Just like many urban centers in the U.S., the city of Birmingham in Alabama has seen its fair share of close shaves when it comes to the destruction of gorgeous old buildings.
The crowning example is The Alabama Theatre, a magnificent moving picture palace in downtown Birmingham. It dates back to 1927 and — unbelievably for a well-used public building that’s getting on for 90 years old — it still contains many of the original details in their original locations.
Also, scarily but much more believably, the place was nearly knocked down in the 1970s to make way for a parking lot.
When I visited The Alabama a couple of days ago, Brant Beene, the executive director of the theatre, showed off alcoves where 1920s banquettes still fit snugly, apparently never having budged since they were first installed. The same can be said of a massive blue ceramic vase depicting Prometheus. According to Beene, the piece has stood in the same corner, halfway up the grand staircase, since the venue’s earliest days.
Like any nonagenarian, The Alabama is in need of constant care. One of the things that impressed me the most is the corps of Birmingham volunteers who devote their free time to lovingly keeping artifacts like the lovely old Wurlitzer organ working correctly and looking spick and span.
Another thing that impressed me is the venue’s business model. The Alabama is non-profit. But Beene says 90% of its coffers come through earned revenue from tickets sales and rentals. Only 10% comes from grants and donations.
Now the Alabama is re-opening another restored downtown theatre — The Lyric — across the street. It will have around 600 seats and be a more ideal place for groups like the local symphony to perform. Filling 2000+ seats at the Alabama is easy for acts like Dave Chappelle, who’ll be there on April 20. But that’s not so much the case for an orchestra these days. The Lyric is currently in renovation mode and will open its doors before the end of the year.