To do the Showplace of the South her due justice, Birmingham writer and editor Glenny Brock dug into ancient filing cabinets, delved into city history, and interviewed the people who have made the Alabama Theatre what it is today—a premiere venue for films, concerts, and events and the linchpin of the reborn theatre and entertainment district downtown. The book that resulted, published this month, tells the story of The Alabama, the 1927 movie palace that was lovingly restored and remains a crown jewel of Birmingham’s architecture.
The text digs into the history of the theatre, which opened the day after Christmas, 1927, from its glittering early days through its long decline and then dazzling rebirth. The book also takes a look at the future of the district the theatre anchors with the restored Lyric Theatre across the street, soon to reopen after an extraordinary renovation.
On the pages that follow, you’ll find a preview of The Showplace of the South, including some of the photos that make the Alabama come alive, from images of current events like the Dalai Llama’s 2014 visit to a treasure trove of black and white architectural photos from the 1920s. The book is currently available at The Alabama as a keepsake of a city treasure.
“The Showplace of the South. That’s what longtime Paramount Pictures president Adolph Zukor called it. Paramount’s Publix Theatre division designed the 2,500-seat house as an opulent ‘movie palace’ for screening silent films. On Dec. 26, 1927, The Spotlight, starring Esther Ralston and Neil Hamilton, was the feature presentation at the gala opening of the Alabama Theatre. Opening night also included a stage band and a full pit orchestra, but none of these were the main attraction. That honor belonged to an instrument that rose to the stage, melodic and thundering, to give the impression the whole building was singing. The Mighty Wurlitzer has been the engine running the Alabama Theatre from the start. This book presents the storied history of that organ, the theatre around it, and the people who have watched over them both with tender care for nearly 90 years.”
“The Alabama Theatre lost a great champion in 2010, when Cecil Whitmire died at age 74. But his life’s work is still going strong. The Summer Film Series and the Sidewalk Film Festival draw record-breaking crowds to the Alabama Theatre; the Holiday Film Series sells out every night. Spring brings 12 weekends of dance recitals and summer now includes the Throwback Thursday Kids Club, designed for children to make modern memories at the Showplace of the South. Phantom and Gone With the Wind are still annual events, the whole place smells like hot, fresh popcorn, and someone leads a sing-along before every show. Inside the Alabama, it’s like nothing has changed, and outside, everything has.
Brant Beene became executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, Inc. According to BLI board president Danny Evans, Beene has made invaluable contributions to the organization. ‘His people skills are superb,’ Evans says. ‘I will always believe it was divine intervention that sent him to us.’
The $10 million restoration of the Lyric Theatre is nearly complete. The 1914 vaudeville house is scheduled to open in 2016. Two blocks away, the Carver Theatre is now home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and hosts concerts and movie screenings year-round. Within the 14-block radius between 17th and 20th Streets North, from Second to Fourth Avenue, downtown Birmingham still has a remarkable collection of historic and modern architecture that includes the landmark theatres mentioned above as well as two contemporary additions: The Red Mountain Theatre Company Cabaret Theatre located in the basement of the former S.H. Kress Building at the corner of Third Avenue North and 19th Street, and the McWane Science Center IMAX Theatre located in the former Loveman’s Department Store building.
This concentration of cultural venues, bolstered by its storied history, lends itself to being known as the Theatre District. Stakeholders envision the area as a vibrant mix of professional offices, restaurants, retail establishments, nightclubs, and other businesses.”