Alabama Theatre may have been restored to its former glory in 1998, but the work never really ended at the state’s official historic theatre.
The theatre, known as ‘The Showplace of the South,’ opened its doors in 1927 and hasn’t looked back since. It and the Lyric Theatre across the street currently host around 200,000 people and 150 events a year.
“If you can imagine having a party at your house three times a week with food and drink and other things happening, it takes quite a toll on these historic facilities,” said Brant Beene, director and president of Birmingham Landmarks. “So, we are constantly repairing, maintaining and having to do things that keep this place a great place for people to come and enjoy.”
Birmingham Landmarks is the non-profit owner of both the Alabama and Lyric Theatres.
“Someone told us that we’re being loved to death,” Beene said. “I think that’s a great way to put it.”
Part of the continuous upkeep included the 18th Street sign restoration project funded by Partners in Preservation: Main Streets campaign. REV nominated the theatre for the national grant given through the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
It finished in the top ten of the competition and received $120,000 towards the project.
Additional local donations for the sign were made by Altec, Bradley Arant, Gray Construction, Cindy & Ken Rhoden, ServisFirst Bank, Southpace, Wells Fargo and Wiggins Childs Pantazis.
The refurbished sign was lit for the first time in 60 years on New Year’s Eve 2017.
“We were so proud to have that sign back,” Beene said. “That sort of completed the exterior of the Alabama because it was in place from 1927 till about 1960.”
Beene says preservation work is essential to keeping community anchors like the Alabama around for Birminghamians to continue making memories that stay with them for a lifetime.
“Buildings that are landmarks visually become part of your life – and part of a City’s identity,” he said. “The Alabama vertical sign is a good example. We all feel a certain familiarity with it and it gives us a feeling of home. It’s something that is part of us.”
Now, work is happening behind the scenes using the same prototype to restore the theatre’s Third Avenue sign.
Initially, the lights in the sign were replaced with LED lights to make both signs uniform, but workers installing the bulbs determined that the sign needed to be rebuilt. Work is scheduled to start at the beginning of the summer.
A lot of the original sign will be reused in the process. The new and improved version should be up and greeting patrons by Thanksgiving.
The biggest project happening now has been almost a century overdue.
An expansion will take the women’s restroom, or lounges as they’re called, from five to 25 stalls.
It isn’t just about making old facilities new, it’s also about knowing the theatre’s audience. Women make up two-thirds of ticket buyers, according to Beene.
“We’ve had lines back up all the way to the upstairs concession stand—double lines—to the ladies’ restroom,” he said. “We’ve closed the men’s room sometimes downstairs so that the ladies could use that. We’ve known for a long time that that had to get done.”
Currently, adjacent walls are being taken down to make room for the new stalls. The project should be completed in four to five months, Beene said.
Preservation is a top to bottom project, even down to the carpet.
Visitors may notice there are two sets of carpet in the theatre—a solid red and a patterned design. The pattern is original to 1927. Up until this year, some of the carpet from that era remained in the balcony. There are plans to also install wayfinding carpet so customers can easily find the stairs.
The Alabama Theatre is only about 50 years younger than the city, but Beene says that it’s still an exciting time to be a part of the future of Birmingham.
“It’s just a fun time to be part of the scene in Birmingham,” he said. “We don’t feel as lonesome now. We’ve been here since 1927. We’ve been here through thick and thin…It feels really great to look around and see new lights, people walking and people buying.”
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The two properties serve two sides of the same purpose—to expose people to art.