If you pass by the Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham and see an open space where the marquee used to be, don’t fret.
Organizers say a new and improved marquee is on the way, featuring LED lighting and large digital displays. If all goes according to plan, the new marquee will be up and glowing in about four months, in time for the start of the Alabama’s summer film series on June 26.
Fravert Services, a local company that specializes in architectural signage, is working on the new marquee at the theater, 1817 Third Ave. North. Fravert refurbished the iconic “blade” sign on the Alabama’s Third Avenue North side in 2019.
Replacing the marquee is part of a long-term plan to restore the exterior of the historic theater, which was built in 1927. The theater is owned by Birmingham Landmarks, a nonprofit organization that also owns the nearby Lyric Theatre.
“When Fravert installs the new marquee, we will celebrate the conclusion of a three-phase plan for the total restoration of the Alabama Theatre signage,” Brant Beene, executive director of Birmingham Landmarks, said in a press release. “Phase one was the replacement of the 18th Street vertical sign. Phase two was the refurbishment of the Third Avenue sign. Phase three will be the replacement of the marquee, returning the ornate design of 1927 and improving on the original with digital display and other 21st century technologies.”
The current marquee at the Alabama Theatre has been in place for about 60 years, organizers said. It’s the third incarnation of the marquee, which originally was erected in 1927.
“Topped by swooping curlicues, the illuminated display had backlit white letters on a black background, with an appearance like letters on a chalkboard,” the Alabama’s press release says. “By the 1930s, the marquee was updated for the use of metal letters on a background of white milk glass, backlit by incandescent bulbs. In 1960, theater management installed a ‘modern marquee,’ replacing the screw-in light bulbs with bright fluorescent tube lighting.”
The new marquee, although technologically advanced, will be based on the ornate 1927 model. The plan calls for 1,126 lightbulbs: 576 on the front and 276 on each of the side faces.
The Alabama’s marquee might seem more utilitarian than its iconic vertical signs, but this feature of the theater has its own history and significance.
“The east and west faces of the marquee were each topped with a circular medallion that said, ‘Publix Theatre,’ advertising the corporation that operated the venue,” the press release says. “Publix was the cinema division of Paramount Studios; the Alabama opened in 1927 as a ‘Paramount-Publix movie palace.’ When the corporation was broken up by antitrust litigation, the medallions were changed to read, ‘The Showplace of the South.’ Later, they said, ‘It’s Cool Inside!’ This was truth in advertising — the Alabama was the first effectively air-conditioned theatre in the state. The marquee was not illuminated during World War II, but was re-lamped and put back into service after the war.
“The original marquee had only three rows for type — the display area was so small that theatre management hung banners below the marquee to help advertise shows. The next model had additional rows and could accommodate 3D plastic letters as well as metal letters dating back to the early days. The new marquee will have large digital display areas on either end and fixed lettering on the front face.”
For almost a century, the Alabama’s marquee has trumpeted the arrival of movies, concerts, dance recitals, special events and more. In October 2014, it even welcomed visitors to an interfaith discussion with the Dalai Lama.