Birmingham Auditorium

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This article is about the 1890s civic auditorium. For the current municipal auditorium, see Boutwell Auditorium.
Bijou Theatre in 1903
Pantages Theatre in 1945. Photo by Oscar V. Hunt courtesy BPL Archives
Interior of Pantages Theatre

Birmingham Auditorium was a large performance hall located at the northwest corner of 17th Street and 3rd Avenue North. Completed in 1896 as a civic auditorium, the building was financed by selling subscriptions to the public. Wheelock & Wheelock designed the original building.

In 1898 the auditorium was sold to Jake Wells who operated it as the Bijou Theatre, presenting live Vaudeville shows every night with matinees on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and an 8-piece house orchestra. It was one of the finer Vaudeville houses in the city, and George M. Cohan played there in 1903. In 1912 the Bijou was listed as part of the Wells Circuit, booked by Stair & Havlin of New York City and managed by Martin Seamon, who also managed the Orpheum. The seating capacity was noted as 651 on the lower floor, 750 in the balcony, 500 in the gallery, and 80 in boxes. The stage was 65 feet wide by 35 feet deep with 3 feet between the curtain and footlights and a 39'x30' proscenium. The rigging loft was 50 feet tall with the fly gallery at 25 feet. 16 feet of space was available below the stage level, and 14 dressing rooms were provided. The theater also had the services of its own seven-piece orchestra.

After its closure in 1915 the shuttered auditorium was reopened to host sessions of the 1916 Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans.

In 1917 the theater reopened as Loew's Bijou Theatre or Loew's Vaudeville, exhibiting acts on Loew's Vaudeville circuit, including circus and animal acts and an annual "midget show".

Loew's moved its acts to the rival Temple Theatre in 1925 and the former Bijou was completely renovated, becoming the Pantages Theater on the national circuit founded by Alexander Pantages. The remodeled auditorium was designed by David O. Whilldin. It was equipped to pair live stage shows with motion picture screenings. As such it survived as one of the last Vaudeville stages in Birmingham.

The theater continued into the mid-1940s, although the blacking-out of the final "s" in the marquee sign and its omission in advertisements may indicate that it was no longer operated by RKO, which had taken over the Pantages chain in the mid 1930s.

Paramount took over control of the cinema and operated it though its Wilby-Kincy subsidiary until 1946, after which it was operated independently as the Birmingham Theater, billed as "The largest and finest colored theatre in the entire South" with "1st run pictures and stage shows exclusively for colored people". The business was unsuccessful, and the building was purchased by Joe Goldstein's Panta Corporation in 1950 to be demolished for parking.


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