The Princess Theatre, which turned 100 last year, is the crown jewel of downtown Decatur. The premier multi-function community arts center showcases films, concerts and performances by local and national acts in its 677-seat auditorium, hosts private events and features a listening room for live music.
Initially a location for a livery where horses rested while patrons shopped downtown, the Princess opened in 1919 showcasing vaudeville acts and silent films. As movies with sound became popular, a decision was made by the owner to remodel the Princess into a theater that showed those types of films.
“When ‘talkies’ came in, the Princess came into her own as the premier movie house in north Alabama and beyond,” communications director Melissa Ford Thornton says.
The Princess’ sleek, elegant art deco style, which swept across Europe and the U.S. during the 1920s and ’30s, made the theater an attractive place for people to imitate the glamor of movie stars by dressing up for a night on the town.
The bright neon marquee, preserved façade and historic lobby – featuring tiles made of the same type of Italian stone used on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – are stunning visual reminders of the theater’s early years. “The aura that art deco displayed was sophisticated,” Thornton says.
As indoor shopping malls and multi-screen cinemas with surround sound became popular across America during the 1970s, along with movie channels on TV, many cities saw the bulk of their business shift from downtown to the suburbs. In 1978, the Princess fell victim to this trend and closed. “The rise of malls as the new shopping standard hit theaters and performing arts centers hard nationwide,” Thornton says.
Fortunately, the Princess avoided demolition as city officials and the community raised funds to restore the theater. In 1983, the Princess reopened as a multi-use performing arts center, allowing a new generation of residents to experience excellent entertainment.
“There is a love for this place,” Thornton says.
The energy of downtown
Today, the Princess and downtown Decatur are thriving, thanks to the creation of an arts and entertainment district. Merchants are experiencing increased foot traffic because of cooperation between businesses and the theater. “Downtown Decatur has had a breath of fresh air blown into its lungs,” says technical director Penny Linville, who has been with the Princess since 1990.
The Princess and downtown Decatur have become a hub for entertainment, due in part to younger generations looking for authentic experiences. An example is the theater’s monthly singer-songwriter series. During the events, the audience is up close as musicians tell their stories. “The veil between the singer and the audience is torn,” Thornton says.
The Princess is an economic boon for Decatur thanks to the singer-songwriter series and live shows. Visitors often stay at nearby hotels when attending concerts featuring national touring acts, such as recording artists Drive-By Truckers and Larkin Poe, who performed recently.
Sometimes the performers mingle with guests after a Princess show at downtown restaurants.
“There is a huge spirit of conviviality between cast, crew and patrons,” says Carol Puckett of the Bank Street Players, who regularly perform at the theater. “Getting the Princess returned to the central heartbeat of the Second Avenue commercial district has had a ripple effect in all the nearby businesses.”
Thanks to the help of local college students, Decatur will be getting additional exposure with a podcast from the Princess promoting artists performing at the theater, the Alabama Center for the Arts and elsewhere in the area – along with news from the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We want to talk about collaboration and cooperation, not competition,” Thornton says.
Another way the Princess is involved in the community is through arts education workshops for different age groups. Thornton is delighted by young students performing before audiences.
“Having the children step into the spotlight for the first time and having people clap for them is an amazing experience,” Thornton says.
Throughout its long history, the Princess has brought the community together through the power of performing arts. Many people who grew up in Decatur have fond memories of the theater, from a first kiss to riding bikes to the Princess to watch a film.
“The Princess captures the essence of the old and new,” Thornton says. “It’s a testament to history, a catalyst for change and a meeting space in between.”
For more information about the Princess Theatre, or to get tickets for events, visit http://www.princesstheatre.org/.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.