Cecil Whitmire, the general manager of the Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, has died. He was 74 years old. Whitmire led efforts to restore the Alabama. Built in 1927 and known as ‘The Showplace of the South’, the Alabama fell victim to neglect and disrepair by the 1970s. Whitmire’s work at the Alabama was source of civic pride and passion for many in Birmingham. WBHM’s Bradley George has this remembrance.
This is the sound of the Alabama Theatre’s Wurlizter organ. It’s one of only a handful that’s still around and it’s how Cecil Whitmire’s love affair with the Alabama began. Whitmire had been playing organ most of his life and he worked as an organist at a theatre in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Whitmire moved to Birmingham in 1976, where he began a part-time job as an organist at the Alabama Theatre. Attorney Danny Evans says while the Alabama never closed, it was in bad shape back then.
‘There was a lot to be done. A lot of the plumbing had to be repaired. Many of the lights, even on the marquee, were not working. Hadn’t worked in years.’
By the mid 1980s, the Alabama’s owners filed for bankruptcy, and the future of the theater-and its Wurlitzer organ– was in doubt. So, Cecil Whitmire came to Danny Evans with an idea.
‘Over lunch one day we began talking about what could be done. And a plan was hatched to form a little non-profit called Birmingham Landmarks. Cecil set up a number of board members and off we go with this idea that hopefully the theatre could be saved.’
There was a lot of work to be done. Repairs and renovations to the theatre, a mortgage and back taxes to pay. But the Alabama had many things going for it. Namely, all the Birmingham residents who flocked to the theater for Saturday matinees, the Miss Alabama pageant, the Mickey Mouse Club, and so on. In an interview earlier this year, Cecil Whitmire said nostalgia for the Alabama’s glory days was a powerful fundraising tool.
‘Everyone in this city was concerned about their memory factory here, that this building might be torn down. They were just upset because of the Alabama. Everybody loved the Alabama. They kissed here for the first time, they held hands here, some of them got proposed here. But they all dated here and it was a place that had great emotion for the whole city.’
Whitmire turned that passion into an army of volunteers and paid staff who helped run the Alabama Theatre and paved the way for its full renovation in 1998. Whitmire’s title was ‘General Manager’, but he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, according to journalist Glenny Brock.
‘I’m certain Cecil probably cleaned the bathrooms at the Alabama. I mean, if there was a job to be done there he did it.’
Brock says Whitmire wanted everyone to appreciate the theatre as much as he did.
‘He always went to great lengths to make it new for whoever was there. I mean, I have no idea how many times that guy showed off the projection room or played on the organ or changes the marquee signs. Every time somebody new went to the Alabama he did a lot to make it really extraordinary and special for them.’
The Alabama Theatre now draws about half a million people to downtown Birmingham every year for everything from high school graduations to the Sidewalk Film Festival. In addition to his work at the Alabama, Cecil Whitmire was a fierce advocate for downtown. Birmingham Landmarks-the nonprofit that owns the Alabama, also owns the Lyric, an old vaudeville theatre across the street, that it hopes to restore. Whitmire was in the midst of fundraising for the Lyric when he found out he had cancer. He died in Tennessee on Sunday, at the age of 74. He was preceded in death by his wife, Linda. Once again, Danny Evans.
‘Cecil and his wife, Linda, didn’t have any children. And this, in many ways, became their child and their home.’