Opening Construction began on the Bama Theatre in 1937 and was completed in 1938. Prior to this time, City Hall occupied the location at the corner of Greensboro Avenue and Sixth Street. Three theatres were also present in downtown Tuscaloosa: the Ritz (also on Greensboro), the Diamond and the former Bama Theatre which was renamed Druid after the construction of the present Bama Theatre (University Blvd. adjacent to what is now the Trustmark Bank Building). Funds from the Public Works Administration, a depression era program enacted to both increase employment and benefit the community, were used for the project which included both a theatre/municipal auditorium and city hall, all under one roof. Including funds from the PWA and those contributed by the city, the complex cost $200,000 to complete. In addition to the city offices, three retail spaces were also included in the building. The new complex was the first public building in the city complete with a true air conditioning system. It regulated the temperature and humidity plus filtered the air. The grand opening took place on April 12, 1938 and was preceded by a parade including Disney characters and The University of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band. "Bringing Up Baby", starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, was screened at the gala, accompanied by animated features. The facility is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The complex was designed by architect David O. Whilldin and demonstrates a design of simplicity vs. exotic. A Pennsylvania native, Whilldin designed many noteworthy buildings in Tuscaloosa and throughout Alabama. Additional designs include those for First National Bank of Tuscaloosa (present day Trustmark Bank), Tuscaloosa High School (Tuscaloosa City Board of Education), various elementary and high schools and Birmingham’s Legion Field. The exterior and administrative offices of the Bama Theatre/City Hall complex can be described as PWA Moderne. The exterior of the building is consistent with this line of design with its horizontal emphasis and simplification of details. Whilldin utilized elements found in Roman architecture such as tondos, faux tapestries, the carved eagle over the City Hall entrance and the rounded façade above the Bama entrance, but in a simple form. The rounded façade consists of limestone and the panels between the windows are granite, both layered on a brick veneer. The portion of the building holding administrative offices includes of lobby of marble with a deco style metal stair rail. The solid construction of the building lead to its classification as a Fallout Shelter.
Based on the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance, the interior of the theatre is in stark contrast to the exterior. The design of the lobby is based on the Davanzati Palace in Florence while the interior of the theatre itself is consistent with the same time period. The interior, placed in a class of theatres labeled “atmospheric,” was designed by Whilldin as a Mediterranean Palazo during the Italian Renaissance. All elements were designed by Whilldin, and as a result of the PWA program, artists and craftsmen were employed in their production. The ceiling is lined with small flashing lights accompanied by painted clouds, bringing to mind the night sky.
Other elements include faux balconies, terra cotta tiles, cherub plaques and a small alabaster fountain. A scenic designer, Navino Nataloni, painted the celotex panels beneath the arches. Most PWA murals in the South consisted of themes based on the local culture, such as views of local landscapes, but Nataloni’s paintings were consistent with Whilldin’s Renaissance theme. The murals are painted to appear three dimensional with objects in the background appearing lighter, and, as a result, further away from the viewer.
Views of Commerce Street, circa 1890s
Artist rendering of Cherry Lane, currently hanging in Il Cantuccio, a fabulous Italian bakery on Christopher and West 10th St
The site of a silo on the Gomez farm in 1817, the building that now stands at 38 Commerce Street was first erected as a brewery in 1836 and later served as a tobacco warehouse and box factory.
In 1924, a group of theater artists, colleagues of Edna St. Vincent Millay, commissioned famed scenic designer Cleon Throckmorton to convert the box factory into Cherry Lane Playhouse. It fueled some of the most ground-breaking experiments in the chronicles of the American Stage. The Downtown Theater movement, The Living Theatre, and Theatre of the Absurd all took root at the lively Playhouse, and it proved fertile ground for 20th century dramaturgy’s seminal voices.
From this village jewel streamed a large succession of plays by nascent writers whose names have lent distinction to the American and international literary and dramatic treasuries from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Elmer Rice in the ’20s to O’Neill, O’Casey, Odets, Auden, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and William Saroyan in the ’40s and ’50s to Beckett, Albee, Pinter, Ionesco and LeRoi Jones in the ’60s to Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Joe Orton and David Mamet in the ’70s and ’80s.
The Playhouse productions featured an equally illustrious group of actors and directors including Barbra Streisand, Gene Hackman, Beatrice Arthur, James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst, Cicely Tyson, Alan Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Judd Hirsch, Tony Curtis, Gary Sinise, Jerry Stiller, Rue McClanahan, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Roy Scheider, Frances Sternhagen, F. Murray Abraham, Joan Micklin Silver, Peter Falk, Tom Bosley, Frank Langella, Kim Stanley, Tyne Daly, Estelle Parsons, Geraldine Page, Kevin Bacon, Lee Strasberg, Roscoe Lee Browne, Tony Musante, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Alvin Epstein, Dennis Quaid and Joseph Chaikin.
Since 1996 Angelina Fiordellisi has revived Cherry Lane, preserved the building and detailed history, and founded the Cherry Lane Alternative, our producing company, creating a number of programs to launch the next generation of American playwrights, among them Rajiv Joseph, Katori Hall, Anton Dudley, Christopher Shinn, David Adjmi, Bathsheba Doran, Sam Forman, Jakob Holder, Sheila Callaghan, Deborah Zoe Laufer, Rogelio Martinez, Winter Miller, Deirdre O'Connor, Bridgette Wimberly, Anne Washburn and Beau Willimon (see Studio history below.)
View our Historical Mainstage Timeline
Cherry Lane Studio was inaugurated in September of 1998 and serves as a creative birthing room for new American plays. Angelina Fiordellisi, Founding Artistic Director, created the 60-seat black box theater, inspire and designed by Samuel Anderson Architects. CLT Studio benefited from the generosity of producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland, who donated sixty chairs from The Lamb’s Theater, and board member Jack Gindi donated our technical booth, sound and lighting boards. The seating was upgraded and made retractable in 2006 with a generous grant provided by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Prior to its present incarnation, the 1,200-square-foot space housed a restaurant in the 1950s that was built and managed by the Carroad family, who once owned and operated the entire block. The yard behind their building at 44 Commerce Street served as an outdoor eating area for the restaurant during spring and summer, and the Cherry Lane boiler once served all the properties on this stretch of Commerce Street. The Cherry Lane restaurant, which had a floor dotted with gold-plated fleurs-de-lis, also served as a late-night gay club in the 60s and 70s.
Arnold Warwick, a tenant at 40 Commerce Street since 1950, claims that the Carroad family evicted an old sea captain in order to create a public ante room where our current lobby is located. Kim Hunter’s children, who grew up in the building, tell the story of an excavation next door at 36 Commerce Street in the late 50s that not only revealed an underground river, but also thousands of turtles.
The Cherry Lane Studio is a safe haven for the development of new plays. Our programs allow playwrights to hone their work without the pressure of reviews before sophisticated, thrill-seeking audiences who want to discover the bold new voices of today. David Adjmi, Courtney Baron, Sheila Callaghan, Julia Cho, Bathsheba Doran, Anton Dudley, Sam Forman, Katori Hall, Jakob Holder, Rajiv Joseph, Eliam Kraiem, Deborah Zoe Laufer, Rogelio Martinez, Winter Miller, Deirdre O’Connor, Christopher Shinn, Molly Smith-Metzler, Beau Willimon, Bridgette Wimberly, Anne Washburn, and numerous others have all developed new ideas and plays at the CLT Studio. Our studio- theater programming is a critical component of our mission to build a community to support the playwriting process and the future of American drama.
View our Studio Timeline