23 August 2010

Memories of Cecil Whitmire

Cecil Whitmire, head of the group that saved and has since run the historic Alabama Theatre movie palace in Birmingham, died yesterday, from cancer. The group is now called Birmingham Landmarks. If you don't know Cecil, you can read the cold, hard facts at his Bhamwiki entry, which I also wrote (back in 2007). This entry, however, is to truly remember him.

I was a volunteer at the Alabama during the '80s, when it was "saved," so I saw Cecil and his wife Linda quite regularly. (Sadly, Linda was also lost to us due to cancer back in 2001.) They did not single-handedly (double-handedly?) save the Alabama, but they were at the head of the group that did. There's a parody of a saying, "behind every successful man is an exhausted woman." That sometimes seemed the case with Cecil and Linda. Cecil was a salesman, both by profession and, I think , birth. His charisma, charm, and storytelling ability made him the natural focus for journalists. Linda, meanwhile, had the talent for organizing. Together, they were an unbeatable pair.

I know you're not traditionally supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I have to say Cecil was not without his critics. As I said, he was a storyteller, but also a salesman, and sometimes he wouldn't let little things like facts get in the way of his storytelling. I once heard someone complain how, as the years went on, he went from hearing about how wonderful Stanleigh Malotte was at the Alabama Theatre back in the day to actually being in the audience and hearing Stanleigh play. But you have to admit, it makes for a better story.

One of my favorite stories told by Cecil was from when he was trying to secure a print of Gone With the Wind for the Alabama's annual showing. They had been doing it for years, but it was the movie's 50th anniversary, so Turner Entertainment, which owned the rights to it, had pulled it from circulation. Cecil made several calls to the company, explaining how they were a nonprofit and that it was the backbone of their annual summer classic movie series. Finally, he received a call back and the voice at the other end said, "this is Ted Turner." Cecil, thinking someone was playing a joke on him, responded, "bullsh*t!" Unfortunately for him, it was Turner. And, a credit to Cecil's charm, he still managed to get the Alabama a print to show that year.

Part of Cecil's charm was a childlike mischievous streak. Cecil and Linda never had any children — why is none of my business — but there about half a dozen of us middle and high school aged kids, sons and daughters of the adult volunteers, who were regularly at the Alabama. Cecil not only put up with us, he was kind of like that cool uncle who'd let you do stuff your parents might not. For instance, I was recently reminded by one of these friends, Lisa, that Cecil let her and a friend drive his car in the Alabama's parking deck when they were locking it up for the night. I forget now if they even had permits yet.

Another friend, Amy, reminded me of the year we kids adopted Cecil as our honorary dad, since he didn't have any of his own. It was Father's Day and there was, like every summer weekend, a movie at the Alabama. After the movie, all the kids came out on stage to present Cecil with a cake my friend had prepared for him.

Back then, volunteering at the Alabama meant doing all sorts of odd jobs around the Alabama, for both kids and adults. My main job was running the spotlight during the pre-movie organ shows. Once Cecil was talking to the audience between songs about all the wonderful volunteers he had. The people selling tickets, the ushers, the gentleman running the light board, and so on. I couldn't, however, help but notice what I considered an important oversight on his part: me. So, with the encouragement of said gentleman at the light board — was it Dan or Larry? — I slowly faded the spotlight out. Cecil quickly figured why it had happened and started chuckling. Once he recovered , he said, "I'm sorry," and thanked me as well. I brought the spotlight back up to a round of applause. I guess Cecil wasn't the only one with a mischievous streak.

I also worked the spotlight for many shows and concerts that came through the Alabama. Sometimes they needed two spot operators and management couldn't find someone to accompany me. In these cases, Cecil would work the other spotlight himself. Although I could tell this was probably not his favorite activity, it needed to be done, so he did it without complaint.

Another thing Cecil and I often did together was change out the marquee on the front of the Alabama. At the time, this required climbing a somewhat rickety wooden trestle ladder of indeterminate age. We then hung large metal letters on the strips of the marquee. Cecil never failed to repeat the joke, whenever we were hanging a P, "as my mother-in-law always says, there's nothing like a good P."

In some ways, the Alabama Theatre volunteers were like a big family back then. We didn't just see each other at the Alabama. Cecil's birthday was Christmas Eve, so every year he and Linda had a bunch of us over at his house in Pelham to celebrate. The highlight of the evening was going out and watching Santa Claus ride by on a Pelham fire engine.

Another regular get-together was the New Year's Eve gathering of the Alabama Chapter of ATOS, of which almost all the Alabama Theatre volunteers belonged. We played a version of dirty Santa in which we played bingo to select a wrapped prize. Linda was always the number caller. A visiting organist once gave several of the members some truly, um, unique gifts. These wound up going into the prize stash each year. You were not allowed to unwrap gifts until the very end, yet somehow it seemed Cecil almost always wound up with one of gifts in this collection at the end.

No doubt the more I hear from friends, the more stories I will recall, but I must end this for now. During Birmingham Landmark's regular open house this summer, Cecil was notably absent. He was in the hospital. I made a special effort to take my family down for the open house so that I could also visit Cecil and now I'm glad I did. Despite his discomfort, he was still a storyteller.

Just weeks after my visit, I was told he had terminal cancer. He was moved up to his sister's home, which is where he passed away. Although he may be gone, the many people that knew him, not to mention those who simply were regular movie-goers at the Alabama, will not forget him. Please feel free to share you own stories of Cecil.


  1. He truly was a great man.

  2. Lee, what a wonderful, wonderful tribute. This is one to keep!

    It occurs to me that the only people who never do things with which others sometimes disagree are those who don't do anything important. That could never be said about Cecil.

    Larry Davis