Tom Cronier may not be jolly old Saint Nick. But with his Santa hat and cheerful smile, he’s a close stand-in at the Alabama Theatre during the holiday season.
Cronier’s job is to welcome the crowds as they come through the door to watch their favorite Christmas movies.
“We sometimes do silly things and have lots of fun to keep it festive. I’ve even got a ‘Cousin Eddie’ Santa hat that I wear when we show our most popular movie, ‘Christmas Vacation,’” he said.
While Cronier welcomes moviegoers and collects their tickets, his wife, Loretta, is also hard at work. She sells souvenirs and merchandise, including T-shirts, posters, ornaments, postcards and tote bags.
“It’s amazing how many people tell us that coming to the Alabama Theatre has become a Christmas tradition in their family,” she said.
The Croniers are longtime volunteers at the Alabama. Tom has worked every season since Christmas movies became a big part of the theatre lineup in the early 1990s.
Tom said showing holiday favorites was the idea of former Alabama Theatre President and General Manager Cecil Whitmire. Although the theatre had been showing movie classics during the summer, movies weren’t as popular at other times. Adding the holiday movie series was Whitmire’s way of helping the struggling theatre regain its footing after falling on hard times during the previous decade.
“For the first one or two years, we showed a few Christmas movies, but nobody came,” Tom said. “Cecil had the idea of donating tickets to downtown businesses and encouraging them to give them to employees as freebies. People slowly started coming, and now the Christmas movies are amazingly popular. They sell out. Given the theatre seats 2,195 people, that’s pretty amazing.”
Although they are at the theatre almost every day during the two-week holiday movie series, Tom and Loretta are year-round volunteers. In addition to their regular duties, they often usher during concerts. In the old days, the Birmingham couple even popped popcorn and sold soft drinks and candy.
Tom said his interest in the theatre’s iconic Wurlitzer pipe organ is what first drew him in 1985. Although the 1927 theatre was closed at the time due to the decline of the downtown area and movie attendance, the organ was still lovingly maintained by the Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS). When friends invited him to tour the theatre, Tom fell in love with the organ’s vibrant sound and soon joined the ATOS chapter.
“We would have meetings at the theatre and get somebody to play the organ and just have a good time,” said Tom. “I was always begging somebody to play for me.”
But those days are over, thanks to technology. Because the organ’s control system has been updated, Tom can get the experience of playing it anytime simply by retrieving songs from the thousands of files that have been stored in its memory bank.
The organ has not been Tom’s only passion. In 1987, he joined with Whitmire, president of the local ATOS chapter at the time, and others to save the theatre. The group formed Birmingham Landmarks Inc., the nonprofit that returned the Alabama to its original glory.
Coming back from the brink wasn’t easy, Tom said. He especially remembers when the theatre was literally saved by a miracle.
“One Saturday, I came into the theatre to work and heard a group of people talking in hushed tones,” Tom said. “I heard Linda (Whitmire’s wife) say we have $3,000 in the bank, and we have $15,000 in bills that need to be paid. I don’t mean next week or next month. I mean now, or the water and power will be cut off. It looked like the end.”
A couple of days later, the theatre unexpectedly received a $15,000 check from a local philanthropic foundation – the exact amount needed to pay the bills.
As treasurer of the Alabama ATOS chapter for 15 years, Tom is still at the theatre every Saturday working alongside other members to repair and rebuild the organ. He helps around the theatre with everything from hanging pictures to reattaching loose bannisters.
Tom and Loretta are retired, which gives them more time to devote to the theatre. Tom worked in the Rates and Costing area of the Finance department at Alabama Power until 2007. Loretta was a media specialist at Shades Cahaba Elementary until 2008.
Loretta said it’s the kids who bring her the most pleasure and keep her coming back as a volunteer.
“I just love seeing the wonderment on the kids’ faces,” she said. “They are so awestruck because you don’t see theatres like that anymore.”
This holiday season, Tom and Loretta will be busier than ever, with 27 Christmas favorites showing at the Alabama through Dec. 22.
“It’s lots and lots of fun,” he said. “Seeing the people having fun and enjoying themselves is great. I enjoy the crowds and the organ music, and those old films are good, too.”