The Theater, The Theater

Downtown Birmingham. Christmastime. It’s raining. There is a heavy fog suspended over the world so that the city looks like the opening scenes of a Dickens novel.

There are ghosts in Birmingham tonight. I can feel them.

I pull up to the Lyric Theater a few hours before soundcheck. The rain is really coming down now. The backstage doors are slung open. The crew is waiting for the band to arrive. I am with the band.

There is a stagehand standing out back, on smokebreak. He has piercings on his face. He is dressed in crewman black.

“Welcome to the Lyric,” he says, stepping on his cigarette. “Give you a hand with your stuff?”

He helps me unload my instruments. Tonight I have three accordions that are all about the size of mid-sized Buicks. I am playing music this evening, telling jokes onstage with Three On a String.

I walk into the theater, carrying my musical tonnage, and I’ve never seen a theater so magnificent. In fact, to call this place a “theater” would be selling it short. This is the Sistine Chapel.

The room is classic baroque. The stage is a proscenium-style stage, shaped like a giant arched window. There are opera boxes adorned in gilded fleurons and ornamentation. Multiple balconies, trimmed with gold leaf paint. Scrollwork galore.

The arch above the stage has an intricate mural. The mural was painted in the late 1910s, and looks like it belongs in the Pope’s bathroom. The painting is entitled “Allegory of Muses.” The painting depicts a bunch of naked people running around, groping each other. But they are Roman naked people, so it’s okay.

“Wow,” I say in a half whisper.

“Yeah, wow,” says the stagehand, then he adds, “you’re looking at the grandest Vaudeville stage in the Southeast.”

Jack Benny performed here. Mae West. Fred Allen. Buster Keaton. Eddie Cantor. And once upon a time, Will Rogers wore a Stetson and twirled a lasso before these very footlights.

Four of the Marx Brothers played here: They had a company of 16 performers, and headlined a show on Thanksgiving Day back in 1914. Brought the house down.

Before soundcheck I am tuning my guitar when I see an old man walking through the aisles of seats in the auditorium. He is tall, lean, and well-groomed. White hair. Matinee idol smile. The man is looking straight at me, but he’s not saying anything.

“Hello,” I say to him.

The man smiles at me. But he says nothing. He just stares at me.

“Who are you talking to?” asks the stagehand.

“The man in the aisle.”

The stagehand looks around the room with a bewildered face. “There’s nobody here but us chickens,” he says.

Meantime, the ghost is still looking right at me.

“You mean, you can’t see that guy?” I say, pointing to the old man. “He’s right there.”

The old spirit waves at me to underline my point.

The kid just glares at me like I am one burrito short of a blue plate special. “I don’t see anything, sir.”

That’s when I realize the old man looks vaguely familiar. He looks a little bit like me. Or maybe I look a little bit like him.

I descend the stage to introduce myself to the old man, but he has already walked away from me. In a few moments, I see the old man has moved to the balcony.

I follow him, only to find the old man seated in the topmost row, looking down on the theater that Milton Berle once called his “favorite place to perform.”

The old man looks nothing like I remember. He was a forty-something kid when he left this world. Nearly the age I am now. He died when I was a kid, ten lifetimes ago. Now he is aged, bent, and gray.

I edge closer to him. “Why are you here?” I ask.

“Why not?”

“You’re dead. That’s why.”

He shrugs.

“This isn’t happening,” I say.

“Looks pretty real to me.”

“I’m hallucinating. You’re not real.”

“Pinch me.”

“Pinch yourself.”

Another shrug.

I sit in the seat next to him. I can smell him. He smells exactly the way I remember. He has all the same mannerisms I recall. The same birdlike frame. Same loose-built posture. He is timeless in my imagination. He is beautiful.

“Thanks for coming tonight,” I say.

He turns to me. He pats my knee. “I never miss a single performance, Son.”


  1. PMc - December 14, 2022 6:48 am

    Oh Sean so precious to keep those feelings and scents close in your heart. I believe he will always be with you at all your special times! He’s getting ready for that really big night in Nashville 😊
    Peace and Love from Birmingham🙏♥️

    • Nancy - December 15, 2022 2:17 am

      Thank you!
      Such a powerful life, I felt like I was watching.
      Happy Dad showed up to Mama’s lil musician’s show💯

  2. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - December 14, 2022 7:49 am

    Ah, Sean! He really did a number on you when he made that tragic decision! He would be proud of you! I wanted to attend but you were sold out and I already had tickets to a show at the Oxford Performing Arts Center. I am hoping you will play there soon. You would love our theater too!

  3. Peggy Lovelady - December 14, 2022 8:45 am

    Okay, now that made me cry! Sean Dietrich you are my favorite storyteller in this whole world!

  4. sonyatuttle6762 - December 14, 2022 10:18 am

    So glad to know he sees you performing. I believe.

  5. Naomi - December 14, 2022 11:06 am

    I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1940s and 50s, the Lyric Theater was the only theater that allowed Black people; this was during the time of segregation. Black people had to sit in the balcony; they had to go up the stairs outside of the building.

  6. Sandra Mattucci - December 14, 2022 11:11 am


  7. Diana - December 14, 2022 11:49 am

    You really got me with that last line. Beautiful.

  8. Liz - December 14, 2022 12:26 pm

    My husband and I were with you Sunday afternoon at the Lyric. Great show, but we wanted to hear more stories. Maybe next time?!

  9. Donna George-Moskovitz - December 14, 2022 12:36 pm

    And I am crying.

  10. JANE H JOHNSON - December 14, 2022 12:38 pm

    The show was fantastic. Three on A String is my oldest favorite group and your instruments and voice added so much. Tears were rolling down my face when you sang “Silent Night “. Your stories were fun and I loved watching you interact with Bobby. Such a fun afternoon
    Glad your Dad was there in spirit. At least he’s there for your performances
    I hope you will team up with the Three/four again
    Merry Christmas

  11. Susan - December 14, 2022 12:49 pm


  12. mccutchen52 - December 14, 2022 12:51 pm

    Hope you put on a good show

  13. Ruth - December 14, 2022 12:54 pm

    I’m deeply touched to read this now as this is the day my Dad went home to be with the Lord 33 years ago. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, dirt poor, life was so rough he ran off and joined the Army before he was 16. He was my stepdad but a wonderful Father to me, the sunshine of my childhood. Thank you Sean, wish I could have heard your show.

  14. Linda Lewis - December 14, 2022 1:05 pm

    Powerful! It touched my heart.

  15. Robbie Rainer - December 14, 2022 1:12 pm


  16. Celia - December 14, 2022 1:29 pm

    Growing up in very South Alabama, I spent little time in North Alabama and Birmingham so I’m sorry I’ve missed this beautiful theater. Bucket list now. And every time I read your post, I think I will not cry today…but you continue to get me every single time. Heartwarming, as usual, today.

  17. Cordell - December 14, 2022 1:34 pm

    Dear Dad’s love for you will be forever present and he will always be with you.

  18. Judy Mcgowen - December 14, 2022 1:43 pm


  19. Chris Spencer - December 14, 2022 1:52 pm

    I have heard of the Lyric Theater in Birmingham but have no idea where it is located and I also had no idea of the rich entertainment history it has and all the famous people who have performed there.
    I wish I had known about this performance. I saw Three On A String many times in the late 70’s and they are very good. And of course Sean always does a great show.

  20. flkatmom - December 14, 2022 2:05 pm

    Yup, goosebumps reading this one.

  21. Patricia Gibson - December 14, 2022 2:24 pm

    Neat! I believe he is always with you❤️

  22. Anne Arthur - December 14, 2022 2:47 pm

    Wow. Congratulations to both, the performance and the ghost story.

  23. Diane Cook - December 14, 2022 2:50 pm

    Oh my – gives me goosebumps! So glad he came to see you and that you got to see him.

  24. Carolyn Shomaker - December 14, 2022 2:57 pm


  25. David - December 14, 2022 3:02 pm

    I know he is so proud of you! I am too!

  26. sjhl7 - December 14, 2022 3:15 pm

    Precious memories, oh how they linger …
    Such a beautiful and perfect story of life which continues if we open our eyes and see what is right before us.
    Love this! Thank you for sharing!

  27. Tracy - December 14, 2022 3:29 pm

    Touching as always. Merry Christmas 🎄

  28. Stacey Wallace - December 14, 2022 3:38 pm

    He sees every one of your performances and is so proud of you. So am I. Love to you, Jamie, and Marigold.

  29. Tracy McLaughlin - December 14, 2022 4:19 pm

    Always making me cry! Merry Christmas

  30. Ed (Bear) - December 14, 2022 4:20 pm

    Thanks Sean!
    I don’t lose touch with loved ones in my thoughts and feelings either.

  31. Peggy M. Windham - December 14, 2022 4:26 pm

    Stop it!! You have got to quit making me cry in my coffee every morning when I read your column!! What a beautiful story! I know your dad is right! He’s never missed a performance! Thanks for sharing this! 🥲❤️

  32. Belinda Graham - December 14, 2022 4:35 pm

    touching retell of your experience …………………I BELIEVE.
    Merry Christmas!!

  33. Marianna Ochs - December 14, 2022 4:37 pm

    This story is so wonderful, especially the ending. Everyday I wake up and do my morning devotional and read your new story. It’s become my favorite part of the day. I love today’s story, Christmas ghosts past and present. There are “Angels among us”

  34. Melanie Johnston Levy, LPC - December 14, 2022 4:39 pm

    Another eye leaking essay. Thank you, Sean, for sharing your heart!

  35. Karen Goss - December 14, 2022 5:27 pm

    Perfect! Loved this ❤️

  36. Debbie Reynolds - December 14, 2022 5:27 pm

    Crying again as usual ‼️ Great story and so glad you had an encounter with your dad‼️❤️ Merry Christmas to you and family‼️⛄️🎄🎅🏻❤️

  37. Linda Freeman - December 14, 2022 5:52 pm

    Thank you for my daily cry…

  38. Martha - December 14, 2022 5:56 pm

    I believe…❤️

  39. Glenda Busby-Fowler Hinkle - December 14, 2022 6:12 pm

    This one ripped my heart out. But, what better place to meet up with your Dad. The beautiful Lyric Theatre? I hope the performance was all you wanted it to be but I know it was the BEST meeting you have ever had!

  40. Ellouise - December 14, 2022 7:55 pm

    He has always loved you and he’ll never stop

  41. Chasity Davis Ritter - December 14, 2022 8:14 pm

    Awe Sean… I bet he doesn’t. ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  42. LIN ARNOLD - December 14, 2022 8:52 pm

    I’m definitely old enough to be your mother, quite possibly your grandmother. But I feel your story deep in my soul. I lost both my parents in 2009, exactly 8 months apart. They were both in their 80’s. Not a day goes by that I don’t talk to them. I don’t see them, but I feel them. My husband & I will be talking about a way to make something or fix something and all of a sudden, the solution will just appear in my mind. My Dad was always good with his hands and loved “putzing” around in his workshop. And then I’ll be trying to fix something for dinner and again, the solution will just pop into my brain. My Mom was always an amazing cook. They’re here with me every day. And I miss them more than I can begin to describe. My advice to everyone is: ALWAYS HOLD ON TO THE MEMORIES. They will serve you well.

  43. Linda Moon - December 14, 2022 9:57 pm

    I grew up in Birmingham’s Historic Downtown Historic Theatre District near Theatre Row, but it wasn’t called that back then. It was just “downtown”. My single Mom worked downtown to raise my brother and me, and when she had a quarter to spare those theatres were my after-school babysitter. I’m so glad you were there!

  44. MAM - December 15, 2022 12:22 am

    Very leaky eyes this time. Of course, he never misses a performance. He’s at every one of them, and I bet he has read all your books and reads your columns every day, too. He loves you, always has and always will.

  45. kingswaydaughter - December 15, 2022 1:14 am

    What a wonderful piece you have written. You made me want to see the Lyric Theatre….the wonderful thing about Google Earth is I travelled thousands of miles in seconds to get there and was able to walk the aisles and even stand on the stage. What a beautiful place. Yes, I think the balcony is the best place to sit and have a great reunion.

  46. Karen - December 15, 2022 7:49 pm


  47. Ann Voyles - December 16, 2022 1:27 am

    I was there, the show was great. First time seeing you..loved it!! Not my first time seeing Three on a String, first time in about 50 years though! Great memories of my college years in Ttown and Bham! ROLL TIDE AND GO BLAZERS!!! Merry Christmas! 🎁🎄

  48. Renee Welton - December 19, 2022 12:16 pm



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