Long-awaited trip to Alabama Theatre doesn't disappoint

By JENNIFER COHRON
Posted 6/30/19

Editor's note: This is the first in a series that will continue throughout the summer. Eagle staff members will be sharing photos from their vacation destinations.A trip to the Alabama Theatre has …

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Long-awaited trip to Alabama Theatre doesn't disappoint

Posted

Editor's note: This is the first in a series that will continue throughout the summer. Eagle staff members will be sharing photos from their vacation destinations.

A trip to the Alabama Theatre has been on my Alabama-themed bucket list for several years.

Built in 1927 by Paramount, the "Showplace of the South" could easily have been lost after closing in 1981, a victim of downtown Birmingham's overall decline. It was saved by members of the Alabama chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, who had an interest in preserving not only one of the city's last standing movie palaces but also the Mighty Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ. 

"Those two go hand in hand. The building without the organ would be just another pretty building. The organ without the building would never sound as great as it does. One without the other is nothing, but the sum of the two is greater than the parts. It’s a magical experience,” house organist Gary Jones told me in 2013.

Today both the Alabama Theatre and nearby Lyric Theatre have been restored through the efforts of the nonprofit Birmingham Landmarks Inc.

The Alabama Theatre hosts over 150 events throughout the year but is perhaps best known for its annual Summer Film Series and Holiday Film Series. 

I have often looked at the schedule, patiently waiting for the event that seemed meant for me. No showing could have thrilled me more than "The Long, Long Trailer."

Released in 1954, the film stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the height of their "I Love Lucy" fame. Instead of Lucy and Ricky, they play Tacy and Nicky, newlyweds who are traveling cross-country with a 40-foot New Moon trailer in tow.

The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, is a comedy that features some great scenes of Yosemite National Park and a supporting cast that includes Keenan Wynn, Marjorie Main and Howard McNear. 

Before colorizing old sitcoms became trendy, "The Long, Long Trailer" felt like watching a 96-minute "Lucy" episode in color. Unlike "Two Many Girls" and "Forever Darling," the two other films in which Ball and Arnaz appeared together, it can withstand numerous rewatches without losing its charm. 

Suffice it to say that June 23, the date that "The Long, Long Trailer" was being shown at the Alabama Theatre, has been circled on our calendar for several months.

We left home early to make it in time for the pre-show sing-along. 

I was still trying to take in the ornate scenery when the music began. Not knowing what was to come, I began looking for its source, the famed Wurlitzer.

After about half a minute, the Wurlitzer began making a slow ascent to the stage. It was a worthy entrance for such a majestic instrument.

Jones greeted the audience, taking care to note that the current film series is sponsored by Tito's Handmade Vodka and that a movie-themed specialty cocktail is being served at events throughout the summer. Sunday's special was "The Long, Long Cocktail."

The pre-show was a tribute to the late Doris Day. I had suspected that Jones might throw in a quick rendition of the "I Love Lucy" theme song but was even more delighted when he ended the show with "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," performed in the movie by Ball and Arnaz.

With the exception of a couple of scenes, I was doubtful that watching the movie in a theatre would be a drastically different experience from watching it on TV. 

Jones asked the audience to pay close attention to one of Ball's perfectly-matched outfits, which was easier to admire on the big screen. For the first time, I also caught two advertisements for "I Love Lucy" sponsor Phillip Morris prominently displayed in gas station scenes.   

At the end of the afternoon, I walked away with a great memory and a movie poster to add to my Lucy collection. 

Our visit to the Alabama Theatre was in ideal prelude to the vacation we have planned later this summer, which will include a stopover in Ball's hometown of Jamestown, New York.

As one might expect, her legacy contributes a good chunk to the local economy. 

I am most looking forward to seeing the new National Comedy Center, which was recently included on People magazine's list of "100 Reasons to Love America."

The Center celebrates comedy as an art form as well as comedians of all eras, fulfilling a dream that Ball was trying to make reality in her hometown at the time of her death in 1989.  

The remaining films to be shown at the Alabama Theatre are as follows: today: "The Sound of Music," 2 p.m.; Friday, July 12: "Airplane!," 7 p.m.; Sunday, July 14: "The Wizard of Oz," 2 p.m.; Friday, July 19: "Jaws," 7 p.m.; Sunday, July 21: "To Kill a Mockingbird," 2 p.m.; Friday, July 26: "Steel Magnolias," 7 p.m.; Sunday, July 28: "A Star Is Born" (1954), 2 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 2: "Easy Rider," 7 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 4: "My Fair Lady," 2 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 9: "The Goonies," 7 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 11: "Gone with the Wind," 2 p.m.

Tickets are $9. More details on the theater can be found at alabamatheatre.com.