I think I saw my first big-screen movie at the Princess Theatre in the late 1960s. Back then, my grandmother lived in Decatur, Alabama, and she took us to a “picture show” during one of our visits. Locals tell me that if I saw a major release in Decatur in those days, it likely would’ve been at the Princess.
Now enjoying a comeback, this downtown, hometown favorite is getting ready for a Princess Theatre Christmas, but to fully appreciate it as a performance venue, you need a little backstory.
The Princess is a wonderful throwback to a time when people put on their “good clothes” to come downtown, and going to the movies was an event, with the theater itself being part of the show. This one began life as a livery stable in 1887, was reimagined as a silent movie house and Vaudeville theater in 1919, and completed an Art Deco makeover just as America was about to enter World War II. Over the years, it would evolve to showcase “talkies” and more live performances.
“Everybody used to come into town on Saturdays,” remembers David Armistead, president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Pecan Company on Decatur’s Bank Street. (If you stop by for Praline Crunch Pecans and Bushytail Coffee, ask about the Prohibition-era tunnel in the basement.) Armistead, who grew up in Decatur, recalls the row of bicycles that would be parked in front of the Princess on a Saturday afternoon—the place for kids to socialize. The theater has a scattering of seats made for two—reportedly the scene of many a first kiss for teenage sweethearts in Decatur.
Also preserved are far more difficult memories, of a separate entrance and balcony seating for African American patrons in the days of segregation. Long-since closed, the entrance is nevertheless preserved—part of the theater’s commitment to truth-telling about its history.
And even though the whole of Decatur doesn’t gather downtown on Saturdays anymore, the Princess remains a community magnet. It mattered enough to locals for the city to rally behind it when hard times closed its doors in 1978. The City of Decatur bought and renovated the Princess, reopening it in the early 1980s, when it was named to The Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage.
Today the 677-seat music and performing arts venue is also a center for arts education programs. Upcoming headliners include Bruce Hornsby, Kathy Mattea, and the Secret Sisters. (Aside: If you still haven’t heard the Secret Sisters’ You Don’t Own Me Anymore album from 2017, go buy it right now and let us know how many times you listen to “Tennessee River Runs Low” before you move on to another song.)
The Redstone Federal Credit Union Loft at the Princess hosts a Singer Songwriter Listening Room Series developed by executive director Mary McDonald, a music lover who couldn’t find a place in Decatur to just relax and enjoy live music in a cozy setting with a coffee-house-meets-wine-bar vibe. So she found a way to create one.
The theater has all kinds of artistic partnerships with groups like the Bank Street Players and Decatur Youth Symphony. During the holidays, you can see everything from live performances of Humbug! A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker to film classics like A Christmas Story and the original Miracle on 34th Street.
If you buy a ticket for one of those events, you’ll see that the Princess isn’t a glitz-and-glam, period-perfect restoration. It’s a little rough around the edges, a work in progress. But that’s what makes it interesting and real. McDonald says that if she’s lucky enough to receive a major financial donation for the Princess, she’d rather spend the money on programming to serve the community than, say, gilded light fixtures. On a tour of the main stage, she points to an antiquated chain-and-pulley system for the stage curtain. “That’s not automated,” she says with a smile. “Sometimes I have to climb a ladder.”
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