By Emily Williams
For more than 30 years, Tom Cronier of Homewood has devoted his free time to a lady in red.
Big Bertha, the acclaimed Wurlitzer pipe organ that resides in the Alabama Theatre, has led Cronier, and subsequently his wife, Loretta, to a life of service to Birmingham’s growing Theater District.
His love of the instrument has been a lifelong passion, and he has the knowledge to back up his obsession.
“The orchestral pipe organ is special in that it was made in America, it was celebrated in America and it died in America,” Cronier said.
The organ was made to compliment silent movies during the 1920s. To spare the expense of hiring an entire orchestra every day, the instrument was developed to mimic the sound of a full band. Once “talkies” were introduced and America embraced a movie with built-in sound, the organ’s fame died, but the Alabama Theatre continues the tradition of playing it before and after films.
In the late 1960s, the Alabama Theatre, along with the Lyric Theatre and much of downtown Birmingham, began falling into decay. To save the organ, the Atlanta chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society traveled to Birmingham to tend to Big Bertha, in effect leading to establishment of the Birmingham chapter of ATOS that Cronier is a part of today.
“My prime interest in the group was the pipe organ,” Cronier said. “It’s such an interesting instrument and you simply don’t see that many of them around anymore.”
The group’s leader, Cecil Whitmire, played the organ when nobody else did, and the group started a 37-year tradition of showing the silent version of “The Phantom of the Opera” accompanied by the instrument.
“In the mid-‘80s, the theater was simply broke, dirty and down on its luck,” Cronier said. “It was owned by a real estate agency in downtown Birmingham and they simply didn’t have the funds to save it. They were a company that was thinking about 20 years ahead of its time. Back then the streets rolled up after five o’clock once everybody got off of work.”
When the company first bought the theater, it questioned letting ATOS have free reign, but it quickly accepted the situation.
“Somebody told them that they had to let us in. We were the only ones who knew where all of the light switches were,” Cronier said.
During that time period the theater was open to the public for almost nothing save the Phantom showing.
“The company went down the tube financially,” Cronier said. “The group, we knew the end was near so it didn’t come as a surprise. We could almost hear the wrecking ball around the corner.”
Cronier and his fellow members made it their mission to save the organ and made a play to purchase it through the bankruptcy court, but they were turned down.
“It was smart of them,” Cronier said. “They probably figured out how much the thing was worth.”
So, to save the organ, Cronier and his crew did the next best thing. They made a plan to buy the theater.
“It seemed ludicrous at the time. How can our small group own and operate an entire theater? Most of us worked full-time jobs,” he said.
In the end, Whitmire bought the theater and ATOS took full control.
“We didn’t just take care of the organ,” Cronier said. “We did everything. There were many times that we would come in on a Saturday morning and spend the day fixing a toilet that didn’t work.”
Their time of control wasn’t a walk in the park. Cronier said it was a constant battle to stay afloat before they made any significant progress. Whitmire’s wife, Linda, kept the books during that time.
“There were so many times that she would come to us and say that we had $3,000 in the books and $15,000 worth of bills,” Cronier said. “They weren’t bills that needed to be paid in a few weeks or a month, they were bills that had to be paid right now.”
Somehow, they made it through thanks to a $12,000 check from the Linly Heflin Foundation or whichever organization was feeling generous that month and they scraped by.
“We finally got things going,” Cronier said. “By the early ‘90s, the theater was being used enough that Cecil worked full time and we could afford a full-time staff.”
Birmingham Landmarks took over the theater and Whitmire was hired as the executive director, a position he held until his passing.
According to Cronier, his friend and ATOS leader didn’t get to see the Lyric rise from the ashes like the Alabama, but he would have loved every minute of the process.
Looking toward the future, Cronier and his wife call both the Lyric and the Alabama their home away from home. While Tom remains one of the keepers of the organ, the two offer their time to both theaters doing odd jobs that nobody else wants to take care of.
“That’s why they love us so much over there,” Cronier said. “We’re a cheap date. We’ll work for free.”
When he isn’t with Big Bertha, Cronier tears tickets in both theaters and ushers on occasion. Loretta, according to her husband, is the real hero. She takes care of the theater’s merchandise tables.
“She never got into this on her own, but she is always ready to help out,” Cronier said. “This all started because I just love to hear that organ play.”