One hundred years ago, downtown Birmingham had 27 theaters within a five-block radius — the Ritz, the Royal, the Palace, the Pantages, the Orpheum, the Picto, the Elite, the Rialto, the Bijou, the Fancy, the Famous, the Marvel and many more. During pretelevision days, the downtown Theatre District was a bustling epicenter of nightlife, where families with young children, couples on dates and groups of teenagers came to take a seat in the audience, to laugh and cry together before the glow of vaudevillian footlights or the flicker of silent films.
These days, the lights that had long been dark are beginning to flicker anew, and the historic district is making a comeback. These few blocks not only play host to the Sidewalk Film Festival, but a professional theater company, a restored historic theater, the Showplace of the South, a sprawling science museum, a forward-thinking coffee company and exciting retail and residential developments. See why the Theatre District is destined to be renewed as the ‘Ham’s happening new hub!
Birmingham’s Theatre District
On the corner of Third Avenue and 18th Street, this 102-year-old building is the oldest theater in Birmingham. Built in 1913 and opened in 1914 as a vaudeville theater, the space hosted such greats as the Marx Brothers, the Keaton Family Acrobats, featuring Buster Keaton; Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny, Mae West and Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, among others.
Milton Berle performed on the Lyric stage at a point in his career when he was a really young stand-up comedian and would bring his mother with him on tour to be a planted heckler in the audience. “That is a story that we tell a lot, because Milton Berle came to visit in the 1990s right after Birmingham Landmarks had acquired the building,” says Glenny Brock, outreach coordinator for the Lyric and Alabama theatres. “One of the things that he said was that he had always remembered the Lyric because he was so shocked that there was a theater that beautiful in Birmingham, AL.”
And its beauty is breathtaking, from the fetching vintage-style marquee to the marbled Kaul Hall Lobby to the Regions Auditorium, where fresh, gold paint brings forth the beautiful visage of plaster muses and cherubs dancing along the opera boxes. The oldest extant mural in the state proudly stands above the proscenium. “It’s called the ‘Allegory of the Muses,’ and it looked like mud until last summer. It had been in a battle with the elements for a while,” says Glenny. Two conservators from Evergreen Architectural Arts spent eight weeks with Q-tips and four-inch brushes to restore the mural to its former glory.
“Until the segregation ordinances were repealed in 1963, all of the theaters on Second and Third were white theaters and all the theaters on Fourth were black,” says Glenny. “The Lyric was one of the few theaters where black and white audiences saw the same show at the same time for the same price.” However, there was a segregated entrance and seating section, which is now marked as the historic colored entrance.
“I cannot tell you how much Mayor William Bell loves this theater,” says Glenny. “He came here for a tour, and we were all standing onstage, and he gave me a little elbow and he just pointed at the balcony and said, ‘King Kong. I was 7 years old.’”
With the advent of the talkies and the new Alabama Theatre across the street, the Lyric fell into disrepair and became a second-rate movie house, eventually closing its doors in 1958. In 1993, the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks acquired the theater as a $10 gift from the building’s owners. After many attempts and a final successful Light Up the Lyric campaign, the Lyric reopened its doors on January 14, 2016, its 102nd birthday, celebrating with a three-day, vaudeville-style variety show. “That’s really a performer’s stage,” says Glenny of the theater, which was built for performers and not talkies. And the Lyric plans to once again fill the space with live music, dance, theater, comedy and opera from all over the world.
The Alabama Theatre opened in 1927, the same year that moviegoers first experienced moving pictures with sound. “Talkies” changed the industry overnight. “Suddenly the Alabama opens and it’s big and glorious and there’s an organ that comes out of the floor, and it’s just astonishing,” says Glenny. “And it immediately affected the business of every other place in town because it was so big and elegant. Furthermore, it was the first air-conditioned public entertainment venue in the state.”
The Alabama was built for showing silent movies accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer, the organ that has been in the building since it opened. Built as an opulent “theatre palace” and designed in rich reds and golds in a Spanish-Moorish architectural style, the 2,500-seat theater has housed such acts as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, B.B. King, Etta James, Lyle Lovett, Dave Chappelle, Jackson Browne, Robert Plant, St. Paul and The Broken Bones, Willie Nelson, the Dalai Lama and more. “The Alabama Theatre has for many, many years been the heart of this neighborhood, which makes me think of the Mighty Wurlitzer as its engine,” says Glenny, who penned Alabama Theatre: Showplace of the South. “In some ways, the organ might be one of my favorite things about the neighborhood. It was because of the organ that the Alabama Theatre was saved and because of the Alabama that the Lyric was ultimately saved.”
What began as a summer stock company called Summerfest in 1979, the Red Mountain Theatre Company has grown to become one of the only year-round professional theater organizations in Alabama. In 2007, Summerfest officially became the Red Mountain Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the transformation of lives — its students and artists, audience members and larger community and region — through exceptional professional performances, classes, camps and workshops.
Located in the heart of the Theatre District, the RMTC’s basement-level cabaret theater is a cozy black-box facility in the round that seats 260. The theater bar carries local Good People brews, wine and cocktails. During the summer, the company performs its larger, main stage productions at the Dorothy Jemison Day Theater at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
RMTC continues to bring both well-known national performers and incredible local talent to the Birmingham stage. “We look for what is going to be best for the show and a lot of times, that means having a great mixture of people from the community and also performers who have traveled in Broadway shows,” says Drew Francis, RMTC director of marketing. “So then you have these dynamic, diverse casts and you continue to expose this community to great theater.”
Drew used to live downtown and knows firsthand how far the area has come. “I love that it is becoming a theater district again. Our executive director, Keith Cromwell, directed the vaudeville-style opening of the Lyric Theatre,” says Drew. “I think we forget that there’s so much richness of history there, and even within Birmingham’s theater scene. From us being 30 years old, from Summerfest to where we are now, we are just having a renaissance. It feels like the area is coming back to life.”
In its 17th year, the McWane Science Center has reached some impressive milestones: Its membership reached 10,000, and it saw its six millionth visitor cross the museum threshold. And the new “Itty Bitty Magic City” exhibit, a miniature town for children, is not even a year old and has enjoyed more than 300,000 visitors.
And to top those accomplishments, Jun Ebersole, their in-house paleontologist and director of collections, and an international team of researchers recently discovered a new species of dinosaur. The species was discovered along a creek in Montgomery County, AL, suggesting that it originated in Appalachia before moving to other parts of the world. The skeletal remains of this 83 million-year-old dinosaur make up the most complete, primitive duck-billed dinosaur. They named the new species Eotrachodon orientalis, which means “dawn rough tooth from the east.” The 20- to 30-foot-long dinosaur’s remains are on display in Ebersole’s laboratory at the McWane Science Center for the general public to view.
The “World of Water” exhibit features jellyfish and seahorses, as well as native Alabama aquatic life. And the Shark and Ray Touch Tank includes Bamboo sharks, Bonnethead sharks, Cownose Rays and Southern Rays. From interactive art and technology displays to a bubble room and weather-related exhibits to an IMAX Dome, McWane teems with fun ways to interact with the world of science. And opening today, the new “BODY WORLDS RX” exhibit connects visitors to their own complex biology through real human plastinates of the human body, organs and translucent body slices revealing how common ailments affect our physiology.
“Revelator Coffee Company arose like many other companies: opportunity collided with a confluence of the right people, at the right time,” says Meredith Singer, Revelator’s marketing director. “Our company’s leadership team comes from all areas of the country: the Northwest, the Northeast and the South, of course. In many ways, our team reflects what we’re seeing here in the South. There is definitely an increased interest in the people and culture here, both culturally and economically.” Local theatergoers can stop in for a cup of Joe and delicious baked goods from We Have Doughtnuts, Birmingham Breadworks, and Pie Lab from Greensboro, and be on the lookout for some great appetizer options, including carefully selected cheese and charcuterie plates! Most importantly, Meredith warns that the Revelator espresso will convert people.
“We’re in the thick of downtown Birmingham with the marquees of the Alabama Theatre and The Lyric casting their light on our block. We’re in the center of the city, with new developments and residences going up left and right,” says Meredith of the neighborhood. “We love the energy and the spirit of entrepreneurship and growth.”
Coming Soon to the Theatre District Near You
The Pizitz Building
The historic Pizitz Building, completed in 1923, housed the flagship department store of the chain founded as the Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Company in 1899. It was the most well-known department store of its day. Bayer Properties purchased the building in 2000 with plans to breathe new life into the abandoned downtown structure. The $66 million project will wrap up in the fall of this year when the 251,210-square-foot building opens to the public as a mixed-use development. There will be six floors of residential space, featuring 143 multifamily apartments, a mezzanine level for contemporary offices and a seven-level, attached parking deck with 361 parking spaces. And last, but not least, the ground level will house the Pizitz Food Hall.
“It’s a unique opportunity to bring back to life a historic building. We’ve always felt it could be a cornerstone project that would contribute to the momentum of revitalization in downtown Birmingham,” says David Silverstein, principal at Bayer Properties. “We hope to be a major player in the Theatre District, but it’s also an important addition for the community and the city of Birmingham.”
A Birmingham Museum of Art initiative, “shift” is a five-month series of local artists and creatives, paired to create a collaborative, contemporary work. The modern collaborations will be presented on the last Friday of each month. “We wanted to connect creative people in Birmingham with one another, and ultimately create a platform for contemporary dialogue and social exchange,” says Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Hugh Kaul curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “Working with Birmingham-based artists and creatives, we tried to pair people who might have some natural connections within their respective practices. For example, in February, visual artist Amy Pleasant is paired with choreographer and dancer Jamorris Rivers. Because they both deal with the body, the figure and movement, we thought it would be interesting to see how their separate practices might inspire a new project or idea.”
The community is also invited to enjoy the satellite space for their own artistic musings, collaborative meetings and hang-out sessions from 4 to 8 p.m. on Mondays. “We wanted to be a part of the revival that is happening in the Theatre District,” says Wassan. “There are a lot of empty storefronts and this was an opportunity to illustrate how activating those storefronts can generate a great deal of new energy around the space.”
So buy your tickets to a play, concert or movie screening! Grab a cup of Joe and catch a modern art collaboration! Or go check out the new species of dinosaur and the new “BODY WORLDS RX” exhibit at the McWane Center! The Theatre District awaits!
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