Found Sound: The Alabama Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer Memorializes Buster Norris

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If you’ve ever been to the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, you may remember the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Since 1927, it has risen out of the stage to greet generations of theater-goers for concerts and sing-alongs, especially around the holidays. Today, the story behind a unique recording of the Mighty Wurlitzer:

A few months ago, Steve Norris was at his late father’s house when he discovered something he’d forgotten.

“We’re cleaning out his stuff and I find this CD with Cecil Whitmire’s name on it, the famous organist from the Alabama Theatre, and I’m like ‘this is really neat,’” Norris says. 

Steve says he remembers the the recordings from ten years ago. Norris’s father, Buster Norris, was a well-known and respected businessman around Alabama. In 2005, Buster found out he was dying of cancer.

“He never talked about how much he loved the Alabama Theatre until he got sick,” says Norris.

Buster Norris and his son, Steve Norris.
Buster Norris and his son, Steve Norris.
Courtesy of Steve Norris

“He had lung cancer so he had this time where he had all of his faculties, and he could prepare for his funeral, to [make it] reflect the things in his life that he loved,” Steve Norris says. The news shook his ailing father to action.

“That’s when he decided to contact Cecil Whitmire at the Alabama Theatre and get him to record these songs for him so we could play them at his funeral, which we did.”

Buster asked Whitmire to record two of his favorite songs, “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.” According to Steve, Whitmire wouldn’t let Buster pay him for the recordings, but he did let him make a donation to the Alabama Theatre.

“He loved the Wurlitzer and he also loved just going to see movies there,” says Norris. He remembers his father telling the family stories they’d never heard about visiting the theater as a child.

Buster Norris in his youth.
Buster Norris in his youth.
Courtesy of Norris family.

“They had a program there where you could take a little card to Loveman’s or Pizitz [department stores] and get it stamped,” says Norris. “Then you could get into the Alabama for free and you’d get to hear the Wurlitzer introduce the movies.”

Learning these stories, Norris says, was like small puzzle pieces coming together at the end of his father’s life. His father told them he’d even performed on stage there.

“In 1948, my dad would tap-dance at the Alabama Theatre,” Norris says. Norris says no one in the family knew about it before. “The only time I’d ever seen him tap dance was when he was cooking burgers or steaks. He’d do a funny little tap dance. Now I know that was a reference to his youth.”

Reflecting on the recordings now, it reminds Norris of the plot of classic movie Citizen Kane.

When he’s faced with his mortality, this thing that he did in his childhood was the thing that brought him the most joy even though he had a great marriage, and children, grandchildren, a great business life. That time at the Alabama was the thing that he loved the most,” says Norris.

While the family played the recordings at his father’s funeral, Norris says they were so caught up in grief they didn’t realize how special the recordings were. Especially because organist Cecil Whitmire has since passed himself.

After rediscovering the recordings this year, he says it was obvious the family needed to share them. He encourages others to do the same. 

“I think if you have something other people might enjoy, go post it online and talk about your loved ones,” says Norris. “Now that I know how important it was to my father and how much he loved it, when I see and hear the Wurlitzer, I just think of my dad and how important it was to him. I want to bring in my kids and introduce other families to it as much as I can.”

So if you are going to the Alabama Theatre this holiday season, you just might run into Steve Norris and his family. They’ll probably be the ones singing a bit more loudly than everyone else when the Mighty Wurlitzer rises up from the stage.

Listen to “Stars Fell on Alabama” performed by Cecil Whitmire.

 

Listen to “Shall We Gather at the River” performed by Cecil Whitmire.

 

William Dahlberg

William Dahlberg

Deputy Director