Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Stewart and Paula Moore outside of the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts during a tribute to the Delmore Brothers. The Delmore Brothers were Paula’s great uncles. The Moores now live in Anniston and traveled to Decatur for the tribute.
Fond memories surround the vintage theater, but in the late 1970s it was struggling. Read on for a look at 25 years to see how the community came together to breathe life into a performing arts center.
By Danielle Komis Palmer
In 1978, downtown Decatur was dead.
Historic buildings were being razed. Holes gaped in the landscape of the once-bustling area that lost its life to new shops on Beltline Road and Sixth Avenue. Across the country, downtowns had become passé, and Decatur’s was no different.
The future of the downtown Princess Theatre — a place where Decaturites had gathered since 1919 for vaudeville shows, comedy acts, beauty pageants and movies — hung by a thread.
The city had the chance to save the theater’s deteriorating shell that once buzzed with life until its doors on Second Avenue closed in June 1978.
The 8ers from Decatur spin and swirl as they square dance during a tribute to the Delmore Brothers at the Princess. Performances like this may not have been possible had the city decided not to renovate the theater into a performing arts center.
But would they?
Someone mentioned the idea of renovating the old Princess Theatre to then-Mayor Bill Dukes.
“The city ought to do something about it,” the person said casually.
It got Dukes thinking.
At that time, audiences had to crowd into local high school auditoriums to watch plays or musicals. Decatur missed out on concerts and other performances because no venue existed for them — they all went to Huntsville.
Dukes and other city leaders liked the idea of transforming the Princess into a performing arts center, especially one that might draw people back to downtown.
Plus, the old theater held many fond memories for a lot of people and might draw an outcry if torn down. From its start in 1887 as a livery stable for the Casa Grande Hotel until it closed its doors as a movie theater in 1978, everyone in town had been to the spot at one time or another.
‘Meeting the girlfriends’
“The original Decatur population was all for preserving the theater,” Dukes said. “It meant a lot to them and brought back memories of all the Saturday features and meeting the girlfriends there, and I would hear all these little stories.”
Margaret and Hoyt Dunn of Decatur remember meeting at the Princess and holding hands during the films when it was a popular movie theater.
Hoyt also remembers parking his bike in front of the theater and paying 15 cents admission. And for the Saturday matinees, the deal was even better — he and other children paid their way with six RC Cola bottle caps.
When the city bought the building in the late 1970s, the Dunns said they had hoped it would be restored to the grand movie theater they remembered so well. But the performing arts center, they realized, would help serve a new, younger crowd.
“We need that sort of thing here,” Margaret said.
Saved by 1 vote
The city soon had the opportunity to buy the building for $100,000. While Dukes considered it a great investment, not everyone on the City Council initially agreed.
One such council member was Max Patterson. Rather than renovate the 700-person capacity theater, he wanted the city to build a civic center that could accommodate more people.
He and three other council members out of five initially voted against the project, but after further discussion, Patterson changed his mind. It was his swing vote that saved the Princess.
A full house watches a recent tribute to the Delmore Brothers at Princess Theatre. In 1983, the theater reopened after a $300,000-plus renovation with a bluegrass concert, the first live entertainment on its stage in decades.
A few years, a federal grant and some private funds later, the theater underwent its first renovation and began to fulfill its new mission as a performing arts center and rental facility for the city.
It reopened in September 1983 with a coronation party thrown by Business and Friends of the Arts, one of the support organizations of the $300,000-plus renovation of the theater. The first performance in the theater was a bluegrass concert, the first live entertainment on the Princess’ stage in decades.
Jimmy Smith of Decatur, who was on the original Princess board, said renovating the theater “was just the right thing to do at the right time.”
“Decatur was growing and we didn’t have one (a performing arts center), and it was an ideal place. You had to be proud because it went from a stripped-down building and the finished product was beautiful.”
Evolution of the center
Lindy Ashwander, executive director of the Princess, took on her position in 1987. Much has changed since those early days, she said.
“I was the only staff person then,” she said. Today, the theater personnel includes five full-time employees. “Now, we’ve steadily grown and keep reinventing and growing with our programming.”
When Ashwander started at the theater, big band music and Broadway shows were popular in its lineup. Today, music has become more of a staple of the theater’s seasons. The Princess’ intimate setting offers a welcome alternative to large arena concerts, Ashwander said.
While the theater once featured only three professional shows each year, 10 professional touring shows are now featured annually. This year’s 25th anniversary lineup includes a variety of entertainment including bluegrass band “The Grascals,” acrobatic group “New Shanghai Circus,” and “Beehive: The ’60s Musical.”
“We’re finding our niche as a unique venue in North Alabama,” Ashwander said, who added that their audience comes not only from Decatur but from the entire region.
In 1999-2000, the Princess underwent another renovation — an 18-month, $6 million one. The changes updated the theater’s small, outdated stage and loading dock and incorporated the neighboring 12,000-square-foot Albany Annex into functional space for the theater.
Annie Calatrello readies her fiddle to play with her family band in a musical tribute to the Delmore Brothers at the Princess Theatre. Decatur bought the building in the late 1970s and renovated it to become a performing arts center, which would help serve a new, younger crowd.
While some goals of the facelift weren’t met because funds ran short, the Princess staff, board and the city continue to secure grants and raise private funds to finish the renovations.
“Whatever we did with phase 1 has paid off, but we can’t wait to do more,” Ashwander said.
Because of recent grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the theater will soon feature additional restrooms and a serving pantry in the annex.
With today’s Princess such a vital part of the community, Dukes concedes it seems strange there was ever a question of whether to save it.
“It’s such a part of our culture now,” he said. “It’s much greater than we probably even thought it would be at that time. I like to just drive down Second Avenue and see those neon lights.
“It’s a success story of the community coming together and wanting something.”
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