., facing a large white movie marquee advertising the movies Psycho and Night of the Living Dead.

The movie sign is in front of the Lyric Theater, and we are discussing the “Lyric Theater Project,” or at least that is the topic that brought us together on this hot July Sunday morning. The theater officially closed in the late 1980’s for movies, and reopened under many different businesses over the years.

Amy’s energy and enthusiasm about the project, and Blue Island in general, are compelling. And her comment about reinventing herself in order to bring her to this point in her life, and this project, raises more questions in my mind than I have time to ask. I have to keep reminding myself that we’re here to discuss the Lyric.

Saving the Lyric

Working full time as the youth services manager at Alsip-Merrionette Park Public Library, Amy also manages various properties – residential, industrial, and commercial – owned by her family. Restoring the Lyric has become her third job, often consuming many of her nights and weekends. Saving and restoring buildings, however, runs in her family.

Amy’s grandfather bought the Lyric – which originates back to 1917 – and rebuilt it in 1962 after a fire in 1960 completely gutted it. Both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have fond memories of growing up on the South Side and going to The Lyric.

The Lyric Theater in Blue Island, Ill., before the 1960 fire.

“These buildings, this town, my family, this theater, it’s about holding on to something that you love. Saving buildings is about trying to make a difference and honor all the hard work of those who have come before you – not throwing that away,” Amy said to me before sipping her cinnamon coffee.

South Side Chicago

Characteristically South Side Chicago, Blue Island was founded in the mid 1800s by immigrants and was sustained by heavy industry, including the Rock Island Railroad, brick-making factories, and eventually, oil refineries. Similar to other South Side neighborhoods and communities, Blue Island has the deep wrinkles and aging spots found among Chicago’s financially struggling neighborhoods – communities experiencing white flight, and plagued with racial conflict. But as you drive through its neighborhoods, there are still homes of magnificent architecture and gardens of silken flowers. The sound of train whistles hits you from every direction, still rattling windows.

On this languid Sunday morning, Amy talks of how she loves “this town” and isn’t about to give up on it – a bit ironic since Amy, now 53, fled Blue Island when she was 19 for more artistic, culturally diverse experiences. “I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign for one semester after high school and hated it,” she said. “I wasn’t your traditional student who wanted to live in a sorority and go to football games and parties on the weekends.” She said she craved creativity, and went out East to live.

After returning 12 years ago, she found her hometown had changed radically, but she also found herself changed as well, and that – paradoxically – allowed her to stay. It was hard for her to express why, but she knows it has to do with what they call “coming full circle.” She also saw potential in the town she once fled.

A Community Arts Center

Her goal is to turn the Lyric into a community arts center. Her family still owns the building, but its renters over the past 25 years haven’t been successful, and she knew she had to take it over herself to try and make it thrive.

To help her find a stable tenant, with the ultimate goal of having the tenant handle the arts programming and scheduling, she formed a nonprofit.

Community volunteers wanting to see the Lyric Theater come back to life have completed all the repainting, remodeling, and cleaning, and Amy has spent many late evenings in the theater working.

“When we took the building back from its previous renter, the walls were teal and pink – just like the 1990s and Miami Vice. Oh my God. It was awful.”

On the evening of July 13th, the Lyric Theater reopened, showing the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho. Over 160 people turned out for the premiere. Vintage automobiles from the era of the movie (1960) lined Western Ave. in front of the theater.

Amy Malysa rifles through old documents left in the Lyric Theater’s projection room.

“It was amazing,” Amy said, remarking that so many people remember the Lyric and came back to honor those memories. But there’s still so much work to do and not a whole lot of money to get it done. Three movies are scheduled for July, but she said in order to become financially viable, the nonprofit needs to have ongoing, weekly – or even daily – events.

A Lifetime of Experience

I asked Amy if she ever thought, when she left Blue Island all those years ago, if she would be back doing this.

“Never. But I realize that everything I’ve done in my life, everything that I’ve been interested in, or invested myself in, I put to use on this project.”

Which brings the conversation back to her life. After leaving Illinois at age 19, Amy lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a house with six other people – all artists and writers. She became interested in photography, taking classes at Harvard University in the evening, and setting up a darkroom in her bathroom.

While working various jobs including interior house painting, she eventually graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University in Boston, as well as a master’s degree in library science.

She fell in love while in New England, and simultaneously became interested in organic farming while managing a community garden in Cambridge. Eventually, she moved to Vermont to live with her boyfriend and farm 90 acres. It was there that she started her own flower business, driving for two hours every week to Boston to sell the flowers at outdoor markets.

Returning to Blue Island

When Amy’s relationship ended, she needed space and time to heal. Ironically – or maybe not so ironically – she landed back in Blue Island. Yet it was running her own business – and farming − that taught her so much about becoming a community organizer and activist.

Finding oneself, at least for Amy, meant coming back to help her family and community.

It’s been over 10 years in one place now, and I ask her what’s next. Something is brewing, she said almost whispering. I know I’ll be doing something different in three years. But first, she claims, she has to bring this project to its completion.

For more information and upcoming shows, visit the Lyric Theater Project on Facebook. To rent the Lyric for a special event, visit the Lyric Theater website.