Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know Mickey Mouse? The cute little guy with the big black ears and high-pitched squeaky voice is undeniably one of the most well-known characters in modern history. What may be lesser known, however, is that in 1935 Mickey Mouse had over 7,000 loyal fans in Birmingham, Alabama, who together formed the largest Mickey Mouse Club in the world at the time. Who played host to this amazing gathering of Mickey-Mouse-lovers? None other than the city’s gorgeous Alabama Theatre, which eighty years later still attracts the thousands every year—only Mickey has been (for the most part) replaced by the Alabama Symphony, the Alabama Ballet, and scores of other greats, like BB King, Emmylou Harris, and Wynton Marsalis.
Built in 1927, Birmingham’s newest movie palace was the city’s first public building with air conditioning—no doubt contributing to its popularity at the time! But crisp, cool air wasn’t the only thing boosting the building’s wow factor. The first films shown at the theatre, of course, were of the completely silent variety, which means mood music had to be provided. So along with the theatre came a top-of-the-line Crawford Special Publix One Mighty Wurlitzer Opus 1783 organ with all the special effects an early black-and-white could hope for, one of only twenty-five ever constructed. It’s a good thing, too, that they added that particular feature because surprisingly it was the Mighty Wurlitzer that saved the theatre from premature destruction a half-century after its premier.
The set-up is common. Black-hatted property owners in the 1980’s wanted the old movie house torn down to make room for parking. The Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (did you even realize there was such an organization?) offered to rescue the rare and valuable Wurlitzer by purchasing it. Dollar signs appeared in the realtor’s eyes and, recognizing an even greater opportunity to capitalize on the group’s interest, handed them a firm refusal to sell the instrument alone. So after an extensive fund-raising effort, the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., formed in 1987 to purchase the entire theatre, preserving not only the priceless organ in its interior but the Alabama architectural landmark itself.
Ten years later the beautiful historic building saw complete restoration, with new or restored gold leaf, seats, carpet, and drapes, becoming once again the Birmingham architectural showcase it had been years earlier. Since 1993 the Alabama has been the official state historic theatre, has long been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2011 it won the Building of the Year Award from the Alabama Architectural Foundation as the state’s best example of architecture’s impact on Alabama citizens.
And impact Alabama’s citizens it has—and does. Folks rent the palatial edifice to get married in. Top performing artists as well as the up-and-coming frequent the Alabama stage. Classic movies bring in the crowds during special showings summer and winter. And at the show-stopping-ly-ornate Alabama Theatre you can see Swan Lake one week and hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band the next. This eighty-eight-year-old wonder is as center-stage as she ever was.
My bet is that some of those eighty-something and ninety-year-old original Mickey-Mouse-Clubsters also still get in on the action occasionally—down at the good ol’ Alabama on Birmingham’s historic Third Avenue.