Alabama Theatre for the Performing Arts The Alabama Theatre, located on Third Avenue North in Birmingham, opened on December 26, 1927, as the largest movie “palace” in the state. Designed by Chicago architects Anker Sveere Graven and Arthur Guy Mayger, construction for the theater was begun in April 1927. The theater was originally owned and operated by Paramount-Publix Theatres, as was what is now the Davis Theater in Montgomery and many other theaters in major U.S. cities, as a showcase for Paramount films. The venue is now a 2,200-seat performing arts venue, featuring more than 300 film and live events per year. Dubbed the “Showplace of the South” by Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor, the theater features an eclectic mix of Mission and Spanish Revival interior decorative motifs with elements of Egyptian and Moorish design.
Lounge in the Alabama Theatre Like other opulent movie palaces around the country, the architecture and interior design of the Alabama Theatre were meant to inspire awe. Because movies were still considered a working-class pastime during the 1920s, the elaborate interior helped foster an atmosphere of high culture. The spectacle began outside the theater, with the 60-foot neon and fluorescent sign vertically spelling out “Alabama.” Patrons entered a two-story anteroom with mirrored walls, two eight-foot candelabras, and a star-shaped chandelier bearing more than 8,000 crystals. This room led to an equally elaborate Ancient Egypt-style lobby, which was framed by Moorish arches and accented by columns. The room was illuminated by a multicolored chandelier hung from the gilded coffered ceiling and multicolored glass sconces with sunburst reflectors. The Egyptian Public Room, a lounge area adjacent to the restrooms, featured hints of Middle Eastern and Italian influences and led to the Eve Room (the French-themed women’s room) and the College Room (the American-style men’s restroom). The Peacock Hall, on the second floor, featured original works of art and furnishings purchased from a Spanish castle, and hallways, lounges, and alcoves displayed large paintings in ornate gold frames and classical marble busts. One southern movie theater owner estimated that the Alabama Theatre contained a combined quarter million dollars in objects of art and chandeliers.
Alabama Theatre Auditorium The auditorium, where patrons watched the films, featured a 70-foot-high gold-domed ceiling containing more than 960 light bulbs in amber, red, and blue. In total, the auditorium contains more than 15,000 light bulbs. The large proscenium arch is decorated with an elaborate floral design of leaves and vines. All of the approximately 2,500 seats were originally upholstered in red velvet. Whereas older theaters were built primarily of wood, the Alabama’s designers incorporated concrete and other fireproof materials into their design, including flame-retardant carpeting and upholstery. The auditorium also included modern technological features, including hidden air vents that circulated more than 300 tons of air-conditioning every three minutes. The Alabama Theatre was one of the first buildings in the state to feature air-conditioning (other buildings featured cooled air, but it was not conditioned), making it a popular escape from the heat during summer months. Patrons were also treated to music from “Big Bertha,” the Alabama’s massive Wurlitzer organ, whose pipes were concealed in what appeared to be special box seats in twin alcoves. The organ, which can be raised to or lowered from the stage on its own elevator, includes an 88-key piano, marimba, two xylophones, a set of cathedral chimes, and a set of drums.
Alabama Theatre Hall of Mirrors The Alabama Theatre opened the day after Christmas in 1927 to a capacity audience of 2,585. The first movie shown at the facility was The Spotlight, a Paramount comedy starring Neil Hamilton and Ester Ralston. The theater was very successful in its first few years until the onset of the Great Depression, which caused declining box office numbers at movie theaters around the country. Despite declining revenue, the Alabama remained the state’s premier movie theater until after World War II. In 1934, it escaped serious damage from a fire at the neighboring Loveman’s Department Store because of a thick firewall between the two buildings.
Beginning in 1933, the Alabama Theatre was the home of the Birmingham Mickey Mouse Club, hosting meetings and performances for members every Saturday. By the early 1940s, membership in the Birmingham chapter reached 18,000. Additionally, the theater hosted the Miss Birmingham Pageant from 1935 to 1948 and the Miss Alabama Pageant from 1949 to 1966.
The Alabama Theatre was hit hard by the decline of downtown Birmingham during the 1960s and 1970s. As the streets became battlegrounds during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, residents shunned the downtown area and instead patronized the new suburban mall theaters. The decline of downtown Birmingham and the physical decline of the theater itself resulted in a large drop in patronage. During the theater’s last few decades as strictly a movie house, the upper balcony remained closed. Ownership changed hands several times beginning in the late 1970s; in 1981, the development group Costa and Head assumed ownership of the theater and closed its doors the following year. By that time, it was being operated as a discount movie house showing exploitation and B-films. Costa and Head filed for bankruptcy in 1986, and the theater was slated for demolition.
Wurlitzer Pipe Organ at the Alabama Theatre At that time, the Alabama chapter of the American Theater Organist Society, which had been maintaining Big Bertha since the 1970s, launched a fundraising drive to save the Alabama Theatre from the wrecking ball. After a successful fundraising campaign, Birmingham Landmarks Inc., was formed as a non-profit group to assume ownership and control of the theater. The venue was renamed the Alabama Theatre for the Performing Arts, and it is now operated as a multi-purpose performance and entertainment venue. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was designated the official state historic theater of Alabama in 1993. A full restoration of the theater was completed in 1998. In recent years it has drawn as many as 400,000 people annually for Broadway shows, ballets, operas, concerts, parties, fashion shows, and classic film presentations.
- Jones, Janna. The Southern Movie Place: Rise, Fall, and Resurrection. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
- Whitmire, Cecil, and Jeannie Hanks. The Alabama Theater: Showplace of the South. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Landmarks, 2002.