The Alabama Theatre Alabama Theater, Birmingham Alabama

Of the Birmingham theatres to survive the changing times, the Alabama Theatre stands alone. The most prominent and prestigious of them all, it still retains its opening day integrity. In the 1920s, Birmingham already had a sufficient theatre district with playhouses and vaudeville theatres, but at the end of the decade, the city added its crowning jewel, The Alabama, an elaborate movie house/stage theatre. Birmingham Enterprises, Inc. contracted with Graven and Mayger Architects in Chicago to design the Spanish/Moorish designed one-and-a-half-million dollar theatre, using New York's Paramount Theatre as the prototype. Construction was to begin late in 1926, but at the last moment, ownership changed. The plans were sold to Publix Theatres of Paramount Pictures. Because of a problem in obtaining additional property for the theatre, Graven and Mayger revised the plans delaying the construction start date until April of 1927. To make up for lost time, construction crews worked six or sometimes seven days a week. Nine months later the theatre was complete, just in time for its originally scheduled December 26, 1927 opening. The Alabama was the largest and most ornate movie palace in the State, in fact it was named the "Showplace of the South," which has stayed with it ever since.

Christmas Day of 1927, the Birmingham News ran an article that announced and described in great detail the new Alabama Theatre: "No attempt has been made to confine the design to anyone particular period of Spanish architecture but rather to select the most pleasing motifs as well as those that would lend themselves most satisfactory to the modern adaption of the style. The infusion of numerous Moorish details is apparent throughout the entire house. The multi-foil arches, the richly modeled geometric plaster decoration, and the carpet like pattern so characteristic of the blind window of the Alhambra are everywhere evidence. Upon entering the ticket lobby from Third Avenue, North, you pass through the Hall of Mirrors, a high two-story, marble walled room the sides and ceilings of which are composed of a series of paneled mirrors, At the far end of the room a stairway leads to a spacious balcony, the rail of which supports two large elaborately wrought candelabra. Below this balcony a passage gives in to the grand lobby.

The grand lobby is a high rectangular hall the long sides of which are divided by pilasters of rose tavenelle marble with verde antique dies and bases. A grand stairway leads up to the mezzanine and balcony foyers which form a passage way between the frames made by the marble piers. The lace-like ornament which resulted from the building activities of the Spanish silversmiths is seen in the pierced frieze which crowns the walls. It is interesting to note that the iron gates which separate the lobby from the auditorium proper and appear to be conventional geometric grilles are in reality the initial letters of the theatre combined in such a way as to form an effective pattern."

As part of the prestigious Paramount chain, the Alabama's entertainment outshone all others. Stage shows came directly to Birmingham from the Paramount Theatre in New York, conducted under such producers as John Murray Anderson, Jack Partington, and Frank Cambria. These traveling shows made annual forty-eight week tours from the Paramount Theatre in New York to the Publix Theatre chains throughout the country. They featured five vaudeville acts and eighteen chorus girls accompanied by full stage settings, a stage mechanic, and the key players of an eighteen-piece orchestra. The remainder of the crew were permanent staff of the Alabama.

Graven and Mayger brought a conglomeration of styles to the Alabama's design. While there are a variety of sources, its principal theme is of the Mudejar style, a Christian Islamic building style. These Spanish details can be found on the Eighteenth Street elevation in the shell decoration pattern and the use of brick and terra cotta, The front elevation shows similar Spanish characteristics but of a different time period. The twisted columns are Spanish Baroque, or of the Churrigueresque style (1680-1720). Most of the shields are castilian, also evidence of a Spanish origin.

Upon entering the theater, one finds the familiar Spanish-influenced shell patterned decoration on the upper walls of the grand lobby. The ornamentation of the lobby, though, is not restricted to Spain; there are hints of Roman, Celtic, French and Islamic patterns throughout. The multi-foil arches, descending from the tri-foil Arabic arches, are a thirteenth century French motif. Tudor patterns surround the mirrors in the bar area and another around the entrance to the mezzanine. Colonial revival elliptical domes, Chinese lanterns and dragon motifs are among the varying stylistic elements depicted in the auditorium.

As dictated by the architectural standards of the day, the Alabama used current high style decorations, plus it utilized all the latest technology and building standards, from its large seating capacity; the latest heating, air conditioning, and ventilation system; lighting effects, fireproof precautions. In fact, the Alabama was the first theatre in the state to effectively use air conditioning.

Along with its concerns for beauty and comfort, the Alabama was built with fire prevention in mind, replacing the wood construction of earlier theatres with concrete and steel I-beams. The seats and carpets are also of fireproof material. The had its own fire protection; mechanisms such as fusible links were installed so if fire brokeout on stage the asbestos curtain would fall. Similar precautions were taken in the projection booth. So efficient was the fireproof at the Alabama that when Loveman's department store (a four-story Art Deco building faced in white limestone) next door burned to the ground in 1934, the Alabama stood fast and none of the 1500 children seated in the Alabama for the Mickey Mouse Club were injured. Although, the Alabama was unharmed, the ventilation system was not shut off and therefore soot remains on the vents and surrounding walls where smoke was pulled in.

As stated, the layout of the stage lighting is a Peter Clark design, following the standard "average theatre" pattern. The foot lighting trough has since been removed. The lights in the house were controlled by a main switchboard located on stage, with the lighting intensity and varied color effects controlled by dimmers. The light pulls are colored by the light that is projected. The Frank Adams light board was large enough that up to four people could work the lights at the same time, as might be necessary for large productions.

The Alabama Theatre was built with commercial space above the lobby of the Third Avenue entrance. It was standard practice to build shops and offices around the theatre, to supplement income and increase business trade in the area.56 This space still remains, currently being used for rehearsal space, or rented for commercial use. The original facades of the commercial space have been slightly altered and awnings have been added above each entranceway.

The Wurlitzer pipe organ is in a category of its own. The Pulbix 1 Crawford Special Wurlitzer model at the Alabama is one of four that remain in their original houses. The others are in Paramount theatres in Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; and Oakland, California. It was designed by renowned organist Jesse Crawford, commissioned specifically for Paramount Theatres. The size of the organ was usually determined by the size of the theatre; although according to this rule the Alabama should have had a smaller organ! Instead the massive set of pipes are compacted into two small organ chambers flanking the stage. The Alabama Theatre was designed specifically to meet the acoustical requirements of a Wurlitzer organ.