The enduring legacy of Alabama Theatre’s festive flicks

December 1, 2023 · Family Friendly, Holidays, Visit, Why Birmingham

For more than 25 years, the Alabama Theatre’s holiday film series has cemented itself as a cherished tradition for families in Birmingham. The historic theatre has played a pivotal role in the city’s cultural refresh. With the support of investors, music and arts enthusiasts, and historians, the theatre successfully avoided a bleak fate as a surface parking lot. Thankfully, Birmingham Landmarks Inc. was formed in time to save both the Alabama and Lyric Theatres. Without these iconic spaces, holiday magic and family memories wouldn’t be the same in downtown Birmingham.

The Alabama was built by Paramount Studio’s Publix Theater division as an opulent “movie palace” for screening silent films in 1927. An opening preview for invited guests was held on Christmas Day, 1927, while the first feature, “The Spotlight,” was screened on December 26. Paramount President Adolph Zukor proclaimed it “the showplace of the South,” and the phrase was added to the theatre’s marquee shortly after.

Over the course of decades, The Alabama Theatre saw great success as a downtown destination, but its growth began to plateau in the 60s. During the city’s decline in the 70s, the Alabama Theatre teetered on the brink of becoming a surface parking lot. However, a group of individuals with a passion for preserving cultural treasures saw potential, particularly in the Wurlitzer Organ housed inside.

Fortunately, these dedicated individuals secured a loan of $670,000 from A.G. Gaston Insurance Company to purchase the property. With the loan in hand, Cecil Whitmire and others founded Birmingham Landmarks Inc., a non-profit corporation who now operates both the Alabama and Lyric Theatres. Brant Beene took over as Executive Director and has  been a part of the Birmingham Landmarks Inc. team for 14 years.

The Alabama Theatre played a significant role in the revitalization of Birmingham, synchronizing with developments like Regions Field and Railroad Park. The subsequent years involved extensive reconstruction, requiring several million dollars to breathe life back into the Alabama Theatre. In 1993, amidst ongoing renovations, the Lyric Theatre was also donated to Birmingham Landmarks Inc. Throughout the process, the Alabama remained open, with the Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society running operations for nine months, showcasing classics like “Gone with the Wind” and raising funds vital for the restoration.

Built in 1914 for B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville circuit, the Lyric is one of few theatres still existing today that was specifically optimized for vaudeville shows. Major stars like the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers and Milton Berle play the Lyric — and tickets only cost 25 cents! Though seating was segregated, the Lyric was one of the first venues in the South where Black and white patrons could watch the same show at the same time for the same price.

The Lyric continued to operate successfully up until the Great Depression. From hosting the women’s suffrage movement meetings to church services, the theatre was owned by many people and ultimately was sold by the Waters family to Birmingham Landmarks Inc. for a whopping $10 in 1993! This marked the beginning of a two-decade restoration journey for the Lyric Theatre, during which an impressive $8.5 million was raised thanks to Tom Cosby and the team at Birmingham Landmarks Inc

Flash forward to Birmingham today, and the legacy of the Alabama and Lyric Theatres has only grown stronger. With noteworthy performances from household names and seasonal events like the Sidewalk Film Festival and holiday movie showings, these spaces have become staples for downtown residents and visitors alike. During this season of gratitude and magic, it’s especially apparent that the Alabama Theatre’s cultural relevance isn’t dimming any time soon.

Over the past 25 years, the festive flicks that have graced its screen have inspired laughter, light, and holiday cheer.

“When we started this holiday film series, everybody said, ‘Nobody is going to come downtown to watch a Christmas movie they could watch one hundred times at home,’ said Gary Jones, house organist at the Alabama. “But what we found is we don’t really show movies. We make memories. It’s the whole package – the decorations, the camaraderie, the tree, the family photos.”

Jones himself is responsible for adding a festive touch to every film by leading merry singalongs and tickling Wurlitzer’s many keys and pedals. They’re the songs every visitor knows by heart no matter their age, but transformed by an instrument just as historic as the stage it lives beneath. This blend of timeless culture and new memories is what keeps this holiday tradition alive.

“I’m the lucky one,” said Jones. “I get to see these kids grow up, and then they have kids. And those kids have kids, and we’ve just had a lot of fun creating Christmas magic in downtown Birmingham these last few decades.” As the Alabama Theatre approaches its 100th year, anticipation for a grand celebration builds. Those who wish to contribute to the preservation of this cultural gem are encouraged to donate, ensuring the theatre’s legacy continues for generations to come. Make sure to check out the upcoming holiday film screenings at this link!

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