A Millennial’s Memories of the Alabama Theatre {and How You Can Help!}

Where It All Began

Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) with Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara)

I remember it like it was yesterday. My earliest memory of the Alabama Theatre was seeing a Sunday afternoon matinee of Gone With the Wind in 1989. My mom had prepared me well: “You will love the Alabama Theatre. It’s old and beautiful, and was built a long time ago when people used to get all dressed up and decked out to come downtown to go to the movies.” I’d never seen anything like it; I was immediately awestruck with the intricate carvings, the soft velvet seats, and how the lights on the ornate ceiling changed colors. We settled into our seats in the balcony of the packed house, and before the Mighty Wurlitzer organ appeared, out came Butterfly McQueen to the stage (the actress who played “Prissy” in GWTW: “Oh, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies!”)

The audience roared with applause and admiration, and I had no idea who she was or what was going on. My mom excitedly leaned over and whispered in my ear, “This is a BIG deal — remember this moment! You’ll be able to tell your children one day you saw one of the last surviving actors from Gone With the Wind!” Butterfly McQueen was in Birmingham to celebrate GWTW‘s golden anniversary. She quoted a line or two from the movie and delighted the crowded theater many times over. How many people can say they saw an actress in person from this classic movie their first screening? As many times as I’ve seen it since, I cannot imagine watching it anywhere else but at the Alabama Theatre.

Party Time

Not too long after that, my mom thought it would be fun to have my birthday party there. You have to remember this was before the Alabama Theatre offered cartoon matinees for the kids — people have parties there all the time now, but back then, it was a bit of a novelty.

Being serenaded by Cecil Whitmire for my birthday

My friends and I watched The Unsinkable Molly Brown (again, not really for children, but it kept our attention well enough!) When the movie was over and the theater cleared out, the longtime advocate/supporter/organist Mr. Cecil Whitmire (the man who essentially saved the Alabama Theatre from becoming a parking lot in the 1980s) let us join him on the Mighty Wurlitzer and ride up and down. He was so kind to us, and it was such a treat I’ll never forget. 


Sweet Home Alabama

When I was in college, Reese Witherspoon starred in the charming movie Sweet Home Alabama. Somehow the Alabama Theatre obtained the rights to preview the film three days before it even premiered in Hollywood as part of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival that year. Mary Kay Place (who played Reese’s mother) and Melanie Lynskey (“You have a baby….in a bar!”) were in attendance along with the governor of Alabama. As a journalism major, I was able to take part along with the press and meet them beforehand. It was thrilling!

Now, as a mom, I have loved introducing my own children to one of Birmingham’s gems. Now the Alabama Theatre offers quite a few events for children such as the summer cartoon series (featuring face-painting, princess meet-and-greets, and sing-a-longs) as well as Christmas movies (tickets are already on sale!) and events geared specifically toward children.

The Theatre Needs Our Help!

This theater has given so much to the city of Birmingham during its remarkable 90 years, and I want to pay them back by helping them win a preservation grant from National Geographic to place another sign on the 18th Street side of the theater. And you can help, too! Now through October 31, 2017, you can vote up to five times daily to help the Alabama Theatre win this grant. For more information, check out the Alabama Theatre’s Facebook page or go to BigAlabamaSign.com.  I’ve voted today … have you?

Share your fond memories of the Alabama Theatre with us in the comments — and share this opportunity to help the theater with your friends!


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