Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society

LP History

The Alabama Wurlitzer at its Best featuring Tom Hazleton

In the early spring of 1986, members of the Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) found themselves in a peculiar situation. Since 1969, members of the group and its predecessors had been allowed to maintain the Alabama Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ in exchange for the occasional concert, chapter meeting and silent film presentation.

Having recently been purchased by the infamous Costa-Head organization, “The Showplace of the South” was destined (in their vision) to become exclusively a rock concert venue to help generate revenue to fund their ambitious plans to revitalize parts of downtown Birmingham.

Then-chapter president Cecil Whitmire was called upon by Costa-Head to assist in reopening the grand movie palace but it was quickly discovered that the organization had neither the financial means or expertise in running a theatre – even as a rock palace.

Sensing that the theatres days were numbered and ATOS would lose access to the organ and building, Whitmire engaged into a gentleman’s agreement with Tom Hazleton to fly in and capture the glorious sounds of “Big Bertha” – the theatre’s 4/20 Publix #1 Wurlitzer. Cecil asked Hazleton to record enough material for two albums – one for immediate release…the other as a second release – and a recording date was set. Hazleton arrived and went straight to work.

Digital recording equipment was brought in from Nashville and over the course of two evenings, Tom laid down tracks that were captured by Prestige Studios and the first album was released – “The Alabama Wurlitzer At Its Best” – a snapshot of the current state of the instrument. Tom shines in every track.

Shortly thereafter, the Alabama Chapter found itself rescuing the theatre from the bankruptcy proceedings of the Costa-Head organization. With back taxes paid and a sizeable mortgage in place, the chapter proceeded to run The Alabama as an ongoing concern. The second recording/release was backburnered in lieu of more pressing day-to-day tasks.

In later years when Prestige Studios closed, Kenny Wallace brought the giant PCM encoded reel-to-reel tapes to Cecil Whitmire. Cecil turned these tapes over to Larry Donaldson who stored them in the ATOS organ workshop. In 2016, Larry ran across these tapes and wondered if a re-release would be viable. The area was quickly scoured to see if anyone still had equipment to decode these tapes. Birmingham did not. Nashville did not. But a glimmer of hope was given by National ATOS President Richard Neidich. His suggestion: send it to Bill Lightner in Los Angeles…. “They can read anything.” Mr. Lightner suggested sending the material to Richard Hess in Canada. Mr. Hess determined the material was recorded with a Mitsubishi X80 encoder but did not have a machine available. He suggested Dan Johnston in Los Angeles at United Archiving. The material was forwarded and days later we received an email. “Yes – we can read these – what would you like for us to do?”

Our excitement overflowed that the recording was intact and a new digital master was made. One reel contained the original 1986 released recording. The other reel contained the remaining tracks which included outtakes, alternate versions, unusable material and Hazleton banter with the recording engineers, Larry Donaldson (the Alabama’s organ crew chief), Gary Jones and Cecil Whitmire.

Now, the question became what to do with all these “extras”? A re-release of the original album would be easy enough. A release of the other materials and outtakes that had never been released was certainly in order and seeking the Hazleton family’s permission to undertake the project was a must. Mimi quickly approved.

These tracks were recorded as a musical snapshot of Bertha at a specific point in time. At the time of these recordings (1986), she was limping along on the original electro-pneumatic relay which had been severely damaged by a broken steam pipe several years earlier. Her console retained the original electro-pneumatic stop action and setterboard system. That beautiful “Ka-Chunk” of the stop-tab pneumatics can be heard throughout the recording. The then-recently received English Post Horn (a Wurlitzer copy from Joe Clipp of Trivo, Hagerstown, MD) had been placed on a salvaged Wurlitzer chest very near the lower solo swell shades, and had not found its permanent, more appropriate home in the Solo Chamber.

Recording “live” over two evenings, Tom laid down track after track. Recording live is almost a thing of the past. These days, artists lay down tracks at their leisure and convenience and record them with modern recording relay systems. The pressure of having everyone on the clock (with the dollar clock ticking) is enough to drive many mad. The occasional bus or garbage truck rumbling by can ruin a perfect recording and make it unusable. If Tom felt any pressure, it didn’t show. Yes, there are multiple takes of some songs – perhaps a bauble here or there or a version better liked - but all are present here on this two-disc set.

As a side note, it was during this visit that Tom Hazleton laid out the judicious and careful guidelines for future expansion of Bertha – a roadmap that crew chief Larry Donaldson has followed faithfully. In her present state, I think Tom would be very proud. She presently stands at 32 ranks.

When the Alabama Chapter of ATOS purchased the Alabama Theatre in 1986, an additional 501(c)3 non-profit organization was formed to own and operate the theatre on a daily basis. Named Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the organization also owns and operates the 1914 Lyric Theatre (originally a vaudeville house) which was restored in 2016, plus several other retail properties surrounding both theatres.

Renamed the Alabama Theatre for the Performing Arts, the Alabama Theatre operates virtually 365 days a year and hosts a variety of programming including weddings and receptions, live concerts of all musical genres, theatre pipe organ concerts, private parties, graduations, dance competitions and recitals, a Summer Classic Film Series, a Holiday Film Series and silent films with organ accompaniment. The Alabama is NOT a museum but a fully-functional, completely self-sustaining performing arts center. No government or public assistance is received.

We hope you enjoy!

Gary W. Jones, President

Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society