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Princess Theatre’s visual splendor continues to charm audiences

By Aaron Tanner

The Princess Theatre, which turns 100 this year, is the crown jewel of downtown Decatur. The premier multi-function community arts center showcases films, concerts, and performances from local and national acts in its 677-seat auditorium, hosts private events and features a listening room for live music.

Initially a location for a livery where horses were parked while patrons shopped downtown, the Princess opened in 1919 showcasing vaudeville acts and silent films. As movies with sound became popular, a decision was made by the owner to remodel the Princess in 1941 into a theater that showed those types of films. 

“When ‘talkies’ came in, the Princess came into her own as the premier movie house in North Alabama and beyond,” communications director Melissa Ford Thornton says.

The Princess’ sleek, elegant Art Deco style, which swept across Europe and the U.S. during the 1920s and ’30s, made the theater an attractive place for people to imitate the glamor of movie stars by dressing up for a night on the town. 

The bright neon marquee, now an icon of the region, preserved façade and historic lobby, featuring tiles made of the same type of Italian stone used on the Hollywood walk of fame, are stunning visual reminders of the theatre’s early years. “The aura that art deco displayed was sophisticated,” Thornton says.

As indoor shopping malls and multi-screen cinemas with surround sound became popular across America during the 1970s, along with movie channels on TV, many cities saw the bulk of their business shift from downtown to the suburbs. In 1978, the Princess fell victim to this trend and closed. “The rise of malls as the new shopping standard hit theatres and performing arts centers hard nationwide,” Thornton says.

Fortunately, the Princess avoided demolition as city officials and the community raised funds to restore the theatre. In 1983, the Princess reopened as a multi-use performing arts center, allowing a new generation of residents to experience excellent entertainment. 

“There is a love for this place,” Thornton exclaims.

The energy of downtown

Today, the Princess and downtown Decatur are thriving thanks to the creation of an arts and entertainment district. Merchants are experiencing increased foot traffic thanks to cooperation between businesses and the theatre. “Downtown Decatur has had a breath of fresh air blown into its lungs,” says technical director Penny Linville, who has been with the Princess since 1990.

The Princess and downtown Decatur have become a hub for entertainment, due in part to younger generations looking for authentic, rather than cookie-cutter, manufactured experiences. An example is the theatre’s monthly singer-songwriter series. During the event, the audience is up-close and personal with the artist where music is the focus while the musician tells their story. “The veil between the singer and the audience is torn,” Thornton says.

The Princess is an economic boom for downtown Decatur thanks to the singer-songwriter series and other live shows held at the theatre. Those from out of town often stay at nearby hotels when attending concerts featuring nationally touring acts, such as when recording artists Drive-by Truckers and Larkin Poe performed earlier this year.

Sometimes the performers mingle with guests after a show at downtown restaurants. “There is a huge spirit of conviviality between cast, crew, and patrons,” says Carol Puckett of the Bank Street Players, who regularly perform at the Princess. “Getting the Princess returned to the central heartbeat of the Second Avenue commercial district has had a ripple effect in all the nearby businesses.”

Thanks to the help of local college students, Decatur will be getting additional exposure with a live-recorded podcast from the Princess promoting artists performing that week at the theatre, the Alabama Center for the Arts and elsewhere in the area – along with news from the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We want to talk about collaboration and cooperation, not competition,” Thornton says.

Another way the Princess is involved in the community is through various arts education workshops for different age groups. Thornton is especially delighted when younger students create and showcase a performance before an audience through teamwork. 

“Having the children step into the spotlight for the first time and having people clap for them is an amazing experience,” Thornton says.

Throughout its long history, the Princess has brought the community together through the power of performing arts. Many who grew up in Decatur have fond memories of the theatre, from a first kiss to riding bikes down to the theatre as a kid to catch a film. “The Princess captures the essence of the old and new,” Thornton says. “It’s a testament to history, a catalyst for change and a meeting space in between.”

The Princess has several special fundraising events upcoming to commemorate its 100th anniversary. For more information about the Princess Theatre, or to get tickets for events, visit their website at www.princesstheatre.org.