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Passings: Cecil Whitmire – Led restoration of Alabama Theatre

Cecil Whitmire, who led transformation of the Alabama Theatre, dies at 74

Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010, 1:05 PM    
Updated: Monday, August 23, 2010, 11:44 AM

Cecil Whitmire, who led the transformation of downtown’s Alabama Theatre from a struggling movie palace into a successful performing arts center, died Sunday after a brief illness. He was 74.

Mr. Whitmire, a fixture at the front door of the theater known as the Showplace of the South when audiences would arrive, died in Corryton, Tenn., at the home of his sister, said Jeannie Hanks, longtime house manager at the Alabama.

“He was clearly the true believer in the potential of downtown,” said Michael Calvert, president of Operation New Birmingham. “He proved that if you give people a reason to come downtown, they will.”

Mr. Whitmire began a three-decade love affair with the Alabama in 1976, when he moved to Birmingham from Knoxville to manage a hardware company. The Alabama was still a movie theater, and Mr. Whitmire would play the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ before shows, entertaining audiences with classic tunes, nearly always including “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

In 1986, Mr. Whitmire led a grassroots effort to save the Alabama from bankruptcy and became president of Birmingham Landmarks Inc., which bought the Alabama, renovated it and turned it into a major performing arts venue for movies, concerts, theater, dance and private events.

Birmingham Landmarks also has been raising money to renovate the Lyric Theatre, which is across the street from the Alabama on Third Avenue North.

“He was a legend in the historic theater circles,” said George Culver, who now runs Birmingham Children’s Theatre but once oversaw the historic Ritz Theatre in Talladega. He and Mr. Whitmire both were on the board of the League of Historic American Theatres.

“He was much beloved,” Culver said. “He was such a kind, gentle man, and everyone knows how he almost single-handedly spearheaded saving one of the grand movie palaces in America.”

In 2002, Mr. Whitmire published “The Alabama Theatre: Showplace of the South,” a coffee-table book with photos and history of the theater. Whitmire dedicated the book to his late wife, Linda, a longtime volunteer at the theater who died in 2001.

“We had no children, and a lot of people said the theater was our child,” Mr. Whitmire said at the time.

It was a rare night at the Alabama when Mr. Whitmire wasn’t standing outside the box office on the Alabama Walk of Fame — a sidewalk of stars dedicated to Alabama luminaries — that he helped create.

“Other than Linda, it was the love of his life,” Hanks said of the theater.

Louise Beard, whose Time Step Dance Studio held its annual recital at the Alabama for more than two decades, said it was clear how much Mr. Whitmire loved his job.

“The people who worked for him and volunteered also loved that theater, but it started with Cecil,” she said. “He was always there, always involved.”

Services have not been set, but there will be a memorial service at the Alabama, Hanks said.

In addition to his sister, Lynda Wright, Mr. Whitmire is survived by his mother, Margarette, who also lives in Corryton.

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  1. HowardBHaas

    I met him when in preparation for 2003 LHAT visit to Philadelphia, he scouted the city. He walked around the exterior of the Boyd Theatre, telephoned me, and we met. He was a nice gentlman and I recall a great booster of his theater. R.I.P.

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