The votes have been counted, and thanks to overwhelming community support, the Alabama Theatre 18th Street sign will soon return to shine its light over downtown Birmingham.
On Nov. 2, the Partners in Preservation: Main Streets campaign announced the Alabama Theatre campaign placed in the national top 10, earning a $120,000 grant to use toward replacing the sign. Throughout October, more than 54,000 theatre supporters across Alabama were among nearly a million people nationwide who voted for their favorite historic sites along America’s main streets as part of this competition.
“What that says to me is how much people really value the Alabama Theatre and the history of Birmingham,” said Brant Beene, president of Birmingham Landmarks, the nonprofit owner of the Alabama and Lyric theatres. “Asking people to vote every day for a month and having them respond to that is, in my opinion, a wonderful expression of the feelings people have for the theatre. It’s great to know they feel the same way we do. We want the theatre to be preserved not just for us, but for the people who come here, and for their children and grandchildren.”
This new vertical sign will match the one that already illuminates the Third Avenue side of the theatre. When the iconic movie palace opened in 1927, both 18th Street and Third Avenue were lit by twin Alabama Theatre signs rimmed with dancing lights. The signs were removed in 1957 for repair, but only the one on Third Avenue was refurbished and replaced.
Beene said the votes poured in from customers, major contributors, friends on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and other theatre supporters.
Along with the community response, the theatre has received corporate support and funding for the restoration project. Alabama Power, Compass BBVA, Regions and the Birmingham Landmarks Junior Board led the way as major sponsors, with help from many other local donors.
“The local corporate community stepped up in a big way,” said Tom Cosby, fundraising consultant, Birmingham Landmarks. “Now with the $120,000 grant, added to the $185,000 plus that has already been raised locally, it means that Birmingham Landmarks won’t have to assume any debt to totally complete this project; and we even might have some left over to help pay for some much-needed maintenance on the 1927 Alabama sign on Third Avenue.”
Rev Birmingham nominated the Alabama Theatre for the national competition earlier this year. After the theatre was named among the 25 finalists in September, Rev Birmingham led the month-long blitz to motivate Alabamians to vote for bringing back this piece of history.
“We are honored to partner with Birmingham Landmarks on leveraging this opportunity to bring national grant funding to a project that will quite literally shine a new light in Birmingham,” said David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham. “The volume of local votes and, of course, local donations show strong support for historic preservation in our beautiful city with no shortage of historic charm in need of preserving. The Alabama Theatre has been a pillar of the city center throughout its seasons of change, and we look forward to seeing its exterior restoration projects return the theatre to its fully original splendor.”
The 2017 Partners in Preservation Vote Your Main Street grant competition is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Main Street America in partnership with American Express, National Geographic and Delta Airlines. With more than 920,000 votes nationwide, it’s clear that Americans are committed to preserving and revitalizing their hometown landmarks, a campaign spokesman said.
The grand old days
Birmingham’s iconic Alabama Theatre was built by Paramount in 1927 as its flagship movie palace in the Southeast. It was the largest in the city’s theater district. At the time, the district included many large theaters featuring everything from vaudeville and nickelodeons to first-run movies and the performing arts.
Today, the Alabama Theatre welcomes thousands of visitors each year to about 150 live events and movies. The centerpiece of the theater, and a favorite with audiences, is still the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” the massive pipe organ that accompanied silent films all those years ago. A recent readership poll in the Birmingham Business Journal found that Alabamians consider the historic theatre “the most beautiful commercial building in the state.”
The new 18th Street sign is under construction and expected to be unveiled at a street party at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The celebration – the culmination of the theatre’s 90th birthday year – will begin inside with a concert featuring Taylor Hicks and Sister Hazel. The addition of the sign on 18th Street will restore the theatre to its original design.
“After the concert, we’re going to lead everybody out onto the street and count it down,” Beene said. “At midnight, we’re going to light up that sign. It’s going to be an exciting night and a fun time.”