Days Gone By - stories from the past

Happy Birthday to the beautiful Alabama Theater!

Today is the Alabama Theater’s birthday! The Alabama Theater opened on the night of Monday, December 26, 1927. Lane Carter, a writer for the Birmingham Age-Herald, wrote the following about the opening on the morning of the 27th of December, 1927.


Alabama_Theatre_Opening_December_26 (1)Alabama Theatre Opening December 26, 1927, with Spotlight as film (Birmingham Public Library)

“A dream of color and music is the impression left after seeing the first presentation of the Alabama Theater, the newest addition to the extensive chain of Publix Theaters which opened its doors Monday to more than 11,000 eager amusement seekers…And with the fading of the first hues of that riotous dream comes the incontestable conviction that what had just transpired within that theater was one of the most complete programs of music, laughter, and pictures that has ever been presented in this section of the south.”

Alabama_Theatre_Lobby (1) WikipediaAlabama Theatre Lobby today (Wikipedia)

People waited long before the hour

The Alabama Theater was patterned after the Paramount Theater in New York. Another writer, Dolly Dalrymple from the Birmingham News described the opening as a “magnificent temple of pleasures.” She went on to report that “great masses of people assembled long before the hour for the opening and throngs viewed the handsome foyer with its myriads of mirrors, pictures, gorgeous furniture, handsome lighting effects, luxurious carpets and artistic decorations with eyes filled with delight and enthusiasm.”

Alabama Theatre Wurlitzer Organ by photographer Jack E. Boucher (Library of Congress)Alabama Theatre Wurlitzer Organ  by photographer Jack E. Boucher (Library of Congress)

Organ provided background music for silent movies

Since silent movies were the norm in the 1920’s, organ music provided background music and fourteen Birmingham Theaters advertised pipe organs as part of their program and the Alabama’s Mighty Wurlitzer was a star attraction.

 

“As the houselights slowly dimmed to blue running lights, the opening night audience got its first glimpse of the “Mighty Wurlitzer console slowly rising into view. The massively ornate red console featured four manuals and elaborate gold trim. Joe Alexander thrilled the audience with his rendition of Organs I Have Played,”

A full orchestra played at the opening and the feature film was Spotlight, starring Esther Ralston and Neil Hamilton. The orchestra opened the program with “A Grand Fantasia from Faust. A fantastic “stage production, entitled Banjomania supplemented the movie which opened with the Thompson sisters being lowered to the stage on the strings of immense banjos.” Morgan and Stone, banjoists offered played On a Dew-Dew-Dewy Day, and Margaret Ball and Richard (Limberlegs) Edwards performed their dances. The stage score ended with the singing of the Byron Sisters and the comical antics of Eddie Hill. Afterwards, the stage shows became a weekly feature at the Alabama Theater.

A contest was also conducted in connection with the opening. The Theater and Birmingham Post-Herald combined to award $20 to the first baby born on the day of the opening. The winner was Anita Jean Perryman.

Alabama_Theatre_under_Construction (1)Alabama Theatre under construction

Early Events at the Alabama Theater

Of the theaters continuing to operate into the 1930’s, three maintained their theater organs — the Lowes Temple, the Ritz, and the Alabama. By the mid-1930s, only the Mighty Wurlizer remained.

In addition to films, the Alabama Theater offered live entertainment until 1929. Before coming to the Alabama, a unit show played the New Orleans Saenger Theatre, and when the show left Birmingham, it went to the Atlanta Paramount.

Alabama_Theatre_Night_View_with_Judge_Priest_Marquee 19341934 Marquee of Alabama Theatre

The Alabama has had several managers, events, shows and historic anniversaries over the, however, the anniversary on December 26, 1932, probably caused considerable excitement when a bomb exploded in the theater. Three women fainted and the house filled with smoke, but thankfully no one was injured. Charles Childress from Cullman was actually sitting in the seat under which the bomb had been placed and was temporarily blinded by the explosion. This was the 2nd bombing that years. The first bomb occurred on October 15th when four persons were slightly injured.

Alabama_TheatreAlabama Theatre ca. 1930s

The week of September 25th to October 2nd was set aside for a big celebration in 1932 for Mickey Mouse’s 8th birthday. His birthday party took place at the Mickey Mouse Club on Saturday morning, September 26th with many shows and gifts for children to follow.

On July 24th, 1935, it was reported that the Alabama Theater was only one of two or three other theaters in the South to install earphones for the hard-of-hearing. With the advent of talking pictures, this group of people had not been able to enjoy cinema to the extent that was possible in the days of silent films.

In the 1950s, Cliff Holman, known as Cousin Cliff, worked at the theater as host of the Saturday morning kiddies show known as the Flying G Savers Club sponsored by Guaranty Savings and Loan Association. Children would get a free ticket by putting 25 cents a week into a Guaranty savings account.

Boy_riding_coin_operated_horse_at_the_Alabama_Theatre ca. 1950sBoy riding coin operated horse at the Alabama Theatre ca. 1950s

Alabama_Theatre_and_Lovemans_at_night Charles Preston 1957Alabama Theatre and Lovemans at night by Charles Preston 1957

Teen Talent 1957

The year 1957 brought another promotion directed at teens. High school students were encouraged to participate in Teentime at the Alabama where each Saturday morning a special stage show featured picked talent from the high schools of Birmingham and Jefferson’s County.

Duke_Rumore_broadcasting_live_from_the_Alabama_Theatre_lobby by Charles Preston 1 -18-1957Duke Rumore broadcasting live from the Alabama Theatre lobby by Charles Preston 1 -18-1957

A special showing of a new feature picture followed the stage production. No small children were admitted and adults were allowed only if accompanied by teenagers. Talent scouts were reported to be in the audience. The shows were to be broadcast over radio station WSGN. The opening show featured guest stars Tommy Charles and popular singing star Martha Dean of Gadsden.

Alabama Theatre (Birmingham, Ala.);Birmingham charles Preston 0-1956Alabama Theatre (Birmingham, Ala.);Birmingham by Charles Preston 1956

Free Ladies’ Shopper Matinee Parties

In the spring of 1959, ladies were invited to attend free Ladies’ Shopper Matinee parties at the Alabama Theater on Wednesday mornings which were sponsored by the Downtown Action Committee. Tickets were made available at downtown stores. Along with the free shows, fashion shows, door prizes, and other entertainment was provided. Secretaries were also saluted on National Secretaries Week. The show would start with organ music, followed by a fashion show, dancers, singers, or other entertainment. The free Wednesday shopping days which started in Birmingham soon spread to other cities throughout the South. Ladies Shopper Matinee parties continued throughout the 1960s.

Alabama_Theatre_Gift_of_Love_marquee (1958)

 

Builder returns to Birmingham

On April 17, 1972, Arthur G. Larson. the man who built the majestic Alabama theatre returned to Birmingham for a sentimental visit. He was 80-years of age at the time and was living in Chicago. As he observed the foyer, he stated, “I laid that slate floor in the foyer to the men’s room myself. There was no pattern for it in the blueprints, so I just got down on my hands and knees and made up a pattern, depending on how the pieces fitted together.”

In 1934, the Loveman’s department store which was a frame building built next door, burned to the ground while the Mickey Mouse Club was taking place next door. Larson’s foresight probably saved the Alabama theater from catching fire because he “personally supervised laying of the brick. Mortar had to be applied thoroughly so no smoke or fire could ever spread through.” The children and adults didn’t even know that Loveman’s was on fire until they walked out.

Alabama Theatre marquee Treasure Island with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. To the left is the burned-out shell of Loveman, Joseph and Loeb Departmen 1934Alabama Theatre marquee  Treasure Island with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. To the left is the burned-out shell of Loveman, Joseph and Loeb Departmen 1934

At the formal opening in 1927, every seat was filled. Construction costs of the Alabama were $1.5 million and several parts of the United States and numerous countries supplied the building materials.

“Marble came from Belgium, France and Italy. Terracotta came from New York, Minnesota supplied granite. Lumber came from Wisconsin, Florida, and Louisiana. A huge fireplace hearth came from California.”

Larson met his future wife in Birmingham. Mrs. Larson, who accompanied her husband on the return visit, stated, “It was against all my scruples to accept a blind date, especially late on a Saturday afternoon, but a close friend said he was too handsome to refuse, so I reluctantly accepted a date with him. I’ve loved him ever since I first saw him.”

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic places in 1979.

In 1987, the owners of the Alabama Theater declared bankruptcy and the theater was purchased by Birmingham Landmarks Inc., a non-profit corporation. In 1998, the Theater underwent a complete restoration and has been returned to its former 1927 grandeur which includes the original Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

In 1993 the Alabama Theater received the designation of Official Historic Theatre of Alabama.

“Today, in addition to screening classic films, the Alabama Theatre hosts the Alabama Symphony, Alabama Ballet, theatrical productions of all kinds. Artists such as BB King, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Garrison Keillor, Kings of Leon, Greg Allman, Allison Krauss, Black Crowes, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Jamie Johnson, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Nickel Creek, Norah Jones, Wilco, Willie Nelson, and Wynton Marsalis to name only a few have performed at the Alabama Theatre. In 2009 The Hill Event Center, adjacent to the theatre, was opened to offer a ballroom and reception area for weddings, and other social and business events held at the theatre complex.”

SOURCES

  1. Bryant, Walter, News Staff Writer, Birmingham News, April 17, 1972
  2. Birmingham Post-Herald December 26, 1932
  3. Carter, Lane, News Staff Writer, Birmingham News, October 25, 1970
  4. Birmingham News, September 25, 1936
  5. Birmingham News, July 24, 1935
  6. Birmingham Post-Herald February 17, 1978
  7. Birmingham News April 16, 1957
  8. Birmingham News April 5, 1966
  9. alabamatheatre.com
  10. alabamatheatreorgan.com

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26 comments

  1. Wonderful write up. Great, just like Atlanta’s Fox.

  2. Great story and amazing theater.

  3. When Loveman’s burned in 1934, my mother was in the Alabama Theater. She was 7 years old and member of the Mickey Mouse club. My grandparents has a restaurant a few blocks down the street and grandmother ran down the street when she heard about Loveman’s burning shouting “oh my baby.” Of course she was okay due to the tremendous efforts by Larson to make the building so it wouldn’t catch fire from an adjacent building.

  4. I knew Lane Carter! He was a member of Magic Cities Toastmasters in the early 70’s, as was I! He was a fine gentleman!

  5. We saw the movie “Ben Hur” in 1960 there.

  6. I spent many years of movie watching at the beautiful Alabama Theater. Loved going there. You were transported to another world when walked inside. I went back last year to see Gone With The Wind. It brought back wonderful memories.

  7. Remember well going there many times

  8. Was there the 20th of Dec. it is beautiful in there’s

  9. In the fifties we would get dressed in our Sunday best for the mid-week matinee at the Alabama. It was the highlight of my annual week in b’ham with my cousins Judy Sumners Tatum and Deborah Sumners Johnson.

  10. I love that place. I can’t count the movies I saw there growing up.

  11. The Alabama Theater was such an important part of education that our principal of Union Grove Junior High School organized a class trip for the ninth grade to go from Union Grove, Alabama to Birmingham to see the magnificent Theater, I can’t remember if we saw a movie or not but the opulence of the building was beautiful to behold to a country child of Alabama. I’ll never forget seeing it. The story and photos you have shown brings back my youth. Thanks so very much.

  12. Enjoyed this article very much. As the daughter of a farmer in the north part of Jefferson County, we could only afford occasional movies at Warrior. I do, however, remember passing the lovely theatre when on trips down to Birmingham. One of my Aunties worked at nearby Loveman’s.

  13. I remember going so many times. Song of the South was my favorite

  14. My husband’s aunt Gladys Lyle played The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at the Alabama Theater.

  15. One of my favorite work places back in the day.

  16. My mother, Grace King, was a regular featured singer at the Alabama, with the great organ and many swing bands that came to B’ham and played at the Alabama. She was a featured singer on WAPI radio in the late 30’s, known as The Sweetest Voice This Side of Heaven.” One evening she was singing with the organ, Stan Mallot at the organ console, and the lift/platform that raised the organ from the basement to the theatre level began to sink. The platform came to a stop at head level. . . . My mother just kept on singing, and Stan Mallot kept on playing!

    1. Good story! Thanks for sharing.

  17. Happy 90th Birthday! My Mom was an Alabama Theater opening baby!

  18. I remember when at 6 years old in the early 60s, my buddies and myself took the bus there on Saturdays with a handful of RC bottle caps each, which was the admission for the matinee.

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