By Emily Williams
In 1927 Birmingham, The Little Theatre opened its doors to the local arts community, and there it has stood for 90 years.
Now named The Virginia Samford Theatre, the facility has not only been a pillar of the Birmingham arts community, but its foundation.
The theater will be kicking off its 90th anniversary season with a celebratory opening night Sept. 20 for the season’s first show “A Chorus Line,” a favorite of VST President Cathy Gilmore.
“This theater was a catalyst for a number of arts organizations,” Gilmore said. “Birmingham Children’s Theatre started here. Red Mountain Theatre Company started here, but back then it was known as Summerfest. The Alabama School of Fine Arts began here, holding classes in this building.”
For Gilmore, the anniversary is not only a celebration of an important piece of Birmingham’s theater community, but a celebration of a theater that shaped her life as a young adult.
“This theater has been a creative oasis within the community,” she said.
When the Little Theatre opened its doors in the late 1920s, Gilmore noted, it served as the center for cultural activities for the Highlands area of downtown Birmingham, which was the most affluent area in Birmingham at the time.
“It was the center of cultural activity for Birmingham in the ‘20s and ‘30s; and it survived the depression,” Gilmore said.
Unfortunately, World War II caused the theater to close its doors in 1942, and the facility was turned into a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints location.
Along the way, the theater was left vacant. Then in 1955, UAB speech instructor James Hatcher and a group of people with an affinity for the performing arts revived the facility and renamed it the Town and Gown Theatre. Soon after, it was purchased by a donor and donated to the University of Alabama.
The theater is a home to many people, including Gilmore, who can remember her first performance on its stage. She was 11 years old and a member of the chorus for a production of “Three Wishes for Jamie.”
“This theater is more like a tradition with me,” she said. “There are so many good memories.”
She first came into contact with the theater through Steeple Arts Dance Academy in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village. Lola Mae Coates ran the academy and choreographed many of the theater’s shows.
At her first performance, she was “in awe of everybody,” from the performers to the set designs and costumes.
One of her earliest memories of the theater was that first performance of “Three Wishes for Jamie.” Also performing was Patricia Neal, now an acclaimed author and actress known as Fannie Flagg. Gilmore spotted Neal sharing a kiss with one of the male actors and was shocked, like any other 11-year-old would be.
“I had only seen them, but I thought I had sinned. I will never forget it!” she said.
During that time, she met Jack and Suzanne Mann, who are still staples in the VST family, and even later she met her first husband through the theater.
So in 1999, when UAB announced that it planned to close and sell the facility, Gilmore took action.
Saving a Landmark
An active member of the Metropolitan Arts Council at the time, she was part of a group that was instrumental in saving the theater. The group called on the help of Virginia Samford Donovan, a close friend of Gilmore’s whose mother acted on the theater’s stage in 1927.
“She was one of the most devoted lovers of theater,” Gilmore said. Donovan even made a point to visit New York City at least twice a year to take in as many Broadway shows as possible.
“Theater was intoxicating to her. I had the opportunity to go with her a few times and it was a time I treasure,” she said.
Donovan donated the money to buy the theater, an additional $3 million was raised to restore the space to its former glory, and in 2002 the facility re-opened as the Virginia Samford Theatre.
Gilmore, who for many years worked with the Alabama Ballet, took on the role of president.
“It was just kind of serendipitous that I was in a place in my life where I could take on this role,” she said. “It was supposed to happen.”
She recalls many lunch dates in the theater’s board room with Virginia Samford Donovan.
“After we finished eating she would go downstairs and answer the phones,” she said. “She just loved the whole environment here.”
Since its re-opening, the facility has seen two expansions: a second-floor studio theater for more intimate performances; and, most recently, the addition of a glass atrium at the front of the building.
Gilmore describes her connection to the Virginia Samford Theatre as a tradition. Many others who began working at the theater in 2002 are still a part of the family today.
“My son practically grew up here and I have loved every minute of it,” she said.
“People who are involved here truly love this place,” she said. “We are all very attached to what we do here.”
The season’s opening show “A Chorus Line” will not only celebrate the theater, but its support of the local arts community. The show will feature 17 dancers from the University of Alabama performing the show’s original choreography.
“‘A Chorus Line’ was as revolutionary for its time as ‘Hamilton’ is,” Gilmore said.
The show will run from Sept. 21 through Oct. 1, with tickets beginning at $30. The Exclusive Opening Night celebration on Sept. 20 will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. Tickets are $90 – “One dollar for every year we’ve been here,” Gilmore said.
For more information, visit virgin- iasamfordtheatre.org. ❖