By Emily Williams
When picturing the landmarks that are most recognizably “Birmingham,” places such as Vulcan, Sloss Furnaces or even recent additions such as the Magic City sign on the Rotary Trail come to mind.
A highlight of all things Birmingham is the Alabama Theatre, founded in 1927, lost in the decline of downtown and the arrival of multiplexes, and resurrected in 1998.
The venue’s resilient history is once again at risk due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Typically, the fall is our busiest time of year for concerts, and right now it doesn’t look like we will have any concerts for the rest of the year,” said venue manager Cindy Mullins. “By the end of 2020, we will have lost $2.5 million in revenue.”
Mountain Brook resident Frank Falkenburg has personally seen the rise, fall and resurgence of the Alabama Theatre and its sister venue, The Lyric.
He spent much of his childhood seated in the Alabama Theatre’s mezzanine, watching the movies shown on its stage perhaps dozens of times each as he visited his father, Frances Falkenburg, who managed the theater for 22 years.
His father previously worked as the assistant manager for Paramount Theaters, overseeing the Olympic theater in Miami. He was brought to Birmingham to serve as manager at the Alabama Theatre in 1937.
Falkenburg said he grew up in the theater.
“During the (days of World War II), I remember various artists coming to town, raising money for war bonds,” Falkenburg said.
The most famous was Mickey Rooney, who became one of his father’s close friends.
“Daddy introduced (Rooney) to one of the candy counter girls and he married her,” Falkenburg said.
Francis was Rooney’s best man when he wed his second wife, B.J. Baker, at the Southeastern Bible College, then located on Niazuma Avenue.
A former Miss Alabama 1944 and fourth runner up in the Miss America pageant, Baker went on to become a successful singer and songwriter – working with the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Sam Cooke.
“When I look back at all of the stars of those days, I remember Bob Hope came in quite often also raising money for the war bonds,” Falkenburg said. “He has a great fondness for Birmingham and he and my father were very friendly.” Hope also became close friends with Birmingham’s Charley Boswell, a National Blind Golf champion who earned 16 national titles as well as 11 international ones.
The theater also served as the venue for the annual Miss Alabama pageant, and Falkenburg’s parents had the duty to chaperone the winner to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
“They saw Yolanda Betbeze win the (1951) Miss America title,” he said. “She was the most famous one back in her day.” A Mobile native, Yolanda Betbeze Fox gained acclaim as an opera singer and later married former Universal Pictures President Matthew Fox.
“We had a lot of names that came through, and I knew they were somebody back then but didn’t realize until after the fact how famous they were,” he said.
One of his father’s great successes as manager of the venue was hiring Stanleigh Malotte to play the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Malotte drew wide acclaim beginning with his first performance, on May 27, 1937, playing along to “A Star is Born,” starring Fredrick March and Janet Gaynor.
What Falkenburg recalls most clearly is Malotte’s introductions for the Mickey Mouse Club.
“That was the big deal,” Falkenburg said. “On Saturdays, folks would drop their kids off and we spent the morning in there watching cartoons and some live performances as well.” While the kids were occupied, parents would do some shopping, perhaps at Loveman’s Department Store, which was next door to the Alabama.
Falkenburg was one of the popular kids in school, most likely because of his friendly disposition, but having a father as manager of the hottest venue in town surely didn’t hurt.
“I used to take all of my friends for free to the theater,” he said. “My father also brought in Broadway plays back in the ‘50s like ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Oklahoma’ to the Temple Center, where the Harbert Center is today, and I took my friends to all of those shows, too.”
In their heyday, the Alabama and Lyric theaters were popular stops along the electric streetcar lines in downtown Birmingham.
“There were dozens of theaters downtown at the time,” he said. “Of course, the Alabama was the most well-known and largest.” The Lyric mostly showcased B movies, but he recalled walking over there with his dad to see “Frankenstein” for the first time.
Eventually the era of grand theaters ended, slowly closing not just the Alabama but the entire theater industry downtown.
“I got involved in the ‘90s when they initially started trying to revive it,” Falkenburg said. “There are very few theaters that were built in its era that have survived.”
While the venue halls are devoid of guests, maintenance for the historic buildings is a constant.
“Even though we are closed, we still have to run the air conditioning to make sure that the building doesn’t get too hot or cold,” Mullins said. “We have to keep the humidity under control to make sure that that paint won’t peel off the walls.”
Staff members also conduct walk throughs daily to check for leaks and electrical issues.
“The easiest way to find something wrong is to have an event, and since the buildings are empty, we don’t have that luxury,” Mullins said.
“Pest control is another big concern. A theater full of people keeps pests from making themselves at home in the building, but since we have been closed, we have had to expand our pest control plan.”
While current guidelines limit venues to 50% capacity, the theaters also have to accommodate six-foot distances between parties. Mullins said this places the actual capacity limit at the Alabama at 25% to 30%.
“We decided to try doing a socially distanced movie on Sept. 11 as our first public event since the closure,” she said. “Normally we have 2,000 tickets available for our movies. This time we had 630 tickets available.”
It was the first event hosted at the Alabama Theatre since March. The Lyric has hosted only one small, private corporate event during the pandemic.
New practices for movie viewings include assigned seating in pods of two or four people, temperature checks and hand sanitizing before entering the building, and mask requirements while in the building.
Tickets are scanned, so they are touch-free, sanitizing stations are spread throughout the theater and high-touch areas are cleaned every 30 minutes. Plexiglass shields also have been set up at every bar station.
While the first movie event sold out, the theater only broke even.
According to Mullins, concerts and the larger events hosted at the venue typically need to sell 90% of tickets for the theater to turn a profit.
“Being able to open at a lowered capacity isn’t going to be what helps us survive. We have to fundraise, too,” Mullins said. “We have a few maintenance projects we need to complete, but we will be showing more movies soon and we are working on plans for our annual Holiday Film Series.”
Right now, the biggest weight is the projected $2.5 million year-end loss hanging overhead.
To relieve some of the pressure, a GoFundMe campaign has been started with a goal of raising $500,000.
“Right now, we have raised about $140,000, so we still have a long way to go,” Mullins said. “A donation of any size is appreciated. We are a nonprofit organization, so any donation is tax deductible.”
Donations can be made at alabamatheatre.com. Even if you can’t donate, Mullins suggests helping out by spreading the word to family and friends.
“We are also hopeful that Congress will pass a relief package that will help independently owned venues like us,” she said. “You can go to saveourstages.com and it will help you send a letter to your specific representatives. It takes 30 seconds to do, and you can use their template or write your own letter.
“The $500,000 GoFundMe campaign is really just one piece of the puzzle for our survival. We really need an aid package as well.”