Now, of course the Alabama was not the last theater to be built in Birmingham, and it was not the first by a long shot. At one point, the Birmingham Historical Society came up with a count of 73 theaters that had operated in downtown Birmingham over the years, but of that number, only about a dozen made any sort of lasting impression on the public's consciousness. Most of the ones opened prior to the mid-1920s were not even built with movies as their first choice for entertainment, although many of them ended up with films on the bill.
One that did NOT was the famed Jefferson Theatre, which opened on Second Avenue in March 1900. The new playhouse was dedicated by Birmingham News publisher Rufus N. Rhodes, and contrary to what one might presume, it was not named after either Thomas Jefferson or Jefferson Davis. Instead, the Jefferson Theatre received its name from a famed stage actor of the day, Joseph Jefferson, whose most renowned performance was as the title character in Rip Van Winkle. It is assumed that his act did not put the audience to sleep, as he returned to Birmingham several times and even had his portrait hanging over the proscenium of the theater bearing his name.
It is fortunate that over the years several people who actually witnessed
performances at the Jefferson recorded their memories for posterity. In
1960, stage hand Henry Holtam told the Birmingham News about
one of his most vivid recollections: "Ben-Hur
was the most spectacular show that ever played the Jefferson... They used
two treadmills in the chariot race and they had four horses abreast and
revolving scenery in the background... It took more scenery than
any other show that ever came to Birmingham until My Fair Lady."
Another well-known traveling stage show that played at the Jefferson was Peter Pan, starring Maude Adams. This play made its biggest impact on show business history far north of Birmingham, as Ms. Adams and her troupe passed through Missouri around the same time and made a huge impression on an imaginative local youngster named Walt Disney. He would later produce a movie or two that would supply product for the downtown Birmingham theaters, but that's another story.
The days of high society going out to a traveling stage show were eventually eclipsed by the rise of first vaudeville and then motion pictures. At some point the Jefferson became the local outlet for the Klaw-Erlanger vaudeville circuit, and the name was changed to the Erlanger Theatre for a while. That era came to a close as well, and the rotting old Jefferson building was razed in the summer of 1946 to make way for a parking lot, which in turn made way for an addition to the Phoenix Building.
One of the Jefferson's contemporaries was originally built in 1890 as a civic auditorium (long before the Boutwell Auditorium ... long before Mayor Boutwell was even born, in fact!). Located on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Seventeenth Street, the auditorium was converted into the Bijou Theatre in 1898, and within a few years it was one of the premier Birmingham outlets for touring vaudeville companies. The aforementioned Henry Holtam recalled that the Bijou was so popular, it held performances six nights a week and three matinees, all accompanied by an eight-piece orchestra. As with the Jefferson, many performers appeared at the Bijou during either the height of their popularity or on their way to greater fame. Among those in the latter category was legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, who played the Bijou in 1903.
|According to newspaper reports, in 1915 the Bijou closed and two years later reopened as part of the Loew's vaudeville circuit. Birmingham News columnist Lane Carter wrote, "Old-timers may remember when Marcus Loew brought a circus to the Bijou every year. There were real wild animal acts, and the lobby was all dressed up like a real circus. Candy and popcorn were sold. A midget show was also booked into the Bijou once a year, and every kid in town filled the house." As we shall see, the Bijou was eventually purchased by another vaudeville circuit and became known as the Pantages, but let's not count our theater tickets before they're sold.|
|Meanwhile, on the opposite corner from the Bijou stood the Orpheum
Theatre. It had originally been built as a skating rink, but opened
as a vaudeville house in 1908. It remained in this form for only four years,
after which it became a garage and was later demolished. Of all the early
theaters, the Orpheum seems to be the only one for which no photographic
record was ever made. Ironically, though, more of it survives today than
many of its more well-documented relatives. The site of the Orpheum is
today a parking lot, and the retaining bricks around the side and back
of the lot are actually the lower portions of the Orpheum's former walls.
The Bijou and the Jefferson left no such monuments to their existence!
The Majestic was another theater that started out with stage performances and ended up as a vaudeville venue. Located on Third Avenue across from the spot where the Alabama Theatre would be built many years later, the Majestic opened in 1905 and converted to vaudeville in 1913. Among the acts appearing there was a bug-eyed teenager named Eddie Cantor, who would go on to bigger and better things.
During Birmingham's centennial celebration in 1971, an unidentified News reporter dug out the story of what became of the Majestic in its later years: "In 1917, the Maddocks-Park Stock Company took over the Majestic. Originally one of the old traveling shows under canvas, it presented melodramas. The Maddocks-Park Stock was discontinued in 1921." The reporter did not go on to tell what happened after that, but amazingly, the building that housed the Majestic still stands. For most of the years since the 1920s it has served as a furniture store of one brand or another, with seemingly no remnant of its days as a vaudeville theater.
Even more so than the early movie theaters, the vaudeville theaters that did not survive to host that new medium are mostly forgotten today. Among others on Third Avenue were the Alamo and the Victoria, with the Amuse-U and the Vaudette holding down the fort on Second Avenue. For those with slightly less refined tastes, the Gayety Theatre at the corner of First Avenue and Nineteenth Street was a burlesque house with a rich history. The building had been constructed in 1882 as O'Brien's Opera House, but had lost its prestige when the traveling shows moved to the Jefferson in 1900. Under its assumed name as the Gayety, the faded beauty managed to hold on until 1910, and it was razed five years later.
All of the preceding bright lights of the Birmingham theater community were forced to bow their heads when the grandest vaudeville house of them all, the Lyric Theatre, came to town. For some reason, an opening date of 1912 became attached to the Lyric in its later years, and it was only through the diligent research of Cecil Whitmire that the true opening of January 11, 1914, was established.
|That two-year discrepancy did not matter much in the long run, as the
Lyric would have shamed the earlier theaters no matter when it opened.
Built for the prestigious Keith vaudeville circuit, the Lyric sported
ornate balconies and wall ornamentation, and from its opening day featured
some of the biggest acts on the road. On opening night, the headliner was
cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and he was soon followed by another famous
gag man, Bud Fisher of the Mutt and Jeff comic strip.
Others who played at the Lyric during its first heyday were Will Rogers,
Tucker, Jack Benny, and Fred Allen.
After the arrival of the Lyric, the older vaudeville theaters began closing up one by one. The repertory company from the Jefferson Theatre transferred their allegiance to the Lyric, where they became known as the Favorite Players. (Look closely at the Eighteenth Street side of the Lyric building even today, and you will see a fading sign painted on the brick, advertising this troupe.)
However, the combination of the dual arrival of the Great Depression and the double sock of radio and the movies rang a sour note for the Lyric. In late 1930 or early 1931, it closed its doors as a vaudeville theater, and reopened in April 1932 strictly as a movie house. (Just to indicate how show business was changing, the Keith vaudeville circuit had eventually merged with the Orpheum circuit to become known as Keith-Orpheum. This entity then hooked up with David Sarnoff, head of the NBC radio network, to form a new movie studio known as Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or RKO Radio Pictures. The movies were winning, there was no doubt of that.)
The Lyric survived on showing second-run features that had already played the other downtown theaters until it was closed again, this time in either 1958 or 1960, depending upon what source one consults. In any case, it looked like the end had come.
Around 1964 there was some talk of renovating the Lyric, but nothing happened until 1973, when a couple of Jefferson State Junior College pals (and old movie buffs), Dee Sloan and Robert Wharton, got the bright idea to reopen the Lyric to show classic movies of bygone eras. Rather than keeping the Lyric name, which had no doubt become tarnished from its years as a second-rate showplace, Sloan and Wharton redubbed it the Grand Bijou, and set about to show such cinema milestones as The Jazz Singer and classics starring W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. While preparing the old theater to come back to life, the new movie moguls discovered that underneath the main floor was an enormous tank that would have been used for staging such vaudeville spectaculars as Billy Rose's "Aquacade." although there was no evidence that water acts of that type had ever appeared there.
|Unfortunately, the novelty of showing nothing but antique movies soon
wore off, and a couple of years after Sloan, Wharton and their friends
left the theater, the Lyric shuddered in the face of its new identity:
that of the Foxy Adult Cinema. This questionable personality persisted
through the late 1970s and into the early 1980s before even pornography
was not enough to lure people into the aging structure.
The Lyric got its brightest prospect for the future yet when the building was purchased by Birmingham Landmarks, the company that had so successfully restored the Alabama Theatre. Plans were formulated to do the same for the Lyric, once the proper funding was secured. As of this writing the wait is still on, but at least the Lyric is in caring hands, which is more than can be said for most of its past forty-odd years.
Even though vaudeville was a dying medium, around 1927 the Pantages circuit took over the former Bijou Theatre and completely remodeled it, leaving only the side and back walls and stage as the originals. One aspect where someone forgot to do his job was in deciding what the name of the new theater was going to be. Newspaper articles and ads over the years consistently referred to it as the Pantage, whereas the electric signs in front read Pantages. Take your pick!
The Pantages continued presenting vaudeville shows and revues until 1946, when it was converted into what can only be described as an all-black theater, the Birmingham. That did not last very long, and in the spring of 1950, the entire building was leveled for a parking lot.
|It was Bob Hope (who undoubtedly appeared at at least one of
the theaters we have mentioned at some point during his early career) who
observed, "When vaudeville died, television was
the box it was buried in." However, the edifice that outlived
all the others lasted well into the TV era before it too succumbed. When
originally built, however, baggy pants comics and torch singers were the
last things intended for it.
In October 1921, President Warren G. Harding laid the cornerstone for what was to be the new Masonic temple at Fifth Avenue and Eighteenth Street. The auditorium was built in the style of an amphitheater, and was used for Zamora Shrine ceremonies until 1925. That was the year the Loew's vaudeville circuit left what was once the Bijou and was on its way to becoming the Pantages Theatre, and the troupe moved into the Masonic hall, which was promptly (and appropriately) renamed the Temple Theatre.
More than any of the others, the Temple remained closest to its roots throughout its long history. At times movies were shown there, but it remained first and foremost a performing arts facility, hosting big names such as Tallulah Bankhead, Maurice Evans, Helen Hayes, John Barrymore, and many others. The stars might have been big, but one of the few sore points they found about the Temple was its relatively small stage. A Birmingham News magazine supplement reported: "The Temple stage has a depth of 22.6 feet. The ideal depth is 38 feet ... When a big show like South Pacific came to the Temple, it wasn't possible to get all the scenery on the small stage, and some of the sets had to be parked in the alley until they were used."
|Big sets and little stage notwithstanding, the Temple held on to its reputation right to the end. That end came on March 31, 1970, when Metropolitan Opera star Jerome Hines became the final performer to appear at the Temple. There was enough advance publicity that everyone knew it was curtains for the venerable old theater, including Hines himself. "I'll be able to tell my manager in New York that we brought down the house," he wisecracked, although most of the audience probably failed to see any humor in the situation.|
|You must recall that the closing and subsequent demolition of the Temple
Theatre occurred less than a year after a similar fate had befallen Birmingham's
opulent railroad terminal station, so there was at least somewhat of a
movement to preserve pieces of the old hall. The 2,400-pound chandelier
that hung over the audience in the main auditorium was obtained by Samford
University, and in 1976 it took up residence in the Wright Fine
Arts Center on the university's campus. The Temple's red stage curtain
and some of the seats were transplanted to the Fort Payne Opera House,
so at least it survived in a piecemeal fashion long after the other theaters
were gone with the wind.
Say, wasn't that the title of a famous movie? Why, sure it was
... and not coincidentally, that weak transition lowers the lights for
the next act in our downtown drama, the emergence of the motion picture
Page created 07/03/2006 -- 724 PM EDT
Updated 08/16/2006 -- 112 PM EDT with small correction re Lyric ownership history