Construction was in full swing in the years after the Great Depression as many projects were built using funds from the Works Progress Administration and many builders steered design and architecture in a modern direction. . Tuscaloosa received funds from the WPA, which resulted in one of its most unusual architectural treasures, the Bama Theater and the Town Hall building.
In the 1930s, before the appearance of multiplexes, movie palaces were popular sources of entertainment, providing a break from the stress of the times. These “palaces” had only one cinema screen and were much more decorative and ornate than modern theaters. They were also sometimes built by the city rather than by private owners – Tuscaloosa even had a theater manager on the city’s payroll.
In 1937, the city of Tuscaloosa proposed an unusual project – a combined theater and municipal building. Although it no longer houses the Town Hall, the Bama Theater building is still a hub of local entertainment. The building, which still bears a relief of an eagle and the words “City Hall”, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to Melissa Brown in a Alabama Encyclopedia article, the city’s local theaters director, Cecil B. Grimes, was responsible for the creation of a new cinema in 1937, although he was in charge of operating three existing theaters, the Diamond, the Ritz and the original Bama, which was renamed the Druid.
“Construction of the 1,200-seat cinema began in April 1937 as part of a town hall and municipal theater joint venture that would eventually include a city clerk’s office and three storefronts,” Brown wrote. . The theater would also serve as the city’s auditorium.
The design was the work of Birmingham architect David O. Whilldin, who created a modern facade in a style that had replaced the classical Greek and Gothic styles, according to Robert DeWitt in a story by the Tuscaloosa News.
âStripped of the ornamentation that adorned previous styles, Whilldin’s Modern Art design looked sleek and clean like an aero locomotive,â DeWitt wrote.
BamaTheater.org describes the facade: âThe exterior of the building conforms to this design line with its horizontal emphasis and simplified details. Whilldin used elements found in Roman architecture such as tondos, faux tapestries, the eagle carved above the entrance to the town hall, and the rounded facade above the entrance to Bama , but in a simple form. The rounded facade is in limestone and the panels between the windows are in granite, both superimposed on a brick veneer.
It was also the first building in the city to be temperature controlled. âThe new complex was the city’s first public building with a true air conditioning system,â the theater website said. “It regulates temperature and humidity and filters the air.”
The theater cost $ 200,000 to complete, including WPA and city funds.
The inauguration took place on April 12, 1938 and began with a parade led by the Million Dollar Band at the University of Alabama. The first film screened was “Bringing Up Baby”, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
The interior wowed the guests. BamaTheater.org said: “The interior, placed in a class of theaters labeled ‘atmospheric’, was designed by Whilldin as a Mediterranean palace during the Italian Renaissance.” The ceiling featured clouds with small lights to resemble the night sky.
The interior also featured “false balconies, terracotta tiles, cherub plaques and a small alabaster fountain”, BamaTheater.org noted. âA scenographer, Navino Nataloni, painted the celotex panels under the archesâ¦ The murals are painted to appear in three dimensions with objects in the background lighter and, therefore, more distant from the viewer.