The Crimson White

Bama Theatre

Sam West

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The projection room of the Bama Theatre is dominated by a massive object — a great metallic spool, the theatre’s 35 mm projector. The hulking, still-functional piece of technology is a holdover from the Bama’s past. It is now rarely used. Most of the time, the theatre uses two synchronized digital projectors and a touch screen computer interface to show its films. Movies are now streamed through a satellite uplink rather than run through a mechanical behemoth.

In many ways the venue’s projection booth embodies the contradictions that make the theatre a Tuscaloosa icon. Situated in the heart of the downtown area, the Bama Theatre is a movie palace built in the 1930s that now showcases the best in contemporary cinema through its Bama Art House film series. The venue blends old school charm and a modern sensibility, and that’s what makes it such a vital part of our town’s culture.

The Bama Art House series runs in the spring, summer and fall, and shows recently released independent movies, foreign films and documentaries in one-night-only events. In the past, the Bama has shown features like Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” alongside more challenging art films such as Shane Carruth’s “Primer” or pictures from overseas, like “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” a documentary about a Chinese artist.

The model of showing a film for only one night a week evolved as a way to maximize the audience for more obscure movies. This idea was conceived by filmmaker and current UA faculty member Andy Grace.

“If you can create the kind of buzz among the people who are interested in those kind of movies, and get them to sort of put it on their calendars… then you’re more likely to generate an audience and get them kind of loyal to your programming,” Grace said.

Showing films from famous auteurs alongside those from lesser-known directors also helps introduce the Bama’s loyal audience to new films.

“When you have an independent-type movie that people come see, it has a residual effect of them coming back to see something that they might not have,” said David Allgood, manager of the venue.

Originally constructed under President Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration, the Bama Theatre first opened for business in 1938. One of the biggest draws to the theatre was the fact that it was the only air conditioned building in town.

The theatre struggled during the 1970s, and was, at one point, almost purchased by a Bible college. The Arts and Humanities Council of Tuscaloosa County was formed specifically to save the theatre, and they still operate the venue today.

When it comes to cinema, the Bama Theatre has a specific role in the community: an alternative to the commercial multiplex. A widening divide in contemporary filmmaking exists between entertaining, big-budget blockbusters and smarter, more artistic, but less financially viable movies. The Bama Theatre is a place for the latter.

“Hollywood movies cost such an enormous amount of money, and then they are designed by committee to essentially appeal to a broad swath of audience worldwide now,” Grace said. “And that ends up meaning that the narratives and the stories they tell are, in a lot of ways, very narrow.”

For the Tuscaloosan who wants more out of a film than robots, dinosaurs, or robot dinosaurs, the Bama Art House series is essential.

“To me, theatres are vitally important for the community. They’re a place where people can meet one another, and see that they have shared interests, and feel like there is someone else who feels the way they do,” Grace said. “That’s part of what’s great about art, one of the things that’s so important about public support of art.”

The venue’s support of the arts extends beyond cinema. The Bama Theatre has also hosted live music since its inception. Several esteemed acts have played the theatre, including The Police, the Drive-By Truckers, and both indie singer-songwriter Ryan Adams and 80s rocker Bryan Adams. Today, several local theatre troupes and dance groups perform shows at the Bama.

Another, perhaps vital, service that the venue provides: It’s the only cinema in the Tuscaloosa area that serves alcoholic beverages, including a variety of craft beers.

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Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894
Bama Theatre