“The Strip: Tuscaloosa’s Most Colorful Quarter Mile” premieres this week at the Bama Theatre, and after six years of hard work, the film’s creators are over the moon.
In 1865, with Confederate troops having deserted the University of Alabama campus, the Union Army set the place ablaze. That was more than 150 years ago, but Taylor Watson feels like that’s about as long as he’s been in Tuscaloosa.
“The Yankees had just left when we got here,” Watson said.
When Watson, curator at the Paul W. Bryant Museum, says “we,” he’s referring to the team behind a documentary premiering at the Bama Theatre on Tuesday. His partners in filmmaking, Ben Ellis and Rick Dowling, agreed that Tuscaloosa has a habit of sucking people in.
“I tell people it’s like the mafia,” Dowling said. “You never escape once you move to Tuscaloosa.”
The three friends may not date back to the Civil War, but they’ve been in Tuscaloosa long enough to see its geography evolve, especially when it comes to the city’s most iconic thoroughfare.
“The Strip has been around a while,” Watson said. “It has changed in the sense of hundreds of stores, some that didn’t last longer than a year.”
The changing faces of The Strip, which has been a merry-go-round of shops, restaurants and bars since a 1976 shift in liquor laws allowed bars to open nearer to campus, inspired the trio’s foray into documentary filmmaking: “The Strip: Tuscaloosa’s Most Colorful Quarter Mile.”
“I was working on another project, and we [at the Bryant Museum] have a really good collection of newspapers, CW’s included, so I was looking at something else, and a story about The Strip caught my eye,” Watson said. “It just stuck with me.”
Watson and Dowling had worked together before, producing “Crimson Classics,” short documentaries about historic Crimson Tide football victories for WVUA.
Ellis, who handled audio for the production, was initially brought onto the project because of his knowledge of The Strip’s history. Ellis spent most of his childhood living in a house less than a block away from The Strip – a byproduct of his father taking a job as a psychology professor at The University of Alabama in the 1960s. But one living chronicle of The Strip history does not make a documentary.
Watson estimated that the team interviewed 45 people for what amounted to days of footage before being whittled down to a tidy, 90-minute feature film. Each of those 45 people seemed to rattle off 10 more perfect interviewees, Watson said.
“It’s people like that along the way that have helped us,” Ellis said. “We talked about how we were just the crew of three, but we’ve gotten a lot of support along the way.”
The team needed all of the support it could get, scouring UA archives for photos and ads from long-gone establishments that had been planted along The Strip. The documentary, which covers more than 50 years of The Strip’s cultural history, relied on contributed photos, interviews and hours upon hours of research.
Even then, it sometimes wasn’t quite enough. When it came to certain short-lived Strip residents, there was hardly any information to be found. The Reef, which sat on the corner of 12th Avenue and University Boulevard, was the last restaurant on that corner before The Booth moved in, according to multiple interviews the team conducted. But the filmmakers could never find any photographic evidence of it.
“We cannot prove that that place existed, other than the words of some of the subjects that we interviewed,” Dowling said.
The quickly shifting landscape of The Strip was a problem not only historically, but even as the trio looked into some of the street’s most recent tenants.
“In that five or six years [of working on the film], there have been several businesses that have gone out of business on The Strip,” Watson said. “In fact, one of them, they’ve completely remodeled.”
But the ever-changing scene on The Strip has become an integral part of its character. Emily-Kate Taylor, a senior majoring in exercise and sports science and a Tuscaloosa local, mostly associates The Strip with establishments that aren’t even there anymore—including one that she never stepped foot in herself.
“I probably associate Bama-Bino most with The Strip,” Taylor said. “Although I never had the chance to enjoy their pizza, it’s a place that my parents frequented while in college and is something that is brought up often in conversation when discussing campus with them. It’s brought up so much, I sometimes forget that I’ve never been there before.”
Whether the team behind the film is ready or not, their work will be on the big screen at the Bama Theatre on Tuesday, a part of Tuscaloosa Bicentennial programming that comes just ahead of the team’s self-imposed 2020 deadline for completing the documentary.
“We’ve been working on this for so long, and I think we all collectively said that we’ve got to do something,” Ellis said. “We’ve got to end this one way or the other.”
It was Ellis’s idea to sync their screening up with the end of the city’s bicentennial celebration, and that looming deadline was good to move things along, Dowling said. But the stones that the team has left unturned continue to haunt Watson.
“Right now I can name off ten people I want to interview,” Watson said. “But we can’t.”
One of those people is an unnamed man in Gadsden, Alabama, who has a replica of Gallette’s in the basement of his home, according to Ellis.
“I know this guy, and he’s a sane, works-every-day, has children type of person,” Watson said. “It’s amazing.”
As of two weeks ago, the trio was still putting the finishing touches on their group project, but they’re ready to show off a finished product – no spoilers.
“For everybody that goes to The Strip, and they have no clue where the name Gallette’s comes from, come to the movie, and you’ll find out how it got its name,” Watson said. “I ain’t telling.”
“The Strip: Tuscaloosa’s Most Colorful Quarter Mile” premiere
When: Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Bama Theatre
Cost: $7 for students, $8 general admission