By Emily Parcell
Standing tall and proud on Third Avenue in Birmingham is the historic Alabama Theatre. Built in 1927 by Paramount Studios, the building has been home to many shows and performances. “The Alabama Theatre was opened and existed as a movie theater, first and foremost, for most of its existence. After it was restored in 1987, soon after the nonprofit organization Birmingham Landmarks was formed, the Alabama Theatre was repurposed as a concert and performing arts venue – although movies remained an important part of its programming,” explains Executive Director of Birmingham Landmarks, Brant Beene.
Over the course of the 95 year history, “the showplace of the south”, a term coined by Adolf Zurkor of Paramount, has seen an array of performers from Willie Nelson to the Dalai Lama, and everything in between. “In the midst of what sometimes seems like world chaos, the Alabama Theatre gives everyone in our state something to be proud of, a place to get away to and forget their troubles. It is a place our citizens can claim as their own that gives them something in common with the international stars who have performed there – it’s our own living room so to speak. It also gives people something in common that they can share with their friends and family,” says Beene.
It only took eight and a half months to build the concrete and steel structure, with opening day being December 26, 1927. The cost to build the theater was about $1.5 million, which in today’s market would be over $23 million.
In the theater’s prime it sat 2500, but with modern accommodations it now seats roughly 2000. Over the course of the year the Alabama Theatre sees around 150,000 attendees for various movies and performances.
One of the most popular events is the Christmas movie showings. Brant Beene states, “Christmas at the Alabama is like nothing else. If you miss attending one of our movies during the two weeks before Christmas, then you have missed something special that you will never forget.”
Birmingham Landmarks works tirelessly to continue to provide quality entertainment for their audiences, as well as restoring other local landmarks for citizens to enjoy. One such property is the Lyric, which sits across the street from the Alabama Theatre. The Lyric was built in 1914, and was then gifted to Birmingham Landmarks in the 1990s. Since receiving the building, fundraising efforts have been successful and total over $11.8 million. In 2013 Birmingham Landmarks began restoring the building, and officially opened its doors in January of 2016. Beene recounts that the theater, “has been a great complement to the Alabama, bringing many unique performances to its stage including Rosanne Cash, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and even SEC greats, Archie Manning, Steve Spurrier and Herschel Walker.”
When asked about the future of the theater, Brant Beene explained, “The past is the present – and the future. We intend to help the people of our state and many others make new memories for new generations to come. We intend to continue helping to make the Alabama Theatre something all Alabamians are proud of. Someplace where they want to bring their friends, their children and make memories that will last a lifetime.”
The Alabama Theatre will sit as the jewel of Third Avenue, attracting those of all walks of life with its glistening sign and fanciful marquee with the distant sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ playing to a silent movie.
1927 – Opening day on December 26
1933 – Mickey Mouse club starts
1935 – club has over 7000 members
By the time of closing in 1943 it peaked at 18,000 members and was one of the largest in the world
1938-1996 – Miss Alabama Pageant held here
1979 – theater is placed on the National Register of Historic Places
1987 – owners declare bankruptcy
Birmingham Landmarks takes on the $680,000 mortgage
Mighty-Wurlitzer Organ saves building
1998 – full renovation by Evergreene Studios from New York City
Took eight months to complete
2011 – received the Building of the Year Award from the Alabama Architectural Foundation