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Memories of Birmingham’s Historic Neighborhood Theaters

Although Downtown Birmingham was filled with motion picture houses including the Lyric (1914), Empire (1926), Ritz (1926), Melba (1946), Galax (1945), Temple (1922), Strand – previously the Newmar Capitol, Royal and Alabama (1927) my fondest memories are of our neighborhood or "second run" theaters.

Our local neighborhood theaters included the Homewood, Avon, Five Points, College, North Birmingham, Woodlawn, East Lake, Wylam, Fairfield, Center Point, Franklin (Ensley), Grand and State (Bessemer). Drive-in theaters abounded including the Starlite (now K-Mart site), Shades Mountain (now U-Haul site), Fair Park, Auto Movies No. 1 and so on.

People who lived in Forest Park would go to the Avon and that building still exists and at one time housed the Bombay restaurant. If you lived on Southside you had the Five Points, now a restaurant. If you lived in Mountain Brook, Homewood or Vestavia you probably went to the Homewood and that’s where I went.

The location of the Homewood Theater is confusing. A well known photograph shows a dark brick structure about the design and color of the Avon, which stood on the main street, 18th, in downtown Homewood. This building appears to have been demolished because nothing like it seems to exist today. Later an art deco building was erected and it now houses the Homewood Toy and Hobby Shop at 2830 18th Street South.

Just about everybody went to the Homewood and you might find an eighty year old sitting next to an eight year old. It wasn’t fancy but it was comfortable. It was safe, easy to get to and friendly. Tinker was a pretty girl who was in the ticket booth and Vincent was the usher.

Homewood Theatre

Original Homewood Theatre

For kids under 12 the price of admission was a dime! Maybe a dollar in today’s money and that was cheap. Your parents gave you a quarter: 10¢ to get in, 5¢ for popcorn, 5¢ for a Coke and the remaining 5¢ to call on the lobby payphone to say you were ready to be picked up to go home.

Most of Birmingham’s neighborhood theaters and the Shades Mountain and Starlite drive-ins were owned by Birmingham business tycoon Newman Waters. Newman Waters has always fascinated me as he seemed to be a genuine genius. He built Eastwood Mall, the finest mall in the Southeast at the time. He and Ervin Jackson, with help from Philip Jackson, Jr. built Mountain Brook Office Park which was the first office park in America. Waters lived in the T. S. Swann mansion on Redmont Road, the finest house in the state.

The movie, or movies in the case of a double feature, changed about every two days except Saturday.

The 1:00 Saturday matinee was a real big deal if you were a kid and adult’s generally stayed away. What took place on Saturday afternoons at the Homewood Theater was not to be missed and not forgotten even now.

On Saturdays, starting at 1:00 p.m., you got several hours of entertainment. Seating was not up to today’s standards but we didn’t know that. Throughout the Homewood were sprinkled "love seats" which were meant for a boy and his date to sit close together i.e. one seat held two people. When things filled up two guys might have to sit together in a love seat which was not cool and as soon as two regular separate seats became empty you moved. You moved ...Quickly.

At the Saturday matinee you saw a variety of presentations beginning with the "Previews of Coming Attractions" which we still experience in today’s theaters. Then cartoons, usually Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. After that came the latest news in pictures, as there was no television and "Life", "Look", etc. only came out once a week. The latest news with lots of moving pictures was produced by "Movietone News" (1928–1963), "March of Time" (1935–1951) and "Pathe News" (1910–1956).

After the news came a multi-episode cliff hanger serial including "Buck Rogers", "Jungle Jim", "The Lone Ranger", "Red Ryder" (every boy had a Daisy Red Ryder Carbine BB gun), "Green Hornet", "The Phantom", "Terry and the Pirates" and my personal favorite "Rocket Man". The most popular talkie serial was "Flash Gordon" featuring "Buster" Crabbe who broke a world record in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics previously held by Johnny Weismuller who went on to play Tarzan. Charles Middleton played Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Homewood Theatre 18th St.

Homewood Theatre at 18th Street South

After that was sometimes shown a "short" and I will never forget seeing shorts spotlighting Lionel Hampton and later Gene Krupa. Sometimes the short was a travelogue.

Next came a double feature which was often one or even two Westerns featuring Hop-a-Long Cassidy/William Boyd (1895–1972), Gene Autry (1907–1998) or my favorite, Roy Rogers (1911–1998). All the fans knew their horse’s names: "Topper", "Champion" and "Trigger". My favorites were always the war movies however.

Besides what was on the screen you saw several hundred other kids from the various Shades Valley area grammar schools. Occasionally an especially pretty girl was spotted who could not be identified and turned out to be from a Catholic school. Also we found out that the Catholics had a list of "forbidden movies" that they could not see and therefore those were on top of our list to attend. Of course there were always a few "smoochers" on the very back row and if the movie was dull one might turn around and watch the live show.

The Homewood originally had a "colored entrance" leading up some stairs to the colored balcony. This was discontinued later.

"Around the World in 80 Days", a huge blockbuster of a movie, had it’s Birmingham premiere at the Homewood, not the "Alabama", "Melba" or "Empire", and that is a long story.

Movies were biggest in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. By 1930 65% of Americans attended at least one movie a week. By 1940 60,000,000 Americans attended the movies each week.

One thing clearly remembered about going to the movies was that, except at the Saturday matinee, you did not necessarily go at the beginning of the feature. The feature might have started at 7:00 but you came in at say 7:30. That was not a problem as you simply asked whoever you sat next to "what’s happening?" Strangers were very friendly about helping you catch up on the story line. Once you had seen it through you would say "this is where we came in" and leave.

Besides seeing what was on the screen the big attraction at the Homewood was the concession stand. Popcorn, cooked in fattening coconut oil, was 5¢. Cokes, of only one variety and full of sugar, were 5¢. My favorite candies were Bit-o-Honey, Gold Brick and Sugar Daddy. The Homewood Theater’s Coke machine was a mechanical marvel ...when it worked. After inserting your nickel the device was supposed to first drop a paper cup, then drop ice into the cup and then pour in Coca-Cola. But it didn’t always work that way and would often dump the Coke first, then the ice and finally the cup which tickled a ten year old no end! Also in the concession stand was a large heated, lighted and expensive looking nut machine. I never saw anybody, not one person, buy any nuts! Isn’t it interesting that in the 40’s and 50’s the whole population ate everything that has now been declared horrible but most people were skinny. Today we eat local this and diet that and Alabama is the second fattest state in America.

Were movies better in the 1940’s and 1950’s? Definitely. 1939 is generally thought to be the best year Hollywood ever had with "Gone with the Wind", "Wizard of Oz", "Stagecoach", "Goodbye Mr. Chips", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Wuthering Heights", competing for the Best Picture Oscar. As I write this tonight, February 27th, there are the 83rd Academy Awards. In the running are "127 Hours", "Black Swan", "The Fighter", "Inception", and "The King’s Speech". Have you seen them all? Have you seen any? Will they be playing on television seventy years from now like all of the Best Picture Nominees of 1939 still are?

Will a Newman Waters type come along in the future and plant neighborhood theaters again all over Jefferson County? Could they compete with our Netflix, computers and high definition televisions of today? Last night we went to the movie at the beautiful Carmike neighborhood theater on Lorna Road in Hoover. They show "second run" movies like Waters did and the price of admission was $1, about what Waters charged adjusted for inflation. It was jam packed! In Montgomery the Capri, once the Clover, is a neighborhood movie house still operating successfully. While not a neighborhood theater we went to see "Casablanca" at the Alabama Theatre recently and there were 1,500 or more people there that night!

Thank you Newman Waters for Jefferson County’s historic neighborhood theaters. How we miss them! You made history and we helped you make it. May we never forget.


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