Alabama Road Trip No. 64
It’s Showtime at Alabama’s Historic Theaters
by Cary Estes
The lights dim, the music swells, images and voices appear, and you are magically whisked away to another time, another place, another life. Movies and theatrical plays can be a mode of transportation. In fact, some theaters transport you to a different time the moment you pass through the front doors. These are the grand old theaters of yesteryear, a few of which even pre-date the invention of motion pictures.
Alabama has nearly 20 theaters that were built before World War II, with 11 of them dating to 1930 or earlier. Some are ornate palaces that have been restored; others are modest film houses. But all of them give you a chance to experience life as it was many years ago, when everything seemed larger and more luxurious – on the screen, on the stage and in the theater.
One of the historic Alabama theaters to undergo a major renovation is the 1914 Lyric Theatre (1817 Third Ave. N.; 205-252-2262) in Birmingham. It closed in 1958 but reopened in 2014 thanks to a restoration campaign that raised more than $8 million.
Built specifically for vaudeville shows, the Lyric was considered to be a performing arts theater first and a movie theater second, which means it was constructed with an emphasis on acoustics and close seating. Among the stars who played at the Lyric were Gene Autry, Milton Berle, Buster Keaton, Roy Rogers (and Trigger), Will Rogers, Mae West and the Marx Brothers.
Milton Berle said the Lyric Theatre was “as fine a theater as any in New York.” In the 1920s, Monday nights were prime showtimes, and tickets sold for 25 to 75 cents each.
Seating was segregated at the Lyric, but blacks and whites could watch the same shows together and for the same price, not a common practice in the South at the time. Listed on the National Register as part of the Downtown Birmingham Retail & Theatre Historic District, the theater is renowned for its pin-drop acoustics. The structure was designed in a bell shape to enhance voice projection.
The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Alabama Theatre
Located on the same block as the Lyric is one of Birmingham’s other historic film houses, the Alabama Theatre (1817 Third Ave. N.; 205-252-2262). It was built in 1927 by Paramount Studios to show Paramount films exclusively. The weekly Mickey Mouse Club and the annual Miss Alabama pageant were also held here before the facility closed in 1987. The theater was restored to its original grandeur in 1998, complete with the 2,336-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ that is played before nearly every show. More than 300 events are held at the Alabama Theatre each year, including films and live performances.
Visit the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame at the Carver Theatre
One of the more innovative uses of a historic theater can be found in Birmingham at the Carver Theatre for the Performing Arts. Located on Fourth Avenue North in the Civil Rights Historic District, the theater, built in 1935, was one of the first in the city to offer original-run movies to African-Americans. The theater was renovated in the late 1980s and reopened in 1990 as the home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Museum (1631 Fourth Ave. N.; 205-327-9424) and as a venue for theatrical performances and dance classes.
Within the museum’s fine musical collection, visitors travel from the beginnings of boogie-woogie with Clarence “Pinetop” Smith to the jazz space journeys of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Space Arkestra. They also learn about such jazz legends as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton and others who have played at the Carver.
Fuel Up and Wind Down in Birmingham
Working up an appetite? Step into Cosmo’s Pizza (2012 Magnolia Ave. S.; 205-930-9971) in the heart of Five Points South in downtown Birmingham for inventive pizzas and plenty of other menu options. At the end of the evening, check into the nearby Hotel Highland (1023 20th St S.; 205-933-9555) for chic accommodations right in one of the city’s most bustling neighborhoods.
Decatur’s Princess Theatre, the Fort Payne Opera House & More
The Alabama theater housed in the oldest building is Decatur’s Princess Theatre (112 Second Ave. NE; 256-350-1745). It began in 1887 as a horse stable but in 1919 was made into a silent film and vaudeville venue. The Princess underwent a major renovation in 1941 that gave the theater its current art deco facade and neon marquee. The city of Decatur purchased the Princess in 1978, gave it another facelift and reopened it in 1983 as a performing arts center.
The distinction for the oldest actual theater in Alabama goes to the Fort Payne Opera House (510 Gault Ave. N.; 256-845-6888), which was built in 1889. The Opera House is open for tours by appointment three days a week.
The state has two other surviving opera-style theaters. The Dothan Opera House (126 N. St. Andrews St.; 334-615-3170) opened in 1915 and, after a major renovation, continues to be used for concerts and community theater. The acoustics in the 590-seat facility are so renowned that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra chose to record here.
The original Greensboro Opera House (1209 Main St.; 334-624-8374) was constructed in the early 1890s but was destroyed by fire in 1902. It was rebuilt a year later as a three-story facility, with retail stores on the ground floor and the theater and offices on the second and third floors. It closed in the early 1940s. A local group is currently working to restore both the building and the theater.
Mobile’s Crescent & Saenger Theaters
In Mobile, the theater with the longest history is the Crescent Theater (208 Dauphin St.; 251-438-2005). It began in 1885 as a stage for vaudeville shows and was converted in 1912 to become one of the first theaters in the city to show silent films. Eventually, it was completely torn down, and then in 2008 was rebuilt on the same site. The new Crescent shows primarily independent art house films.
Mobile’s Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.; 251-208-5600) opened in 1927. The original facility took a year to construct and included three-color auditorium lighting, a massive theater organ, full stage facilities, four floors of dressing rooms, and seating for more than 2,600 people. It was nearly demolished in 1970 before the University of South Alabama purchased it. The city of Mobile took over the theater in 1999 and gave it a $6 million renovation. The Saenger now seats approximately 1,900 and is used for both movies and concerts, including performances by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra.
Enjoy Mobile to the Fullest
Spend a night in this gorgeous waterfront city at The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa (26 North Royal Street; 251-338-2000), which also happens to serve some of the beast meals in town. Order the caramelized scallops – you won’t be disappointed.
Theaters in Alabama’s Capital City
Montgomery, Alabama’s capital city, boasts two historic theaters. The oldest is the Davis Theatre for the Performing Arts (251 Montgomery St.; 334-241-9567), which opened as the Paramount Theatre in 1930 as a venue for both movies and vaudeville shows. It closed in 1976, but was purchased by Troy University and reopened in 1983. The 1,200-seat facility now holds a variety of musical and dance performances.
Montgomery’s oldest theater that’s still being used primarily to show movies is the Capri Theatre. Located in the Old Cloverdale neighborhood, it has been in continuous operation since opening in 1941 as the Clover Theater. The name was changed to the Capri in 1962. Today, the Capri regularly shows a mix of current independent films and older favorites.
Don’t Miss: The Alabama Shakespeare Festival
While in Montgomery, patrons of arts will want to spend an evening at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (1 Festival Dr.; 334-271-5353). Located in the Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park, ASF is the sixth largest Shakespeare theater in the country and produces a wide range of theatrical experiences, including Shakespearean plays, children’s shows, musicals and world premieres.
Putting on the Ritz
The modest Ritz Theatre (111 W. Third St.; 256-383-0533) in Sheffield dates to 1927, when it opened as a silent movie house. The front of the building was given an art deco remodel in the early 1930s when it was converted to accommodate movies with sound. In 1985, the Tennessee Valley Art Association restored the Ritz. It currently hosts plays, concerts, seminars, receptions, lectures and pageants.
A more elaborate Ritz Theatre (115 Court Square N.; 256-315-0000) was built in Talladega in the mid-1930s, with an art deco facade comprised exclusively of opaque structural glass. The facility was restored in 1997 and reopened as a performing arts venue in 1998.
Greenville’s art deco style Ritz Theatre also dates to the mid-1930s. For several years, it was the showplace of the city, but by the early 1980s the facility was in desperate need of repair. The city purchased the property in 1982 and turned it over to the Greenville Area Arts Council (GAAC) to restore. Today, the old theater is once again a downtown gem, hosting dance recitals, school plays, seasonal productions by the GAAC and a variety of other programs.
Other Historic Theaters in Alabama
Work is underway to restore the 1935 art deco style Mount Vernon Theatre in Tallassee. The facility closed in 1968 but not before numerous performers – including Hank Williams Sr. – scribbled their signatures on the backstage walls. There’s also the Virginia Samford Theatre in Birmingham (1927), the Buckner Arts & Exhibit Center in Anniston (1936), the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa (1938), and the DeKalb Theatre in Fort Payne (1938). And while you might not be able to actually step into the past at any of these theaters, you can sure get a glimpse of what it looked like.
Points of Interest
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