Saturday, December 14, 2013

“But a walking shadow”—Birmingham, Alabama

N.B. This article replaces the 4 October 2010 article about the Alabama Theatre.
 
Sign for the Alabama Theatre,
Photo by Patricia Highsmith, 2010.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then in heard no more.
--Williams Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

The theatre world is full of superstition and spirits. In nearly every theatre I have worked, there are stories of ghosts. The theatre world is filled with mystery and mysticism, especially when it comes to actors. There is a ritual in preparing a character for his hour of strutting and fretting upon the stage before they are banished back to the world of fiction. Perhaps that may be a clue to why theatres are haunted.

While many haunted places may be locations of tragedy and death, that’s not always the case with theatres. As most theatre people are passionate about their profession, it’s not unheard of to imagine that they remain to rekindle that passion. In his Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans, Jeff Dwyer contends that one can be almost certain that a theatre will be haunted.

There are few certainties in ghost hunting. But when it comes to haunted places, ships and theaters offer ghost hunters the greatest opportunities for encounters with the spirit world. Theaters often harbor the ghosts of actors, writers, musicians and directors because something about their creative natures ties them to the place where they experienced their greatest successes or failures. Stagehands and other production staff may haunt backstage areas where they worked and, perhaps suffered a fatal accident. They may also be tied to room where props are stored. The ghosts of patrons remain long after death because they love the theater or, more likely, they loved an actor who performed regularly at that location.

Lyric Theatre, 2006 by Andre Natta.
Courtesy of Flickr.
I can agree with some of this. Yes, the creative natures of thespians, writers, musicians, directors and other members of the creative staff may cause them to linger in the places where they happily created their art. As for stagehands and other members of the production staff, with the higher rate of accidents for such people, there are cases where their deaths have left them in limbo within the theatre. The haunting of the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia comes to mind. One of the spirits in this 1913 theatre may be that of a careless stagehand who became entangled in the hemp rope-operated fly system (a system that is still in use) and accidentally hung himself.

Within a modern theatre, I do have an issue with Dwyer’s contention that spirits may be connected to props rooms. Most modern theatres serve mostly as general performing arts spaces and unless they have a theatre company attached, they are not likely to have props storage. In my research, I cannot recall any stories of haunted props storage spaces.
 
The Alabama Theatre's Spanish Lounge.
Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings
Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library
of Congress.
As for lingering spirits of theatre patrons, there are a few love stories involving patrons and performers, though it does seems that most of the hauntings by members of the audience are apparently residual in nature with phantom laughter and applause sometimes being heard.

Contributing to theatres’ haunted natures, I would add the fact that theatres are often created in old buildings. These repurposed buildings may already be haunted and the spirits adapt to the new use of the location. Among the numerous examples of these types of theatres are the Baltimore Theatre Project in Maryland in an old building originally constructed for a men’s fraternal organization and the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, Florida, formerly a post office and courthouse.

Regardless, some of these assertions can be seen in play with two haunted theatres in Birmingham, Alabama. Theatres that happen to be located directly across the street from each other, though they have wildly differing histories: the Lyric and the Alabama Theatres, located on 3rd Avenue, North.
 
Balconies of the Lyric Theatre. Photo
by Andre Natta, 2006, courtesy of
Flickr.
Standing in the shadow of the Alabama Theatre, its well-restored, gaudier and haunted sister across the street, the Lyric (1800 3rd Avenue) is finally coming into her own after many years of neglect. The Lyric opened in 1914 at the height of American vaudeville. Upon its now dusty boards passed many of the top headliners of B.F. Keith’s vaudeville circuit: the curvaceous and naughty humor of Mae West; the last Red Hot Mama, Sophie Tucker; the Marx Brothers with their goofily brilliant brand of comedy; Buster Keaton and his family of acrobats; and legions of hoofers, singers, comedians and other weird and wonderful vaudevillians.

With the opening of the nearby Ritz Theatre in 1926, big time vaudeville departed the Lyric leaving its stage to second and third tier performers. Films were shown, but even these were overshadowed by the Alabama Theatre. The theatre limped on until 1958 when its doors were shut. In the 1970s under the flashy name, the Roxy, the grand lady became an adult theatre. Legend holds that the last film shown was the infamous “Deep Throat,” after which the projectionist was arrested. The theatre closed its doors to sit quietly and crumble for a few decades.

Efforts to revive the Lyric have reached a fever pitch and activity now hums in its once forlorn halls. Soon, it’s expected that the Lyric will stand proudly across the street from the Alabama Theatre again. And the ghosts of vaudeville will have found a new life.

There’s no question why the vaudeville performers of old would want to continue gracing the stage of the Lyric. It may be one of the best preserved vaudeville houses in the nation and it is also known for its superb acoustics. Those same acoustics and its remarkably well-preserved interior are the very reasons that local arts groups are clamoring to see the theatre restored for live performance.

On recent investigations of the Lyric, paranormal investigators have witnessed much activity that can possibly be traced to the ghosts of vaudeville. A reporter observing an investigation in 2012 saw what she believed to be a man with a cane move across the empty theatre’s stage. The figure stood in the wings for a few moments before disappearing. Another group of investigators smelled the distinct odors of lit matches and cigar smoke.

The crown jewel of Birmingham, the Alabama Theatre (1817 3rd Avenue), was opened as the southeastern flagship theater for the Paramount-Publix chain in 1927. This most exuberant of theatrical monuments was named the Historic State Theatre of Alabama in 1993 and continues to serve the citizens of Birmingham and the region.
 
Interior of the Alabama Theatre before
restoration. Photo taken for HABS, courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
Designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Graven and Mayger, the Alabama Theatre is one of only two extant theatres they designed, the other being Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre which opened a year after its Alabama counterpart. The first air-conditioned building in the state of Alabama, the theatre features an opulent interior in the Spanish Colonial style that has wowed patrons for almost 90 years. A booming Wurlitzer organ still graces the auditorium and is featured in concerts and sing-alongs.

The theater served as a movie house until the owners declared bankruptcy in 1981. The theater had been sitting empty when Birmingham Landmarks, Inc. purchased the theater as a performing arts center. The theater edifice was fully restored in 1998 and hosts a wide array of events throughout the year.

Since reopening as a performing arts center, the Alabama Theatre has had varied reports of ghostly activity. One legend remembers a construction worker falling to his death during construction who allegedly haunts the balcony. A theatre staff member in the balcony checking sightlines did watch as a seat near her lowered by itself—the seats are spring-loaded to pop back up. Perhaps the construction worker enjoys watching the activity onstage?
 
HABS photo of the
Alabama Theatre's exterior.
Courtesy of the Library of
Congress.
Southern Paranormal Researchers were granted permission to investigate the theatre in 2006. They encountered a variety of activity. As one investigator ascended the stairs to the balcony, they encountered a force that pushed them down. While investigating the film room shortly after that two investigators heard something descending a staircase.

According to Dr. Alan Brown, the now retired, long time theatre organist Cecil Whitmire told of many encounters in the building. While rehearsing with a singer in 1986, Mr. Whitmire reported that the singer watched a shadowy figure emerge from behind the edge of the curtain just offstage and disappear. He believes the spirit may be that of one of the former theatre organists. The extravagant theatre and its “walking shadows” still surprise and delight theatre patrons and visitors today.

Sources
Alabama Theatre. Bhamwiki. Accessed 8 March 2013.
Brown, Alan. Haunted Birmingham. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University Press of
     Mississippi, 2004.
Dobrinski, Rebecca. “Wandering the Lyric at midnight.” Weld for Birmingham. 17
     September 2012.
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2007.
“Haunted Places: the Lyric Theatre in Alabama.” The Most Haunted Places in 
      America Blog. 21 April 2011.
The Heritage of Jefferson County, Alabama. Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing,
     2002.
Huebner, Michael. “Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre: Heightened anticipation for long-
     awaited restoration.” The Birmingham News. 29 Spetember 2012.
Seale, Kathy. “Happy Haunting!” Birmingham News. 29 October 2006.
Southern Paranormal Researchers. Investigation Report for Alabama Theatre. 24
     November 2006.
Underwood, Madison. “Lyric Theatre set to host its ‘first concert in the 21st
     century.’" AL.com. 26 September 2012.

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