The house lights faded and a spotlight shone on a single microphone at the center of the stage of the Alabama Theatre. A man in a gray suit with a striped tie stepped into the spotlight and said, “Good afternoon. I’m David Sher, Chairman of Operation New Birmingham, and I would like to welcome you to another annual meeting. We will elect new officers, hear from the new chairman, review the progress that has occurred in downtown Birmingham, and …”
“Wait just a minute, sir,” shouted a man in a silky blue and red suit as he entered from behind the curtain. When he reached center stage, he dropped his brown, plaid suitcase with the name Professor Harold Hill in large letters on the side.
“Ya got trouble!” he announced to everyone. “Ya got trouble, right here in Birmingham! That’s Trouble with a capital T…” he continued with broad flourishes. “You need a band, a big band, and I’m the man to bring you a band. I’m the Music Man — Professor Harold Hill, at your service,” with a deep bow.
David extended his arm, pointed his finger at him, and said, “Professor, you’re wrong! We got Progress, right here in Birmingham! That’s Progress with a capital P.”
The Music Man shook his head, pantomimed his disbelief, and appealed to the audience with hand spread wide.
“We got progress with a capital P. Follow me, and I’ll show you. You’ll see it with your own eyes,” said David leading Professor Harold Hill off the stage. A video lit up the big screen and showed David and the professor leaving the theater. In the lobby of the newly renovated Redmont Hotel, David pointed out the restored chandelier and said “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the investors.”
“O.K. I guess this is some progress. Anything else happening in this town?” asked the Music Man.
The image dissolved and David and the Music Man were in a chic loft apartment. “Young people are moving into converted warehouses like this,” said David with a flourish. “You can see several more from this window,” said David pointing. The screen showed the Goodall-Brown Building, the Fix-Play Showroom and Warehouse, the W. S. Brown Store, and several others under construction. Then a close-up of David shaking his finger at the Music Man filled the screen as David said, “We’ve got Progress, and that starts with P.” As planned, a smattering of applause came from ONB staff.
Next attendees saw a wide-angle view of renovated buildings on both sides of Second Avenue North as the camera progressed west on Second Avenue North slowly. David’s voice listed the restaurants, bars, businesses, and lofts as they floated past. “This will be the new ‘Main Street’ of Birmingham’s emerging Loft District.”
“Cool—progress, I guess” said the Music Man
The video tour continued as David and the Music Man stood in front of new buildings and construction sites in downtown, at UAB, and in Five Points South. The Music Man nodded a lot on the screen. Finally David said, “We’ve got to get back to the ONB Annual Meeting. The words “Progress with a Capital P” appeared on the screen and prompted a hearty round of applause, begun by the ONB staff and spread throughout the theater.
* * *
ONB’s annual luncheon was at noon in the exotic Spanish-Moorish theater billed as the “Showplace of the South” because Terry Slaughter, public relations advisor to AmSouth Bank, said, “Boring! Those meetings in the Sheraton ballroom, a sea of round tables with a long head table, bad food and worse speeches are a big yawn. Like all the other luncheons.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said, “but we’ve need to bring our supporters together and tell how we’re revitalizing downtown. They come once a year like many people only go to church on Easter Sunday.
Terry flashed his boyish smile and said, “Meet at the Alabama Theatre, serve hot dogs, have some fun, and put on a show. People will love it!”
“But will our members really pay a big price for a hot dog and chips they would eat on their laps?” I asked.
“Absolutely. Your members are supporting ONB. Besides a good, ball park hot dog beats chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas every day of the week.”
As I nodded, I began to recognize the potential for net proceeds if we handed out hot dogs instead of serving a plate lunch. The beloved 1928 theater that was a symbol of downtown’s revival that everyone had rallied to save from the wrecking ball.
“Whatever AmSouth pays you, Terry, they are getting their money’s worth,” I told him with a grateful handshake.
* * *
I called Cathy Rye Gilmore, who arranged bands for ONB’s noon entertainment in Linn Park, and performed with the popular cabaret comedy group, “The Wits’ Other End.”
“Oh! What fun. You’ve made my day,” Cathy exclaimed. “I’ll get some ideas together over the weekend.”
On Monday, David and I sat across the table from each other in our conference room with Geoff Langdon, our PR man; his business card said Chief Creative Guy, and awaited Cathy.
She floated in like a diva and took her seat at the head of the table. After gracious greetings, she held up sheet music with a picture of Robert Preston in full costume as the Music Man.
“You know the plot, of course. It’s perfect for ONB,” she said projecting her voice theatrically. She summarized the story pausing to point out adaptations for our annual meeting. “Everyone will love it!”
“I’ve got actors in mind to play the roles of the Music Man and an ONB spokesman. I also dubbed ‘Birmingham, Alabama’ for ‘Gary, Indiana; Gary, Indiana…’ She sang a few bars. “Are you with me?”
“Bravo,” cried Geoff. “I love it.”
As eyes turned to me, I said, “This is our annual meeting, our best chance to showcase progress downtown and let our members know the impact their dues are making. We’re not just entertaining them.”
“Your past annual meetings have been so boring that half are asleep and the other half are not listening. I guarantee that no one will sleep through this show,” said Cathy.
“Your message can be loud and clear as part of the show,” Geoff said to me.
“When you show the Music Man that we’ve got Progress with a capital P, you’ll be speaking to your members. And they’ll be awake,” said Cathy. I looked at David for his reaction?
“It could work. I’m not sure we need two actors. I’ve been playing the role of ONB chairman all year. It’s a bit part and I think I can do it on the stage.”
“We’ll let you audition, David,” said Cathy with a wink.
“Good. I like the whole idea. If we’re going to ask our members to pay the regular ticket price for a hot dog, maybe we’d better entertain them. It’s scary, but I’m in.”
“Do we have to take this to the Board?” I asked David.
“Let’s just tell them we’ve committed to do our meeting at the Alabama with some entertainment. If we ask, they’ll hem and haw, ask about liability insurance, and talk it to death. Cathy, give us a budget.”
“This is going to be great fun,” said Cathy. Geoff pumped both fists in the air.
“But there’s one more thing,” said David, puncturing the mood, “I want to make some remarks about the organization and prospects for the future of downtown. I know you’ll weave some of this into the script, but I feel strongly about making some specific remarks.”
“Oh no, David, that will interrupt the flow. The show is less than an hour. Too disruptive,” said Cathy shaking her head.
“The number, “Birmingham, Alabama” would lead smoothly into my remarks,” David asserted.
“Only if you sing it,” said Cathy. “Otherwise, bringing you on stage will be jarring. It will change the mood.”
“I’ll do the song. We’ve got a plan. Thanks, everyone,” said David as he rose. We were stunned.
A week before the meeting, Cathy ran our first rehearsal in a deserted theater. She taught us which was stage right and which was stage left. Everyone had scripts in hand. David read his lines, Cathy called for the actor playing the Music Man to come out quicker, and the video ran smoothly. When we got to David’s number, he stepped to center stage front and burst forth with “Birmingham, Alabama; Birmingham, Alabama…” in a strong, unwavering baritone. The group fell silent when he finished. “Was that OK?” he asked.
“Fantastic, David. You’ll be the star if you do it that well at the meeting,” said Cathy.
As David and I left the theater, I asked where he had learned to sing. “My Dad wanted me to get a business degree and take over the family furniture store, but I convinced him to let me go to Syracuse University in their Theater Program. I couldn’t stand snow and cold, so after a year in frozen upstate New York, I went to Alabama.”
“Who knew? I’ll bet you can tap dance and act, too.” I said.
“i can’t dance, but I think I can sing a number that repeats “Birmingham, Alabama” as its only lyrics
* * *
The office was a call center with a low rumble that rose and fell. All six staff were calling members and others who might spend $35 to pick up a hot dog and listen to a pitch on downtown. The Chamber of Commerce and United Way charged a similar price for a full meal, salad through dessert, at a round table in a hotel ballroom. Our invitations featured a color photo of the Alabama’s marquee instead of an ivory card with calligraphy. Our Board of Directors and stalwart supporters began to send checks for rows instead of tables.
An ONB Tote Board was mounted on the conference room wall that showed tickets received each day, the number of days left, and the goal: 700 people. The theater held 2,100 and our highest attendance ever was 550. Our plan was use red velvet ropes on brass stanchions to block the darkened balconies and the first floor under the balcony, and fill the rest of the first floor—if we could. I brought glazed doughnuts in the morning and chocolate chipped cookies in the afternoons for the boiler room crew. The coffee pot was stayed full.
All the buttons on our receptionists phone set were lit. The staff called this annual frenzy, “Dialing for Dollars.” Everyone worked through their list. Between the envelopes in the mail and the promises extracted on the phone, attendance reached the point that it would not be a total embarrassment, or, in our office parlance, ”we wouldn’t have to leave town under cover of darkness.” Slowly the numbers on the tote board climbed enough to make the first floor look full.
* * *
I was a greeter as members came into the grand lobby of the Alabama Theatre. Some had never seen the splendor of the red walls and carpet, sconces reflected in gold-framed mirrors. Others were impressed anew by the “Showplace of the South.” I helped a few stragglers find their seats after the curtain rose, and found a place in the shadows near the steps to the stage. The tightness in my chest decreased after the first scene went smoothly and the video filled the big screen. David joined me in the dark aisle to watch himself and the Music Man on the screen.
Soon he was on the stage singing “Birmingham, Alabama; Birmingham, Alabama…” without missing a note. I was impressed all over again. The muscles in my shoulders and neck were still tight as we approached the final scene.
The Music Man agreed emphatically that “Birmingham has prodigious progress underway in downtown and on the Southside. A multiplicity of promising projects. Congratulations!”
David asked if Birmingham’s got Progress with a Capital P. The Music Man repeated the phrase with gusto and said he was going to River City where they got trouble.
“Wait a minute,” said David. “You promised us a big band.”
“Indeed I did.” On that cue, the Parker High Marching Band entered from the lobby and marched down the aisles playing “Seventy-Six Trombones” from the Music Man. The students’ purple uniforms, flashing brass instruments, and booming drums brought everyone to their feet.
I caught Terry Slaughter’s eye in the crowd and shouted, “How was it?”
He gave two thumbs up and shouted, “Not boring.”