Birmingham Auditorium

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This article is about the 1890s civic auditorium. For the current municipal auditorium, see Boutwell Auditorium.
Pantages Theater in 1927. Photo by O. V. Hunt

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.

The "New Auditorium" hosted the Mardi-Gras ball at which the Birmingham Carnival Society crowned "Rex Vulcan III" on February 22, 1898.

Later that year 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 considered one of the finer Vaudeville houses in the city, and George M. Cohan played there in 1903 and 1905. The latter engagement, for the three-act play "45 Minutes From Broadway" was immediately preceded by a wrestling match pitting "Burns" and "Giant Dane". The theater also continued to be used for civic events, such as a concert by the First Artillery Band of Mexico, conducted by Captain Ricardo Pacheco to mark the opening of the Alabama State Fair on November 6, 1899.

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 Loew's pictures accompanied by touring acts on Loew's Vaudeville circuit, including circus and animal acts and an annual "midget show". For the week of February 22, 1921 the bill of fare included Herman & Ergotti ("Novel Versatilities"), Charlotte Worth ("Song Studies"), Grace & Eddie Parks ("Beauty, Ballads and Bunk"), Cy & Cy (in "How Peculiar"), Robinson's Baboons, and two pictures, "Slave of Vanity" with Pauline Frederick, and film of a recent Ku Klux Klan ceremonial at the Alabama State Fairgrounds where more than five hundred were inducted. For the week of May 22, 1924 the bill included concert violinist Jan Rubinia, "The Honeymooners", Frank "Peggy" Jones, and the Morton Brothers. The feature was a screening of "Beau Brummel" starring John Barrymore.

Loew's moved its acts to the rival Temple Theatre in 1925 and the J. F. Holley Construction Co. was contracted to completely renovate the former Bijou, which reopened as the Pantages Theater, part of 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.

The theater was sold for $160,000 in June 1944, and Paramount 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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