A Gilded Legend

The Alabama Theatre is a beloved Birmingham landmark.
With it's ornate, golden ceiling, the Alabama Theatre is a beloved Birmingham landmark.

Giant letters spelling the word “Alabama” jut out from a building on Third Avenue. It’s hard to miss.

A lot of things have changed about Birmingham in the past 84 years, but one thing remains the same: the Alabama Theatre. With its old Hollywood charm, the Alabama takes visitors back in time the minute they step inside.

A gilded beauty with rich red velvet seats and gold leaf ceilings, it’s hard to pick the most beautiful thing about the theatre. Some believe the views from the balcony are the most breathtaking.

“When you sit in the balcony and can see the entire theatre, you can see that that is the most beautiful thing about the Alabama,” said house manager Jeanie Hanks.

The Golden Years

Built by Paramount Pictures in 1927, the Alabama Theatre cost $1.5 million to build. It opened in eight months.

“It was the first building in the state of Alabama to have air conditioning,” said General Manager Brant Beene. “For a long time the Alabama was the finest theatre in the city of Birmingham.”

It was also home to a Mighty Wurlitzer organ, which is one of only 25 of its kind. With these amenities it was perfectly natural for the Alabama to be known as “the Showplace of the South.”

The first several decades after its opening were a golden age for the Alabama Theatre.  During this time, the Alabama was home to the world’s largest Mickey Mouse Club, whose members included the likes of Shirley Temple, and served as the backdrop for the Miss Alabama Pageant until the mid-60s.

Uncertain Times

In the 1980s things in downtown Birmingham changed as people began to move out of the city and into the suburbs.

With these changes came the closing ofmany downtown theatres and landmarks, but the Alabama Theatre remained.

“There was no thought about historic significance or restorations,” Beene said.   “They had already taken down the old railroad terminal and the Tuttwiler Hotel, things that were sort of the character of Birmingham.”

In 1986, the Alabama Theatre was almost turned into a parking lot and it was looking as though it would be the end of the Alabama Theatre.

Restoration and Rebirth

After a year of fundraising, the Alabama Theatre was purchased by Birmingham Landmarks in 1987.  The Alabama was then restored to its former glory and was reborn as a performing arts center.

“The restoration took about 10 years and hundreds of volunteers,” Beene said. “Today, the Alabama Theatre and the Lyric, which is across the street, are sort of at the center of a new revitalization for the city of Birmingham with the revitalization of the entertainment district.”

Though it has seen its share of struggle, with a sense of resiliency the Alabama Theatre has stood the test of time.  Beene said he believes that the theatre is simply part of Birmingham’s DNA.

While the city may evolve and change, some things are passed down to other generations and one of these things is the Alabama Theatre.

Visit the Alabama Theater on Third Avenue North for old-time movies and modern-day performances.

The Lovelady Center

Story and photos by Leah Jane Henderson

Starting over and getting back on your feet is anything but simple. The women residing in the Lovelady Center bear first-hand knowledge that the next chapter of their lives entails seeking relief from adversity.
3 women
Despite facing adversities, women at the Lovelady Center still find reasons to smile.

Sitting at the corner of 79th Street and Second Avenue South, the Lovelady Center serves the community by providing shelter and assistance to women and children.

The Foundation

The shelter offers a life-changing program with the goal of providing tools necessary to overcome obstacles and start over. Many of the residents were homeless at one point or have been released from prison and are unable to provide for themselves or their family.

The nine- to 12-month program is designed to rebuild lives and give hope to the 378 women and approximately 100 children currently residing at the shelter.

Basic care includes housing, clothing, medical care and hygienic products. The staff provides nearly 1,200 meals daily. In-house psychologists provide counseling for substance abuse and drug rehabilitation.

Available transportation is provided for work, school and doctor appointments, as well as the in-house KidZone daycare center open to the public.

The center partners with Jefferson State Community College and Tennessee Temple University for women to gain higher education and job skills.

The Workforce Development Program trains them to find sustainable jobs for a more hopeful future.

Jennifer White is one of many graduates that have advanced to working on staff.

“If it weren’t for this place I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as I am now. I thank God every day for showing me this place. It really is amazing,” White said.

In the Beginning

Brenda Spahn possessed determination and a huge heart when she single-handedly began what is now one of the most thriving shelters in Birmingham. Five women inhabited Brenda’s home and quickly became 40 after local press coverage. The shelter opened in 2004 and currently holds a plethora of mothers and aunts, daughters and wives.

Because of a lack of state or federal funding, the center relies predominantly on donations. Bright pink donations bins are planted on the sidewalk. They accept clothing, linens, baby items, and small appliances. Food donations, volunteer work and tutors are also essential segments of the center’s success.

Road to Success

The Lovelady Center is no day camp when it comes to the requirements that serve as the foundation for advancing toward graduation.

Every occupant and visitor must sign in and out at the front desk, residents must complete drug tests upon return from any outing and curfews are stricly enforced.

b miller
Outreach coordinator, Bonnie Miller (middle), oversees rules and regulations that provide an environment for success.

Outreach coordinator Bonnie Miller administers the stern policies that are monitored by all staff members.

“It’s strict. There are mandatory church services and mandatory devotions. You have to take a certain number of classes, no rated R movies or secular music. It is strict, but there is a lot of structure,” Miller said.

The women have an option to participate in work contracts associated with the shelter. Businesses include Dunkin’ Donuts, Piggly Wiggly, the Blackwell House and the Lovelady Thrift Store.

Rent costs $150 per month and covers room and board, transportation, classes and meals. A total of 20 credits are required for graduation and departure. Twenty to 25 women are taken in each week including repeated returns.

“If someone transitions out and they feel they’re about to stumble, or even if they do mess up, they know they can come back. They always have a place to stay,” Miller said.

Numerous volunteer opportunities await any who are willing to help at the center. Opportunities involve group and individual work including prayer warriors groups, room makeovers, mentors, church services, devotionals, teachers and tutors.

For more information about volunteer work and donations contact the Development Department at (205) 833-1064 or info@loveladycenter.org. The Lovelady Center is located at 7916 Second Ave. S in Birmingham.

2 girls
Nearly 400 women of various ages currently reside at the shelter in Birmingham.

Renaissance Records

Story and photos by Leah Jane Henderson

stacked records

It’s not easy to find a great record store with classic albums or one-of-a-kind finds.

Whether it’s a 33 r.p.m., a 45 or an 8-track, Renaissance Records in Five Points South is a haven for music lovers and collectors alike.

The store specializes in vintage records but has a modest number of new artists and albums. New and used books, CDs, records, and movies are also sold for great prices, as well as posters and art.

Gary Bourgeois (pronounced Boo-schwah) is the middleman between music and the ears of listeners, bringing great taste in records and a love for his store. An English professor at Miles College, Gary finds the time to run his store in the afternoons and weekends.

When you first step through the door, you’ll hear the jangling of a worn doorknob, vintage records crackling over speakers and the rugged sound of vinyl, old French ballads, Jim Morrison’s crooning voice, or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Red walls are plastered with psychedelic album art and classic movie posters, autographs and postcards.

Renaissance Records is a haven for music lovers and collectors alike.

A glossy, gold phonograph sits on one of many bookshelves filled with cassette tapes and jaded, valuable magazines. String lights cloak the huge front window, accompanied by soft, worn-in couches and glowing lamps on piles of thick, musty books. These are the sights and sounds of visiting one of the oldest record stores in Birmingham.

Ambition was running through Gary’s veins in 2003 when he decided to open Renaissance Records located at 2020 11th Ave. South.

“This used to be a bookstore kind of an alternative, new age bookstore. I used to work at Charlemagne (Records) back in the older days and then I started teaching in 2000 at Miles. But after a few years I missed working at Charlemagne and thought this was the perfect place and remodeled it and now we have a little of everything.”

He got the idea to open while visiting Europe after his French professor in college encouraged him to go to France.

Owner Gary Bourgeois holds up one of his favorite records

“That’s where I came up with the idea. In France they have all these shops, and in London and Amsterdam, there are all these cool shops like coffee shops, offbeat shops, bookstores, record stores, everything. That’s when it clicked in my mind, this is perfect, I’m going to make it happen.”

Bourgeois’ favorite part about running the store is meeting people, “There’s a social element when you work in a record store. Of course, I love trading records, it’s really fun and I love playing records. When you put a record on it sounds so great. it sounds 10 times better. But you get to meet all these people.”

Many people visit the store, from a handful of locals who come in every week to browse and catch up on conversation, to musicians and bands, to complete strangers whose fingers itch for the feeling of slick vinyl, to feel the spiral grooves of a 45.

The store specialized in vintage records, but has a modest number of new ones as well.

“In an urban city and area like this you’ve got crazies that come through and really eccentric characters, a real mix with collegestudents, older collectors, younger collectors, and families. It’s like a soap opera. You’ve got the regulars and the skateboard kids coming down, and we’ve even had the guy from KISS, Gene Simmons, standing in here. Who knows who you’re going to meet? From one day to the next, you have no clue.”

He compares his job to the film High Fidelity starring John Cusack, “It’s a must-read and a must-see film. John Cusack is like me, trying to pay the bills, which is my least favorite thing to do. It’s the greatest book and movie. Actually that’s our training manual. Whenever someone wants to work here we make them take the VHS or DVD and watch it, and after they’ve watched it we say okay, now you might be ready.”

Behind the Bricks

SouthTown muralThe dusty red bricks of Southtown’s community center have seen people come and go for decades. These old bricks are one of few constants in the housing community. Within the last nine years however, another constant emerged.

About Southtown

Located in the community center, the Southtown after school tutoring program runs every Monday through Thursday afternoon. It is open to elementary and middle school students in the housing community, with the goals of mentoring and tutoring these children.

Aside from tutoring, children participate in youth basketball and a dance team for girls.

Volunteer Doug Clapp and Red Mountain Church began the after school program nine years ago. Since then the program has been run by several different groups.

Non-profit organization T.R. McCOY currently operates the Southtown center as well as several centers for the Birmingham Housing Authority.

T.R. McCOY’s link to Southdown, Love Beverly, is a mother of two who grew up in the suburbs. She moved to Southtown nearly two years ago to run all of the programs at the community center.

“I started working here through volunteering,” Beverly said.

Beverly remains a stable figure at the center, but she insists that she is not the most important person involved. The most important person, or rather persons, are the children of the Southtown community.

For the Children

Volunteer Marshall Pollard said the center exists for the children; the programs would not last if not for them.

Pollard, a senior marketing major at Samford University, volunteers every Wednesday afternoon and ran the tutoring program for two years before Beverly took over. He said that in that time, attendance increased from 12 to 25 kids – an encouraging figure.

Samford students tutor children at a Southtown after-school program.
Samford students tutor children at Southtown.

To Pollard, the children at Southtown learn what it means to reach, to want more.

“Children have an idea of what it means to achieve,” Pollard said, “to be invested in for their sake.”

For many, this is the only time they receive help on their homework, and Beverly tries to make learning a fun experience.

When students come in for the afternoon, they sign in and then go to one of the small classrooms for tutoring.

For the students who do not have anything to work on, or those who finish their homework, Beverly generally sets up some type of learning game.

The kids break into teams and compete for small prizes. These games allow the children to show their skills in topics such as spelling or math. Beverly also tries to involve running, basketball or some other activity to get the kids moving.

Always Optimistic

There aren’t enough resources to go around at the community center, and there is never enough community support either. That does not stop volunteers from doing what they can.

“Thank God for students,” Beverly said, as the majority of the after school volunteers attend nearby Samford University or the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Despite the hardships, Beverly said that during her time at Southtown, she has seen definite improvements.

More and more children come to the center consistently, and Southtown is more stable than when Beverly started. She said that attendance in the younger kids has especially increased. The community center is now in the process of growing and finding new partners.

Children have fun on the Southtown playground.
Children have fun on the Southtown playground.

“We’re trying to help make the program grow,” Beverly said.

In the future, Beverly hopes to see further improvements such as more programs and athletics. She also wants to see more academic achievements.

“A big goal is to have every kid who comes here be on the A and B honor roll,” Beverly said. “That would be a great accomplishment.”

It’s small and it’s underfunded, but the Southtown tutoring program has a lot of hope and potential. People like Love Beverly and Marshall Pollard do what they can in the hopes of encouraging these children to reach for more, to set higher expectations.

The kids at Southtown are not just learning math and English; they are learning what it means to value themselves.

Dead Man Walking

Story and Photos by Will Stewart

When the bars at Holman Correctional Facility closed behind Grady Bankhead in 1986, they closed on the self-described “angriest man in the world”, a man facing death for capital murder, and still nursing wounds from a tumultuous childhood.A flag flies over the barbed wire fences

Now, in 2011, Bankhead resides at William E. Donaldson correctional facility, where he runs inmate therapy groups and regularly teaches sessions on Buddhist Vipassana meditational practices. He is excited about life, and thankful for the opportunity to divert others from the paths he was on.

Bankhead was born in Mobile during a trip his mother made from Texas to visit her parents. His birth forced her to stay in Mobile indefinitely.

“I don’t think she ever forgave me for that,” he said, chuckling.

He has good reason to think so. When he was three, his mother disappeared, leaving him and a younger brother in a barn to die. After he was found, Bankhead lived in a home for abused children until his grandmother reclaimed custody. He finished elementary school in Mobile before moving to Sacramento with his grandmother.

Then, during his junior year of high school, Grady’s girlfriend became pregnant.

“I thought that was what you was supposed to do, was get married,” Bankhead said.

The marriage didn’t last long, and soon Bankhead found himself running with a rough crowd. In 1975, during his second marriage, he was arrested for using a stolen credit card and sentenced to four years in prison.

Despite staying out for eight years, he still followed many of the paths that led him to prison in the first place. He burned through another marriage, and continued to surround himself with people who were just as self-destructive as he was.

“I had a lot of abandonment issues, and instead of working through the issues I just tried to put the band-aids over the problem and I kept trying to find people to pull to me,” Bankhead said. “It didn’t have to be necessarily, a woman as a wife, it was friend. Everybody to me was like ‘ok yeah now you’re my family.’”

Grady Bankhead

Everything came to a head on a stormy night in 1986. Grady met with three men to go fishing on some family property, but when fishing got rained out, the four headed to a bar. He knew only one of the men, and just for two weeks, but when the men ran out of money and decided to go rob a man they knew, Bankhead went right along.

The group traveled to Jack McGraw’s house, planning to take a television and sell it for cash, which McGraw would then collect insurance on. Soon, however, a drunken argument broke out between him and two of the men, which ended when they assaulted McGraw with a knife.

When all was said and done, they had stabbed him 59 times in the back, three times in the face, and his throat had been slit 16 times.

The men drove back to Bankhead’s house where he provided them with a change of clothes while he burned their bloody garments in the backyard.

Despite the fact that Bankhead never touched the victim, he received the sentence of death for capital murder. The judge ruled that he was equally responsible for McGraw’s death because he holds a black belt in two different martial arts but did not lift a finger for the defenseless McGraw. But Bankhead doesn’t hold a grudge for his harsh sentence.

“I definitely did wrong,” he said, “I turned into a coward that day, I thought I was going to be left laying there to die too. At the time I made another poor decision and now, here I am.”

During his time on death row, Bankhead took his first step toward changing his life by getting a college degree. Despite graduating high school in Sacramento, he never attended college, and when Holman began offering weekly classes to the regular population inmates, the men on death row asked for the same opportunity. Three years later, at the age of 37, Grady Bankhead earned his Associate of Arts degree.

In addition to getting his college degree, Bankhead also took up painting, which might be what saved his life in the end. His appeal lawyer dropped his appeal in order to work on a personal case, and Grady’s execution was imminent. He moved into the “death cell”, a small room next to the electric chair, where a death row prisoner lives in the two weeks before his execution.

Then, only two days before he was due to die, a new attorney picked up his appeal, and succeeded in commuting his sentence to life without parole. The deciding factor? During the appeal, Bankhead’s wife revealed to the judge that he sold his paintings from within the prison and donated the money to a home for abused children, rather than spending it financing his appeals.

Bankhead's Serial Number
Bankhead’s prison issued serial number

“The judge told me ‘I’m not going to put you back on death row, I’m going to give you life without [parole] because I believe you can still help people from behind bars.’” Bankhead recalled, “And I thought ok, I’ll show you, I’ll help everyone I can find.”

Bankhead decided that before he could help change someone else’s life, he had to overhaul his. He began to take various courses the prison offered and happened upon an experimental class in Vipassana meditation therapy, a non-religious practice of introspection. Grady enrolled and became part of a documentary called The Dhamma Brothers, which followed four violent inmates as they learned this alternative, peace-based lifestyle.

The course changed Grady Bankhead’s life completely.

“It saved my life, and I don’t mean keeping me out of the dirt, I’m talking about it saved my living, how to live.” Bankhead said. “I was walking around dead already inside. I’m not anymore. I love life, I feel great about it.”

That much is clear within the first seconds of speaking with him. His voice carries a warm and charismatic energy, full of drive, his passion overflowing. When you listen to him it is almost impossible to connect him with the man who stood idly by as a defenseless man was savagely murdered. His sense of humor, powerful and ever-present, more closely resembles the attitude of a free man than one condemned to spend his life in prison.

But it isn’t just Bankhead’s attitude towards life and others that demonstrates his change; it is reflected almost more so in his actions. When the judge told Bankhead that he thought Bankhead could help people, he had no idea how right he was.

Bankhead is on the warden’s advisory committee at William E. Donaldson. He works in the head psychologist’s office teaching Reality Therapy and Houses of Healing to over 50 inmates each week. He facilitates 3 group meditations each week with the other “Dhamma brothers” and has worked with 12 more Vipassana courses for inmates. In the late 90’s he helped start an alcohol and drug recovery program that is still going strong. He also coaches a softball team and plays softball and basketball.

“I have a full day,” he said, chuckling when asked how he juggles it all.

A warning at the prison fence
A warning outside of William E. Donaldson’s fences.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Most prisoners long for the day when they will be released back into society, but after 25 years in the system, Bankhead has come to terms with the fact that he will likely die behind bars for a life that he has disavowed. But rather than dwell on how unfortunate he is, Bankhead took it upon himself to be a factor of change in the lives of young men who might someday get a chance at freedom. And for Grady Bankhead, helping others first is the most important thing in the world.

“The only thing that has to do with me now is how I get up in the morning and what I do to create something [I can] achieve that day and who I can help,” Bankhead said, “[The reason] I started taking courses and finding work to do that would help me change was to be that better person that I wanted others to become.”

To learn more about Grady Bankhead and his involvement with Vipassana Meditation visit his website, which also contains information about his ongoing legal battle in an attempt for parole.