Facade of the Alabama Theatre

The Alabama Theatre in 1927

The Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, is a movie palace built by the Paramount-Publix Corporation in 1927. The grand opening was held on December 26, 1927. Construction of the concrete and steel building took only eight and a half months and cost approximately $1.5 million.

With seats for about 2,500 people, the Alabama was one of the larger movie theatres built in Birmingham and is the only one of its size remaining from that era and the first public building in Alabama to have air conditioning. One of the things the Alabama was known for in its early days was its Mickey Mouse Club which was formed in 1933. Meetings were held every Saturday. Children would perform for each other, watch Mickey Mouse cartoons, and participate in other activities. The Club also sponsored food and toy drives for the underprivileged. By 1935, the Club had over 7000 members, making it the biggest Mickey Mouse Club in the world. Membership eventually peaked at over 18,000 before the Club closed almost ten years after it was formed. Another regular event at the Alabama was the Miss Alabama Pageant. The Alabama became host to the Miss Alabama Pageant from 1938 through 1966. In 1993, the Alabama Theater was designated the official state historic theatre of Alabama in recognition of its place in Alabama history, culture and society.

Theatre and the Mighty Wurlitzer

Photo by: M. Lewis Kennedy

Originally constructed to show silent films, the Alabama features an ornate Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Strangely enough, the Crawford Special- Publix One -Mighty Wurlitzer organ was the reason the building was salvaged. The Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society approached the property owners who were planning a parking lot where the Alabama stood and asked them if they could buy this iconic instrument, one of only 25 organs of its type ever built. The realtor was smart enough to recognize the Wurlitzer’s value and refused to sell it separately. Undeterred, the group continued to find support and ultimately raised enough funds to purchase not just the organ but the entire facility. In 1987, the non-profit organization, Birmingham Landmarks, Inc, was formed to purchase the building, saving the Mighty Wurlitzer.

In 1998, the Alabama underwent a complete restoration. Gold leaf and other paint was cleaned or replaced, seats were replaced or recovered, and some carpet and drapes were replaced. A handful of very dedicated volunteers led by Cecil Whitmire and his wife, Linda, resurrected the Alabama and began operating it to pay the $680,000 mortgage the Birmingham Landmarks had agreed to take on.

Today, in addition to screening classic films, the Alabama Theatre hosts the Alabama Symphony, Alabama Ballet, theatrical productions of all kinds. Artists such as BB King, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Garrison Keillor, Kings of Leon, Greg Allman, Allison Krauss, Black Crowes, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Jamie Johnson, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Nickel Creek, Norah Jones, Wilco, Willie Nelson, and Wynton Marsalis to name only a few have performed at the Alabama Theatre. In 2009 The Hill Event Center, adjacent to the theatre, was opened to offer a ballroom and reception area for weddings, and other social and business events held at the theatre complex.

Birmingham Landmarks and local government and civic leaders are currently developing plans and visions for a theatre district revitalization initiative along Birmingham’s Third Avenue North to include the Alabama, The Lyric (a historic vaudeville theatre), the Red Mountain Theatre, the Carver Theatre and McWane Center’s IMAX Theatre.

Some other interesting facts include:

  • The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979
  • In 1993 the Alabama Theatre received the designation of Official Historic Theatre of Alabama in 1993
  • In 2011 The Alabama Theatre received the Building of the Year Award from the Alabama Architectural Foundation. The award is presented to the one building statewide that best exemplifies how architecture can provide a meaningful impact on the citizens of Alabama in the past, present and future.