Birmingham’s Carver Theatre: ‘We’re happy to say it’s back’

Birmingham’s Carver Theatre: ‘We’re happy to say it’s back’
Birmingham's Carver Theatre is completing a major renovation to make the venue and museum viable for years to come. (Alabama NewsCenter)

Creig Hoskins has walked “every inch” of the Carver Theatre.

The architect in charge of the theatre’s transformation, Hoskins walked the place over and over as renovation plans were being drawn and tweaked. And he’s walked it over and over again, countless times, during construction.

In June, the construction fencing came down and the “new” Carver Theatre emerged. The changes to the historic venue at the heart of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Business District are dramatic.

The box office, which used to be outside, is now enclosed in a gleaming new reception area with broad windows facing Fourth Avenue, providing natural light. The space features a new bar that gives the theater and Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame a versatile expanse for holding events, or to rent out to generate revenue.

Birmingham’s historic Carver Theatre and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame readying for new life from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The changes are similarly stunning inside the theatre, where a complete overhaul reduced seating from about 520 to 470 – creating a more comfortable space for jazz. At one time the Carver, built in 1935 primarily to show movies, had more than 1,000 seats.

“Jazz is a real intimate experience,” Hoskins said. “We wanted to create an intimate setting.”

And, thanks to the acoustics in the rebuilt theatre, a person sitting in the last row in the balcony can clearly hear sounds from the stage – without the need for amplifiers.

Renovations are nearly complete in the historic Carver Theatre. (contributed)

As for the stage, it’s the original but was shifted forward to open up the back of the house, which created more space backstage for performers, for storage and for expanded dressing rooms. Moving the stage forward also improved sightlines in the theatre. There’s no bad seat in the new Carver.

That’s not all. A completely re-envisioned second floor has ample space for rotating Jazz Hall of Fame exhibits, in addition to the exhibit space and digital displays incorporated into the main reception area. Down in the basement, there’s a new studio that will house WAJH-FM (91.1). Also on the lower level is exhibit space for the Birmingham Black Radio Museum, a separate nonprofit that until now did not have a physical home.

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Leah Tucker, executive director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, can hardly contain her excitement about the revitalized facility and all that it offers.

While construction proceeded over the past two years, Tucker was digging deep into the hall of fame’s archives and collections, as well as the history of Alabama jazz artists. The depth and breadth of Alabama’s connection to the history and development of jazz is more extensive than she ever imagined when she started the project.

The Carver Theatre is a popular landmark in an historic part of the Birmingham Fourth Avenue Business District. (Mark Almond)

“The jazz world is so intense and so diverse, it’s been an interesting journey to see what part Alabama played,” Tucker said.

“We were really in the forefront,” with Alabama musicians playing a role in some of the most important bands in the history of the genre, from the big bands of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, to important groups of the more modern eras of jazz.
“It’s so extensive … Alabama is lucky to have a place to learn about some of these people,” Tucker said, noting that the hall of fame features more than 200 inductees – way more than can ever be presented at one time. Instead, the new jazz hall of fame will have space where exhibits can be rotated regularly, providing a fresh experience to visitors no matter how many times they come.

In addition to the rotating exhibits, the more permanent displays will include spaces with state-of-the-art technology, allowing visitors to view images and hear the music of jazz greats while not disturbing others around them, Tucker said. The exhibits were crafted by local design firm Method-1.

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Tucker said the revitalized theatre and hall of fame will not only offer a broad array of programming and workshops related to jazz and its many styles, but shows and performances related to other musical styles as well. She envisions other creative and performing arts programming in the theatre, too, from plays and poetry performances, to film premieres and comedy shows. She also anticipates other creative organizations having opportunities to bring in programming.

“The public has really been looking for us to be opening.” She said people are calling the hall of fame’s temporary offices every day, asking when they can visit and start booking events. “I am so thrilled.”

She said the grand opening, now slated for March 2022, is intentional, to give the staff time to get to know the new spaces, the exhibits and new technology, outfit the radio studio and ready the lower level space for the Black radio museum.

“I am so excited that all these projects are coming together at once: the radio station, the museum and the theater,” Tucker said.

“There’s a lot happening in the Fourth Avenue District and the Theater District,” added Hoskins, referring to the nearby Alabama Theatre, and the Lyric Theatre, which went through a restoration a few years ago.

“Now it’s Carver’s time,” Hoskins said. “We’re happy to say it’s back and it’s ready for everybody that missed it, and those who have never experienced it.”

NEXT: A.G. Gaston Motel gets restored.

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