She is a grand ole dame. The Princess Theatre has been a north Alabama landmark for more than a century. She began as a livery stable in 1887. Yep -- a place to park your horse. As you may see in the photograph on the left, the structure was quite different than it is today. The photo below shows her looking a little more like she looks today after she was transformed into a silent film and vaudeville playhouse in 1919, presenting high class road shows, pictures and Keith (of Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or RKO) Vaudeville. On opening night, December 30, 1919, the play "Tea for Three" was staged with music provided by local orchestras. The next day, the film "The Wolf" was shown, with prices at 20 and 30 cents. Ah, the good ole days.
After a facelift in 1941, the Princess emerged with the art deco style that remains today (see photo below on the right) and features a brilliantly lit neon marquee that is an icon for the region. Local architect Albert Frahn decorated the auditorium burgundy and gray walls with murals that glow under blacklight. If you visit us today, you can still see these features. Some find them stunning; others notice the slightly “creepy” quality. Either way, children who come to the venue remain particularly fascinated by them. The glow of fluorescent carpeting guided theatergoers down the aisle - a brilliant solution to aisle safety. The lobby featured a terrazzo floor with a map of Alabama, marking the Tennessee River and Decatur, imported veneer walls and art deco stair rails. Those features can still be seen as well. The classic art deco facade displayed a geometric design, lit glass bricks, yellow and black vitrolite glass and a two story marquee with more than 3,000 feet of neon tubing. The Princess reopened on August 7, 1941 as a classic art deco theatre with the film "Tom, Dick and Harry" starring Ginger Rogers.
In 1978, when the movie house closed, the City of Decatur purchased the Princess Theatre.
After a $750,000.00 renovation, the Princess once again reopened and this time as the city's performing arts center. The 677-seat Theatre began serving as a stage home for local performing arts groups, providing a multipurpose rental facility for the community, serving as an arts education resource for schools and annually presenting a variety of touring artists in music, theatre and dance. A Professional Series featured national touring arts events from Broadway musicals to major concert artists and family events. For more than twenty years, the Princess Theatre presented an array of outstanding cultural events, including such artists as Tony Randall and Ray Charles, the national tours of Broadway musicals such as "Evita" and "Big River," and concerts by the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Dan Seals. Local performing groups make their home on the Princess stage, presenting children's theater, choral concerts, musicals, dance and theatre. More than 60,000 people attend events at the Princess.
As north Alabama's largest classroom, the Princess annually serves more than 20,000 students and teachers, including Young Audience Professional Series performances, school matinees, master classes and teacher workshops. Visiting artists serve residencies in the community with workshops and performances for schools and the community.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Princess completed the first phase of a new Master Plan during 2000-2001. At a cost of $6 million, the renovation and expansion project restored the beautiful facade and marquee, rebuilt a new stage house including flyspace and a fly-rail, deepening the stage space, upgraded the infrastructure and equipment and expanded into an adjacent building with a new lobby and dressing rooms. A group of volunteers continued work on the new lobby during the summer of 2003. In April 2009 the Sexton Lobby in the Baker Annex was renovated to include a suite of men’s and women’s restrooms, a catering pantry and new finishes to the lobby. In 2016, the Sexton Lobby received a new facelift including the addition of a Coffee Bar. In 2017, the City of Decatur-funded upgrades include state-of-the-art digital cinema, new house audio system and Dolby Surround sound for cinema.
Future phases will include additional dressing rooms, a new teaching studio and small performance venue, administrative offices and restoration of the historic lobby and of the Shelton auditorium. The Theatre now operates a larger and more technically equipped facility for the community while preserving one of the city's most historic landmarks.
The theatre structure still serves as a reminder of pre-civil rights practices. The old “colored entrance” still exists on the south side of the building. People of color were required to enter from the alley into a side door to a 3-flight staircase that led directly to the top of the balcony to what was once “colored seating.” Though no longer in use since shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these features of this historic landmark serve as a reminder of the darker aspects of our past and as a symbol of progress made and yet to come.
- 1919 “Tea for Three” – first stage production; “The Wolf” – first film
- 1935 Dr. George Washington Carver Graduation Speech at the Princess Theatre
- 1938 Western Star Gene Autry appears with horse Champion and later Roy Rogers appears with Trigger
- 1941 Opening Night of Art Deco Renovation featured the film “Tom, Dick and Harry” Starring Ginger Rogers
- 1983 Reopens as the City’s performing arts center after a major renovation
- 1984 Decatur native and Hollywood film star Dean Jones in “St. John in Exile”
- 1983 - present Award-winning artists perform on stage including Tony Randall, Cloris Leachman, Loretta Swit, Count Basie Orchestra, Glenn Miller Orchestra, Chris Botti, Arlo Guthrie, Del McCoury Band, J.D. Crowe, Dick Van Patten, Frank Gorshin, Dixie Carter, Sally Struthers, Jamie Farr, Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon, Dan Seals, Rodney Crowell, Jesse Harris, Rosanne Cash, The Capitol Steps, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Chris Thile, Diavolo, Momix, Pilobolus, St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Princess Theatre is Proud to Be Part of Albany/Old Decatur Historic District
Princess Theatre Treasures
May 28, 1935 article "Schedule given of negro school"
June 3, 1935 article "Great Address by Dr. Carver"
August 6, 1941 article "New Princess Theatre will open Thursday night"