The Alabama Theatre may be old, but it is not forgotten.
Concerts, movies, dance competitions, weddings and film festivals take over the theatre from January to December, bringing people – young and old – together under the ornate domed ceiling in downtown Birmingham.
Built in 1927 by Paramount Studios, the same year that “talking pictures” debuted, the historic and beloved landmark became a public place where locals enjoyed nights of vaudeville and movies. In the 1930s, children took over the theatre on Saturdays for The Mickey Mouse Club meetings, which soon evolved into the largest club in the world.
When downtown Birmingham struggled to stay afloat during the economic recession of the 1980s, the once-booming theatre also suffered.
“When downtown was experiencing quite a bit of vacancy, the property owners just really thought that the theatre wasn’t going to produce any profit. They were going to make it a parking lot,” said Brant Beene, executive director of the Alabama Theatre and director of Birmingham Landmarks, Inc.
Thankfully one of the oldest and most unique instruments, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ, had enough loyal advocates who simply refused to witness the destruction of “Big Bertha.”
“This group of people realized that in order to save the organ, they would have to save the whole theatre,” Beene said. “They put together a campaign and got the newspaper involved and all kinds of people.”
The nonprofit organization, Birmingham Landmarks, was formed in 1987 to purchase the building and save the “Mighty Wurlitzer” and the Alabama. Cecil Whitmire, who passed away in 2010, founded Birmingham Landmarks. Whitmire, his wife Linda and Birmingham attorney Danny Evans lead the nonprofit over the next ten years to restore the theatre. “They spent a lot of money and time bringing the Alabama back to life,” Beene said.
By 1998, the Alabama, cleaned and refinished under the supervision of Whitmire and dedicated volunteers, was more than back in business.
Currently the month of December is one of the busiest for the Alabama. The Holiday Film Series draws crowds to the 2,200 seats. “White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” are just a few of the classics to grace the theatre year after year.
“For the last four or five years we’ve had quite a bit of sold-out houses. Every now and then we get a few angry calls when we don’t show a favorite classic Christmas movie,” Beene said with a smile, “But we do our best and try to add shows so everyone can experience their favorite at the Alabama.”
Oil paintings and gilded furnishings, granite, marble, mirrors and hundreds of elaborate light fixtures adorn the unforgettable interior of the theatre.
“I’ve been working at the Alabama for about six years now, but I find something new on the walls, in the details, just everywhere, all of the time,” said theatre employee Tommie Folker, who makes sure the lighting throughout the theatre is in perfect condition.
Beene said one of his favorite parts about his job is witnessing younger generations come to the theatre for the first time, either as a visitor or a performer, and then come back years later for concerts, movies and weddings.
“It’s really neat to see people come back from 50 or 60 years ago, because things haven’t really changed inside that much,” Beene said. “People really get to step back in time and remember their first visit at the magnificent Alabama.”
By Rebekah Robinson