Since for many years movies were considered the illegitimate offspring of the legitimate theater, their arrival in Birmingham went considerably more unnoticed than the goings-on behind the scenes at the more refined showplaces. However, through his own research of unknown sources, in 1975 historian Malcolm C. MacMillan pinpointed the first movie theater in Birmingham as the Theatorium, which he found opened on Twentieth Street on March 14, 1905. According to McMillan, "The film was projected against a barrel with a sheet for a screen, and often the only sound heard was kissing in the audience." (And people thought drive-in theaters had something new to offer in the post-World War II years!)
As this brief but evocative description would indicate, early movie theaters were opened with little attention paid to architecture or comfort. In most cases, they were simply converted retail space in which movies would be shown until the public grew tired of them. The Pastime Theatre, for example, occupied what had formerly been known as the Peerless Saloon, and the more upper-class Birminghamians probably felt there was little change in status when the building morphed from a saloon into a nickelodeon.
Of those first few years, the Birmingham Historical Society reported, "Eleven movie houses first appeared in city directories of 1908 with such names as Electric, Theatorium, Edisonia, Elite, Musetorium, Newsome, St. Nicholas, Vaudette, Alamo and Marvel, but only two survived the following years." The fact that these names are not the stuff of people's fond memories today indicates that their influence -- indeed their very existence -- was somewhat short-lived.
For reasons now lost to time, the vast majority of the Birmingham movie theaters clustered along Second Avenue, primarily between Nineteenth and Twenty-First Streets, although there were exceptions. Among the "second wave" of more permanent silent theaters along this strip were the Galax, the Alcazar (later renamed the Capitol), and the Trianon. Apparently the Trianon was the only one of this group that did not make the transition to sound movies, probably the biggest alteration any of the downtown theaters had to face.
|As most film fans know, movies did not begin to talk until 1927, when
Bros. debuted its new "Vitaphone" system of synchronizing sound
and picture with The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. ("You
ain't heard nothing yet" was not just his trademark line in the movie,
but a good slogan for what was coming in the motion picture industry.)
Reports are that The Jazz Singer blew into Birmingham in the venerable
Theater, another member of the Second Avenue crowd but easily the most
lavish of all the silent-era theaters.
Just when the Strand opened is somewhat vague from the few historical references to it, but the theater was apparently built around 1914 on the spot formerly occupied by the Steele-Smith Dry Goods Company. From the beginning, it was obvious that the Strand was not going to be the same as the small storefront theaters that surrounded it. The Strand name was spelled out in mosaic tile above the marquee, and the facade of the building was suitably impressive in its ornamentation.
Whereas the biggest names in vaudeville were appearing on stage at the Lyric, the Bijou, and their kin, it was at the Strand that the newly-rising stars of motion pictures could usually be found when passing through Birmingham. Screen idol and future character actor Francis X. Bushman put in an appearance at the Strand and was almost mobbed by his fans. Clara Kimball Young made a scene that wasn't in the script when she arrived and found the theater had no stage on which she could appear. The manager hastily fashioned a platform out of parallel boards covered with flowers, but it did little to mollify the actress's ruffled feathers.
As mentioned earlier, the biggest event in the Strand's history was when The Jazz Singer introduced the concept of talking pictures on its screen, running for an amazing thirteen weeks. It is said that people made the trip from as far away as Montevallo and Sylacauga just to see what a sound movie was.
By the 1940s, the Strand was still as opulent but competition from the newer theaters had reduced it to showing second run features and B-pictures. Its later history was intertwined with the theater next door, the Capitol (alias the Alcazar). In December 1948, the Capitol changed its name to the Newmar and also went into the business of showing features that had already appeared at the Alabama and Ritz theaters. This would have had little effect on the Strand, except that after a few years of this, the Newmar closed up and moved into the Strand building, taking the Newmar name with it. By that time, modernized marquees had all but hidden the original Strand mosaic logo, so most people probably did not think it strange to see two different names on a single building.
|In September 1959 the Newmar name came down and the Strand marquee
went up again, in time for the theater to reopen with Walt Disney's latest
Darby O'Gill and the Little People. The luck of the Irish would
not remain with the Strand for long, though. On November 28, 1962, the
Strand locked its doors after running the Vincent Price fright flick Tower
of London, which some felt was an appropriate finish for the once-glamorous
It stood abandoned until August 1963, when the wrecking ball arrived
to make room for a parking deck for the Birmingham Trust National Bank
(BTNB). Birmingham News reporter Lane Carter had bittersweet
memories of the Strand, reminiscing about how he attended a movie there
on his very first day as a News employee. His closing remarks were
"I'll always remember the old Strand with that tug at my heart strings. I don't care what they put in its place, a parking lot, or skyscraper, or even another theater. There'll always be a Strand Theatre standing there in my memory."
|Not all of the theaters that survived from the silent era produced
such an outpouring of nostalgia when they finally faded to black. Take
the case of the Royal Theatre, for example. Small by anyone's standards,
the Royal sat just a few doors west of the gigantic Comer Building,
and from its beginning to its end specialized in one type of entertainment,
and one type only: the hardy Western.
Whether it was pioneer screen cowboys Tom Mix and Buck Jones, or their latter-day descendants such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Lash LaRue, they all found the Royal to be a royal hitching post. In the end, however, the Royal was not done in so much by its changing neighborhood and surroundings, but by the one-eyed monster that was invading everyone's living room, the TV set.
Television came to Birmingham in the summer of 1949, but of course had been gaining momentum in other parts of the country for several years. One of the effects this new medium had on the movie industry was a gradual reduction in the number of B-pictures (such as Westerns) that were being churned out. For all practical purposes, there was very little difference between a B Western and a television program, so they were among the first casualties in the movies-versus-TV war.
With its only source of entertainment drying up like a water hole in the Mojave Desert, the Royal hung up its ten-gallon hat and quit the trail in early 1951. This event did not make the newspapers, and many people were probably surprised to find the theater boarded up. After sitting unwanted and unwashed for a couple of years, the space formerly occupied by the Royal was leased as a Morrison's Cafeteria, and few people who ate there probably realized they were grazing where formerly the deer and the antelope had played. That was a discouraging word, to be sure!
|While the smaller theaters such as the Royal were headin' 'em off at
the pass on Second Avenue, up on Third Avenue the Empire Theatre
had opened in January 1927. The Empire represented a sort of hybrid of
theater styles, being built for silent movies but also containing dressing
rooms underneath the stage. Presumably it was hedging its bet on which
entertainment medium would eventually prevail.
Although its longevity was notable, there seems to have been very little that was remarkable about the Empire's history. One of the most unusual things was that, to read the newspaper articles about it, the Empire seems to have been in an almost constant state of reinventing itself. It managed to exist with its original decor and marquee for the first twenty-two years of its existence, but in the summer and fall of 1949 underwent its first major remodeling program. This had the effect of covering the front of the Empire's four-story building with "Permastone," a move that would not endear the structure to historical preservationists in the future. The new marquee was the type with interchangeable plastic letters, which also went a long way toward destroying any historic value the theater might have had.
|Fifteen years later, in 1964 the Empire was remodeled again, enlarging
practically every aspect of the structure. The screen inflated from twenty-four
to thirty-five feet, while seats were ripped out and replaced with a larger
"rocking chair" type, which took up more space and thus reduced the number
of seats available on the main floor. When the Empire had its "open house"
to unveil its new look in February 1965, the newspaper headlined the blurb,
"Sign of downtown progress." It was not exactly so. Over the following
ten years both the neighborhood around the Empire and the quality of the
movies shown there would go into a tailspin. For the present, let it suffice
to say that the Empire building was demolished in July 1984 with few tears
shed by anyone; it, and the site of the Britling Cafeteria that
long stood next door, are now a parking lot.
The mid-to-late 1920s were the peak era of the "movie palace," those elaborate, richly appointed playhouses that made even the fanciest storefront theaters such as the Empire look plain. However, it is amazing to realize that in the time frame we have been discussing so far, Birmingham had not had anything that could truly be called a movie palace. A hint that that was about to change was dropped into newspaper readers' laps on September 27, 1925, when an article announced: "Birmingham's first motion picture palace will begin to be a reality about October 1, when construction will start on a million dollar theater at 1719-1723 Second Avenue North ... Construction of the million dollar movie house marks another improvement in this section of Second Avenue. At Nineteenth Street, the second unit of the big Pizitz store is nearing completion. At Eighteenth Street, the new Herman Saks store is another addition. The final touches are being put on the five-story concrete building which will be the future home of Cain Brothers furniture, immediately adjoining the Jefferson Theatre. The erection of the Mudd-Colley house is held to mean a greater centralization of the theatrical center around Eighteenth Street and Second and Third Avenues. The Jefferson and Lyric are already open. The Mudd-Colley house will be ready in a few months and another big theater is planned for the same neighborhood." (In case your hindsight is a little nearsighted, the "other big theater" turned out to be the Alabama, but it would be a couple of years before it could steal the spotlight.)
Meanwhile, the new "million dollar" theater was given the name Ritz, and an opening date of August 15, 1926. As was typical of the period, the silent movie that was the opening night feature (More Pay, Less Work, starring Mary Brian and Buddy Rogers) took second row to the acts presented on stage by the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Star performers were New York musicians and comedians Herman and Sammy Timberg; Sammy would go on to make a bigger name for himself by writing the music for the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons for the Max Fleischer animation studio during the 1930s.
Besides the New York performers, the Ritz also boasted Al Plante and his "Ritz Augmented Orchestra," and the $25,000 pipe organ that was a proud feature of any movie palace worth its gilt. According to the newspapers, tens of thousands of the local populace showed up at the Ritz on its Sunday afternoon open house, and of course many of those returned to become regular customers over and over again in the future. If the articles used the phrase "million dollar theater" once, they used it a million times. It just seemed that no one could get over the beauty of the theater, particularly compared to its predecessors. And since it was August, special mention was given to the following novelty: "The cooling system, the only one of its kind in the Southeast, lived up to its promise of keeping the house just right and not too cool."
It is ironic that just as the Ritz was opening as the epitome of the theater-going
experience, the movie industry was experiencing the somewhat painful changeover
from silent to sound pictures. When the Ritz eventually got a new manager
in the personage of A. H. Talbot of Chicago, Birmingham News
writer Dolly Dalrymple (whom we met in the Alabama Theatre discussion
at the beginning of this chapter) interviewed the new man with the company
and filed these comments:
"Especially during the last 10 years, when moving pictures have been raised to the dignity almost of legitimate performances, and practically all of the great actors of the legitimate stage have succumbed to the fascination of the 'talkies,' has this business or vocation taken on new life and new phases."
Mr. Talbot then chimed in with his views on how this changing business of entertainment would continue to evolve: "Of course the talkies today are still in the infant stage and the end of them, well, no one can tell. One thing is certain and sure though, and that is they have come to stay. Television is the next link in the chain ... I believe television will eventually be used exactly like the radio. People will sit in their own homes and hear and see the play without going to the theater for this purpose." If it sounds as though Mr. Talbot wasn't telling anyone anything they didn't already know, please take into consideration that his remarks were published in the paper on March 25, 1931. We're sure Mr. Talbot, with his keen foresight, must have made a bundle in the entertainment business ... especially if he were smart enough to get out of theaters and into television!
For whatever reason, during the Ritz's long Birmingham stay, it became the theater of choice for testing out every new device or system the motion picture industry tried in order to get people away from that television menace Mr. Talbot had so eerily prophesied. Actually, even before that happened the Ritz had undergone two major remodelings (1933 and 1940), but neither of them compared to the assault on the building's history that began in the late 1950s.
First there was Todd-AO. What's that, you ask? Todd-AO was the trade name of a new motion picture process that doubled the size of the image from 35mm to 70mm film, and also involved the latest in high fidelity sound. It was named in honor (?) of producer Mike Todd, who introduced the "better than TV" format in his feature Around the World in 80 Days. Installation of the new, curved screen, and the multitudes of audio speakers required to produce the hi-fi sound, decimated much of whatever was left of the Ritz's original structure and appearance. However, the theater spared no effort in proclaiming that it could now show such Todd-AO epics as The Big Fisherman and Ben-Hur (all of a sudden we're back where the Jefferson Theatre started!).
Most amusing of all was the newspaper's remark that "Todd-AO has been described by reviewers as a 'practical version of Cinerama,' which, because of its tremendous installation and operational expense, has not been profitable for theater exhibitors except in the largest cities." With that established, wouldn't you know that the next major remodeling program at the Ritz was to turn it into the state's first Cinerama theater?
Yes, it's true: during the spring and early summer of 1962, the insides of the Ritz were ripped out and rebuilt again, this time to provide the multiple screens required by Cinerama, which had been trying to get people out of the TV viewing habit and back into the theaters for almost ten years by that time. The novelty might have worn off in the rest of the movie industry, but Birmingham (and the Ritz) treated it as though it were the greatest advancement in movies since Al Jolson. Buried down in all the publicity was the offhanded remark that up to that point, the only movies produced in the Cinerama format were travelogues. Thrilling as it might have been to take a simulated roller coaster ride or view the beauty of Florida's venerable Cypress Gardens in lifelike realism, moviegoers wanted stories, and the Ritz had to wait almost six months before the first (and some of the few) Cinerama movies with a plot were released.
The conversion to Cinerama really destroyed the Ritz's small remaining amount of historical value. The three screens took up the entire width of the front of the theater, requiring that the chambers that once housed the pipes of the $25,000 organ be unceremoniously closed off with cement blocks. The number of seats dropped dramatically, from 1700 to 500. Even the Ritz's marquee received a Cinerama logo overlay, hiding the red and green neon tubes that truly looked as if they belonged to another era.
Ironically, within a couple of years Cinerama also belonged to another era. By 1964 the Ritz was being remodeled (what, again?!), this time to rid itself of Cinerama and get back to a more normal appearance. From that point onward, things would go downhill for the Ritz. After years of steadily declining attendance and interest, the old dinosaur coughed its last in 1977. In 1982, the Post-Herald newspaper sent reporter Terry Horne down to Second Avenue to see if anything was left of the Ritz's faded glory. "The green and red neon tubes are now caked with dust, the white tiled front chipped and cracked," Horne wrote. "Still tacked to the glass-covered boards are the coming attractions posters: a 1977 Richard Pryor movie, a 1975 Clint Eastwood movie, and a personal appearance by 'Wildman Steve,' a black X-rated comedian." (Somehow, it was good to know that even in this perverted way, the Ritz was still holding on to its origin as a vaudeville performance theater.)
There was no movement to rescue the Ritz from the wrecking ball, as had been done for the Alabama Theatre, because unlike the Alabama, there was not enough left of the Ritz's original structure to classify it as a historic building. Irony of ironies, all the remodeling it had seen to keep it up to date over the years had destroyed the very thing that might have preserved it. The theater and the entire block it occupied, including the large Pasquale's Pizza restaurant on the corner, became a parking lot in the fall of 1982.
The Melba Theatre, as it was eventually named, opened with all the appropriate fanfare on March 14, 1946. The newspapers reported that crowds were stretched double almost the entire length of the block, and that "patrons wandered through the lounges and powder room, admiring the restrained modernism of the interior and the luxurious fittings."
|Even a relatively new facility like the Melba could not escape the
passion for remodeling, and in 1964 the theater received a makeover, giving
the interior a color scheme described as turquoise and tangerine, which
must have made it resemble an overcrowded Howard Johnson's restaurant.
These cosmetic changes were not enough to stop the inevitable passing of
The decline of the downtown theaters was not really even a gradual slope. In 1969, the Melba, Empire, Alabama, and others were still showing the latest Walt Disney films and other family-friendly fare. Just five years later, in 1974, there was not a general audience picture to be seen downtown. Of course, fewer such movies were being produced, but as longtime downtown theater manager Harry Curl put it in 1980, "A lot of the movies we show are black oriented, but we show what's available. If we showed general audience movies, we wouldn't attract enough customers to make money. If you've got a good action picture (Bolo Brute is now at the Empire) they come in. I don't think they (regular downtown customers) would come to see Kramer vs. Kramer."
Curl had a good point. The family movie audience was shrinking in the
first place, and those who were still inclined to visit theaters were more
likely to do so in the suburbs, such as at the Eastwood Mall Theater
that opened in 1964. (Eastwood Mall itself was developed by Henry Waters,
who owned many of the downtown theaters; obviously Mr. Waters could see
where the future was heading long before it got there.) The same
1980 article that contained Harry Curl's remarks above closed with this
And that was exactly what happened. Within four years of that article, the Empire and Melba had been demolished, and the Alabama was just beginning its long, torturous process of being preserved. The Ritz was gone, the Lyric had ceased showing pornography and sat abandoned, and the other theaters of the past were either parking lots or converted back into retail space. And with that, the heyday of the downtown movie house faded to black.
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