The Mighty Wurlitzer, the Alabama Theatre, and a Theater District
March 8, 2017
By Michael A. Calvert
The Alabama Theatre’s three-story sign and marquee loomed in the next block. The sign was dark like most of the stores I passed on Third Avenue North. The show windows of the Loveman’s and Burger-Phillips department stores were boarded with gray, weathered plywood, and several smaller stores were empty. Trash had accumulated in entryways. I could count the pedestrians on one hand.
When I was close enough to discern the message on the unlit marquee, my stubborn hopes for revitalization sank further:
T ose Who Su vived Are Better Off Dead
Late how Fri Sat
It was 1982, and I was in my second week as CEO of Operation New Birmingham, a small non-profit organization charged with revitalization of downtown Birmingham. I knew people in other cities rallied around historic movie palaces, and this 1927 theater could be a catalyst for the rebirth of downtown. The Mayor’s top aide, Ed LaMonte, gave me a phone number for Cecil Whitmire. I was surprised that the receptionist answered “Long-Lewis Hardware,” but when I was connected to Mr. Whitmire, he readily agreed to show me the theatre after finishing his day job.
After I stepped past the ornate ticket booth and into the theater lobby, a middle-aged man with a round face in a camel-colored blazer stepped toward me with his hand extended. Pumping my hand, he said “Welcome to the Showplace of the South, one of America’s finest historic movie palaces.”
“Very impressive!” I replied as my eyes adjusted to the dim light cast by elaborate sconces lining the lobby. Deep red carpets, patterned wallpaper, large gilt mirrors, and chandeliers suspended from a high ceiling matched my image of a French brothel.
“I apologize that we don’t have more light. Most of the bulbs burned out during cold snaps this winter when we keep all 7,000 bulbs burning for a little heat to protect the plaster and the organ. The owner complained about the power company bills, but it worked.”
So you have no heating or air conditioning?”
“That’s right. We only do shows in the spring and fall when we pray the weather’s not too warm or too cool. Our volunteer crews will be here all weekend replacing bulbs to get ready for spring shows.”
Cecil flicked on an industrial flashlight and highlighted the moldings, chandeliers, and an elegant red-carpeted staircase that spiraled up to the mezzanine and upper balconies. An elaborately lettered sign above the stairs to the lower level read “The Lounge.”
“We’ve got to change that sign. Nowadays our patrons expect a bar with a piano player downstairs, but it’s only restrooms and an area with couches and chairs where men wait impatiently for women to emerge with their noses powdered,” Cecil chuckled. Part of his oft-repeated spiel, I suspected.
He shone his light on peeling paint from roof leaks, and gave me a worried look. I followed him into the lobby. Rows of Raisenetts, Good’n’Plenty, Milk Duds, and gummy bears were displayed in an old-fashioned glass concession stand next to a popcorn machine with a metal scoop and remnants of the previous night’s production on the floor of the bin. Red and white boxes were stacked on the counter, ready to be filled when patrons arrived for Gone With the Wind or some other classic movie. We pay for a small ad with the suburban theaters, but the Birmingham News runs stories about our classic movies and the vintage actors.
“We survive on income from concessions. Volunteers work the stand, take tickets, direct people to their seats, and clean up after every event. The projectionist is the only paid employee, and that’s because the Screen Actors Guild requires it. People who grew up coming downtown for matinees as kids come in on Saturdays to polish the brass, wash the windows and mirrors, and change light bulbs. They love this fine old, grand dame.”
Cecil held the door open for me as I took small, cautious steps down the dark aisle beneath the balcony. The aisle sloped to the front of a stage beneath an ample burgundy curtain. When I emerged from the shadow of the balcony, I stopped to take in the expanse. The intricate plaster ceiling floated high above like mauve clouds and a blue sky. Curtained boxes suitable for royalty marched downward toward the stage. Columns, arches, and moldings were highlighted in red and gold bathed in soft light.
“The design is a Spanish and Moorish pastiche that was popular in the Twenties,” said Cecil behind me as I marveled at the exotic space with the aura of a casbah in Tangier. “It was all the rage then.”
Cecil led me onto the stage and presented the panoramic perspective of performers—the rows of red seat backs ascending to the shadows, the balcony with an ornate gold railing, and more seats climbing to the ceiling. Chandeliers, circular racks of light bulbs, suspended on long chains, illuminated the boxes lining the walls between rich architectural columns. Even the empty hall prompted stage fright. I was sure a sea of upturned faces would render me speechless and unable to perform any role no matter how much I had rehearsed.
I was rescued from the terror of my imaginary stage debut as Cecil called my attention to stains that streamed down the walls from the ceiling at several locations. He said the 1927 roof had never been replaced and there were patches on patches. The swirling plaster decor was endangered, and such plastering was a lost art.
“Meet Big Bertha, the pride and joy of the Alabama Theatre. I’ll be at the console of the Mighty Wurlitzer creating creepy music as well as sound effects for Lon Chaney’s 1926 Phantom of the Opera. Talk about bells and whistles, you wouldn’t believe Big Bertha’s repertoire. We get a crowd for the shaky black-and-white silent movies. I’ll give you complimentary tickets.”
The red organ with intricate gold trim was a world apart from the small, blonde wood organ in the choir loft at my boyhood parish church. Big Bertha sat proudly stage right in the cavernous theatre facing the screen so swooshing winds and clanging sirens could be timed precisely with the action in the movie. Rows of keys and special effects buttons were arrayed vertically in full view of the audience.
“We’ve got an electrician rebuilding the elevator motor so the organ can emerge from the basement as the movie begins. Before the motor shorted out, that drew a huge round of applause as I came up playing the opening number. Great fun.” Cecil beamed.
“Amazing it still works,” I said.
“Took lot’s of tender love and care. A group of aficionados got permission from the owners to come in and maintain Bertha when the Alabama was shut down. There are leather valves and hinges that need to be oiled periodically, and it needs to be played. After we did our work, I would play some numbers in the darkened theatre for our crew. It was their reward,” Cecil added nodding.
Cecil led me to his office decorated with playbills for “Singing in the Rain” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” He folded his hands on his desk and said, “When Paramount’s Adolph Zukor opened this theatre in 1927, he said, ‘Meet me at the Alabama will become the motto around the state.’
That’s my goal.” I nodded, and he continued in a grave voice, “We need to work together to bring people downtown. I need to put butts in seats and you need to get these vacant buildings occupied. The Alabama and Operation New Birmingham need to be partners. ”
I heartily concurred. Cecil said he had approached Dr. A. G. Gaston, the African-American millionaire who owned Citizen’s Federal Savings and Loan, for a loan to buy the theatre from the Costa-Head Company, the struggling developer that had overly ambitious plans for several blocks of downtown. Dr. Gaston built the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, a radio station, a business school, a motel, and several other businesses catering to the African-American community. He began with burial insurance.
In a few weeks later, I joined Cecil, his attorney, Danny Evans, and Ed LaMonte from the mayor’s office in Dr. Gaston’s plush conference room. Dr. Gaston began by noting that he could not even look in the window of the Alabama Theatre when he was a young man. Ed and I exchanged nervous glances. Dr. Gaston set that aside with a wave of his hand and offered Cecil’s newly minted and penniless non-profit a four year loan for $650,000 at 10 percent interest. The terms were stiff, but financing was probably not available through any other bank. Cecil stepped forward and thanked Dr. Gaston as he vigorously shook the older man’s hand. We followed with words of appreciation.
As CEO of the Downtown Action Committee as well as Operation New Birmingham, I worked with Cecil and Birmingham News executive Vincent Townsend to mount a fundraising program to “Save the Alabama.” Newspaper and TV stories lamented the recent loss of our grand Terminal Station. Theatre tours featuring a brief organ concert drew curious citizens and $100,000 was soon in an account at Dr. Gaston’s bank. A single week’s run of Gone With the Wind starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable brought in $20,000.
Linda Nelson, a historic preservationist on our staff, applied for a $120,000 Endangered Treasures Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and we received funds to put a new roof on the theatre. The elaborate plaster work was safe.
Cecil focused his new resources on meeting safety codes and restoring the mechanical equipment on stage needed for performances. Peeling paint and alarming water stains were retained. Ripped seats remained. The growing number of people attending events and touring the theatre donated sums large and small to ”Save the Alabama.” Dr. Gaston’s loan was repaid ahead of schedule, and in a few years Cecil raised $10 million to fully restore the sumptuous movie palace to its former glory. At a gala celebration of the grand re-opening in 1988, Dr. Gaston privately told Cecil, “For most of my life, I couldn’t go in that theatre and, now that I can, I won’t.” Even in his absence, Dr. Gaston and Citizens Federal were duly recognized for their role in restoration of the “Showplace of the South.”
Promoters saw the popularity of the historic theatre and offered to partner with Cecil on shows for singers and bands, but Cecil refused to invest in productions for a percentage of the box office revenue. Instead he required rent in advance. Most shows attracted crowds, but some bombed. Cecil’s rental fees and income from candy and popcorn allowed him to gradually improve the theatre.
Classic movies continued, but Cecil attracted new audiences by presenting comedians, live concerts, and events that ranged from the camp Rocky Horror Picture Show to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. B. B. King, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and others national stars played to full houses. Local colleges and high schools held graduation ceremonies, and Operation New Birmingham’s Annual Meeting celebrated downtown’s progress in the restored Alabama Theatre.
I repeatedly cited Cecil’s success in bringing people downtown after dark as proof that people would come downtown if there was an attractive destination. This was a strong argument for locating other attractions downtown. The McWane Center and the IMAX Theater were developed downtown because the Alabama demonstrated the potential audience. The developers who pioneered loft apartments were reassured by this justification for investing in downtown. The Alabama led the way.
Through Operation New Birmingham, we organized a committee led by Cecil’s wife, Linda, to document the history of the surrounding area and make tax incentives available for renovation of the historic retail buildings. Restaurants and shops face the sidewalk and people live upstairs in loft apartments.
With the Carver Theater, the IMAX Theater, the Red Mountain Theater clustered around the Alabama, we began to promote the area as a Theater District. The owners of the 1912 Lyric Theater donated their dilapidated property to Cecil’s non-profit organization. It’s grand opening in 2015 reinforced our aspirational designation.
On a recent evening I strolled down Third Avenue just after sunset. The Alabama’s sign, framed by lights that traveled the perimeter of the marquee, shone brightly in the rosy western sky. The bright lights of the Lyric Theater across the street made Third Avenue as luminous as New York’s “Great White Way.” Groups of restaurant patrons were continuing their dinner conversations as they made their way to the Alabama for Alice Cooper and the Lyric for the Russian Ballet. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar” was playing at Red Mountain Theater and “The Jazz Express” was at the Carver. The sidewalks were almost crowded.
At Revelator Coffee, I relaxed at an outside table with a double latte. I heard indistinct chatter of people on balconies above me in Cecil Whitmire Lofts. If only Cecil, my departed partner, could be at the table with me to savor the urbane scene on Third Avenue and quietly celebrate the revival of the Alabama Theatre in the 1980s that was the catalyst for today’s vibrant Theater District.