Every night, the bright lights of the Lyric and Alabama Theatres are bound to dazzle both visitors and natives alike. I toured downtown to discover what remains of the 73 theaters that once made up the Birmingham Historic Theater district.
The memorable Alabama Theatre marquee harkens back to an era of a downtown filled with restaurants, shopping malls, and grand theaters. The Lyric, Alabama and Carver Theatres are wonderful examples of the golden age of Birmingham cinema. However, they are all that remain of the dozens of grand theaters that made up the Birmingham Theater District.
I first learned about the Birmingham Historic Theater district while interning at the Birmingham Public Archives. I made my discovery among the photos of Birmingham photographer Oscar Virgil Hunt. In the collection, I found dozens of photos of Birmingham theaters I had not even heard of! I knew I had to learn more.
What I learned astounded me.
- Motion pictures made their Birmingham debut in 1897 with Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. Birmimgham’s first dedicated motion picture theater, the Theatorium, opened in 1905.
- Birmingham was the second city after New York to show “talking pictures”. The Marvel Theatre of 20th Street North boasted the “Cameraphone” system, which shipped a phonograph record along with the hand-cranked film reel to be played in sync.
- Between 1900 and 1910, Birmingham experienced a 245% increase in population, earning it the title of the “Magic City”. Dozens of theatres sprung up in the following decade, such as the Trianon, Strand, Rialto, Princess, Lyric, Galax, and Franklin.
- 2nd and 3rd Avenues North were the center of Birmingham’s Theater district. This area became home to the Alcazar, Galax, Ritz, Strand, Trianon, Alabama, and Lyric Theatres.
- The Avon Theatre hosted the Rolling Stones in 1989 as they filmed interviews for the documentary 25×5: the Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones.
- The green and white glass facade of the Five Points Theatre was recently restored and now sits over the expanded dining area of Surin West.
Of the 73 theatres that operated in downtown Birmingham over the years, only the Lyric, Alabama, and Carver remain. In the years before personal televisions, the Birmingham Theater District was the center of downtown nightlife. However, most Birmingham theatres closed after the growth of the home television market. Only the Lyric, Alabama, and Carver survived due to local support and painstaking restoration efforts.
A full list of Birmingham’s historic cinemas can be found on Bhamwiki.
How can I help?
You may be wondering how you can help preserve the Birmingham Historic Theater District. The easiest way to show your support is to attend performances and shows at the Lyric, Alabama and Carver theatres. You can also consider supporting the Birmingham Landmarks endowment.
Birmingham is currently experiencing a resurgence in cinema. In April, the BBC reported on how the Lyric and Alabama are reinventing Birmingham’s downtown.
The Sidewalk Cinema and Film Center plans to open later this summer. It is located in the basement of the Pizitz building on 19th Street North. Patrons will enjoy two screening areas, two lounges, a bar and a concession stand. Whether you’re in the mood for an indie, blockbuster or classic film, music, dance or comedy show, chances are Birmingham’s Theater District will be just the ticket for a very entertaining night out!