Historic Structures

Birmingham Theatre District Alabama Theater, Birmingham Alabama

The first theatre in Birmingham was constructed as early as 1890, though, the district did not begin to flourish until 1900. Prior to the 1920s, Birmingham's theatre district went through many transitions. The first high-brow theatre was established in 1900 with the opening of the Jefferson Theatre (previously at 1710 Second Avenue). The Auditorium (once located at the northeast corner of 17th Street and Third Avenue), reopened under its new name, the Bijou, in 1902 as one of the early variety venues. The district expanded as movie technology advanced and the popularity of entertainment houses grew. By the late twenties the live theatres nationwide gave way to theatres which featured movies supported by vaudeville stage shows.

The earliest "refined" vaudeville house was the Majestic, which opened in 1906 (formerly at 1808 Third Avenue, North), falling victim to technical advancements in film by 1915. The Orpheum (then at the southwest corner of Third Avenue and 17th Street, North) was another theatre that opened as a vaudeville-film house in 1909. It was in the heyday of vaudeville that movie houses were starting to pop up. The 1914 opening of the Lyric Theatre, a high class vaudeville house, took patrons away from the Bijou. The Bijou was taken over by Loew's in 1917, to become a film house. The Lyric's cooling system, ineffective as it was, allowed performances to continue throughout the summer which made it a popular spot.

By 1915, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in Birmingham, taking business away from the legitimate theatres and opera houses. Local historian Don Haarbauer notes that "Birmingham, with a population of over 140,000, had seen nine distinct theatres during the first decade and half of the twentieth century in addition to the more than twelve movie houses including vaudeville acts in their presentation." The decline in professional theatre caused many houses to close or convert into vaudeville or movie theatres; the Jefferson theater was the only legitimate theatre to remain so, through the various transitions of other theatres. O'Brien's Opera House, erected in the late 1800s, did not survive and was demolished in 1915.

The movies became increasingly popular after 1915, and by the 1920s the vaudeville houses were showing movies, too. One of the earliest movie houses was The Strand, which opened in 1914. The Majestic, mentioned earlier, was one of the earliest vaudeville theatres to introduce movies in conjunction with live performances. Three more theatres were built with the same idea, all constructed within two years of each other. These were the Ritz (1721 Second Avenue, North, now demolished), a vaudeville-movie house; the Empire(1927, 2012 Third Avenue, North), a vaudeville house; and the Alabama (1811 Third Avenue, N), an elaborate movie palace which incorporated vaudeville, still existing today. Other thriving theatres of the 1920s were The Temple (6th and 19th), which opened in 1925 as a vaudeville-movie house as part of the Loew's theatre chain; the Lyric (18th Street and Third Avenue), Pantages (then at Third Avenue and Seventeenth Streets); and the Jefferson (second between 17th and 18th streets). Other smaller theatres were the Trianon, the Galax, the Royal, and the Odeon; all once located on Second Street, between 17th and 21st streets.

The Ritz, built in 1926, was the first air-conditioned theatre in the city and in 1933 became the first theatre in Birmingham to show strictly talking pictures. The Lyric provided competition en par with the Ritz, but eventually failed due to its lack of effective air conditioning-a cooling-air system which functioned by blowing air over ice. Henceforth, the Lyric lost the mainstay of its operations, the Hoblitzelle vaudeville circuit, to the Ritz. The Lyric stayed open to feature musical-stock companies and movies, though, at a lower scale. After the Depression, it became a second-run movie house.

The Bijou "contained forty comfortable dressing rooms and seated 2000, making it sufficiently attractive to performers to warrant another redecoration in 1927 by the Pantages vaudeville circuit, which reopened it on October 31, 1927, as the Pantages." It survived under this name for twelve years. In 1934, ownership of the Alabama and Pantages were both transferred to the Wilby-Kincey Corporation. Pantages lost out to the Temple in the 1940s and was renamed the Birmingham for the last try, reopening as a movie theatre in 1946. All of these changes speak to the vitality of the theater business during the early decades of its establishment.

Along with the many problems of running the theaters, deterioration of the city's downtown caused a decline in business in the theatres as well. With the onslaught of the Depression, and the success of the talkies, live entertainment became too expensive to run and therefore theatres eliminated vaudeville entirely by the 1 940s. As a result, a few of the original all-live theatres were razed in the late 1930s and 1940s, such as the Trianon, the Jefferson Theatre (demolished in 1947) and Pantages. Some were able to survive by showing second and third-run movies or "girlie" movies. The Ritz became the home of the Cinerama films of the 1950s and 1960s. The Bijou was demolished in 1950.

Old photographs of this area from the early decades show the streetscapes crowded with huge marquees, giant billboards advertising the shows, and moving lights illuminating every architectural detail. Lining the streets were the large first-run movie houses like the Alabama and the Strand as well as the many smaller secondand third-run theatres. The Alabama Theatre is the only one that is still operating. The Lyric, the last of the Vaudeville houses, after a string of professional circuits and a few decades as a second and third-run movie theatre, finally closed in 1 960. Its exterior walls have been stripped of all architectural decoration, though, it waits patiently in the hopes of future restoration. Many other theatres have been demolished or their facades radically reworked. Several buildings, originally theatres, are still used commercially, though their marquees, signs and ticket booths were replaced by modernized storefronts identified by more sedate signs. Standing as prime examples, the Majestic, now Haverty's Furniture; and the Rialto, now a clothing store.