From the National Trust for Historic Preservation, author Katharine Keane
Home to what was the world’s largest Mickey Mouse Club and acts featuring the Marx Brothers and Mae West, a few Birmingham, Alabama theaters take center stage in preserving and archiving the city’s complicated history from the early 20th century through the Civil Rights movement.
In the Winter 2016 issue of Preservation magazine, you get a glimpse of the Lyric Theatre, one of Birmingham’s historic theaters that is currently undergoing a comprehensive restoration and renovation. We decided to take another look at this and some of the Magic City’s other historic venues that have been restored and stewarded by the local community.
The Alabama Theatre
Constructed in 1927 by Paramount Studios, the Alabama Theatre was built as a classic movie palace characterized by its opulent architecture influence by Art Deco designs of the time (the landmark Chicago Theatre is another famous example of this style). The Alabama, located in Birmingham’s historic theater district, was primarily used as a movie house and soon became known as the home to the largest Mickey Mouse Club in the world; it boasted over 18,000 members before closing almost 10 years after its 1933 organization.
Though it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, by 1987 the owners had declared bankruptcy, and it was purchased by the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks Inc. The Alabama underwent a major renovation and restoration that was completed by the late '90s during which some of the seats, carpets, and drapes were cleaned or replaced.
While the building still requires extensive maintenance including a new roof, a new boiler, and an updated air conditioning system, the Alabama is flourishing showing classic films and renting space for weddings, graduation ceremonies, and dance recitals.
The Carver Theatre
Now known as the Carver Performing Arts Center, the Carver Theatre was opened in 1935 as one of the first movie houses for African-Americans to see first-run films. Located in the Fourth Avenue Business District that housed much of the African-American community businesses and entertainment venues, the Carver was modernized in 1945 before slowing falling into disrepair and eventually closing in the 1980s. Before its decline, the Carver, sponsored by a local bottling company, was known for accepting bottle caps as payment for the children’s shows that were screened on the weekends.
The City of Birmingham purchased and began restoring the Carver in 1990 in an effort to revitalize the Fourth Avenue neighborhood that had played host to many civil rights events during the decades prior. Today the Carver houses the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame that opened in 1993 and continues to show movies, host concerts, and rent space for special events.
Much of the decorative plaster in the Lyric Theatre was intact, though Evergreene Architectural Arts did custom paintwork throughout.
The Lyric Theatre
Located just across the street from the Alabama Theatre, the Lyric Theatre is currently undergoing an $11 million restoration project, highlighted by the relighting of its iconic marquee in 2013. The theater was originally constructed in 1914 for vaudeville mogul B.F. Keith’s theater circuit—featuring acts like the Marx Brothers and May West—but quickly fell into disrepair following the rise of moving pictures.
Unlike the Alabama which banned African-Americans before the desegregation of the South, the Lyric allowed for African-Americans to sit in the audience—though they were required to sit in separate balcony seating. Before the theater was donated to Birmingham Landmarks Inc. in 1993, it served as office space and was opened as two separate theaters in the 1970s.
When the theater reopens, it will feature a restored 38-foot mural, “Allegory of the Muses,” that was painted by local artist Harry Hawkins. Experts worked to remove black varnish that had almost completely obscured the painting, revealing the depiction underneath that has now been protected with new varnish.
Katharine Keane is an editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.