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Office of the Director, Town and Gown Theatre, 1950-1999

Immediate Predecessor:


Immediate Successor:


Reporting Hierarchy:

1950-1958: Town and Gown, Director of the Birmingham Extension Center, Dean of Extension Services, President of UA;
1958-1962: Town and Gown, Director of the Birmingham Extension Center, Executive Director of University Affairs, President of UA;
1962-1966: Town and Gown, Director of the Birmingham Extension Center, Dean of Extension Services, President of UA;
1966-1968: Town and Gown, Division of Humanities, College of General Studies, Vice President for Birmingham Affairs, President of UA;
1968-1969: Town and Gown, Division of Humanities, College of General Studies, Executive Vice President, President of UA;
1969-1971: Town and Gown, Division of Humanities, College of General Studies, President of UAB;
1971-1973: Town and Gown, Division of Humanities, School of Arts and Sciences, Vice President for University College, President of UAB;
1973-1980: Town and Gown, Department of Performing Arts, School of Humanities, Vice President for University College, President of UAB;
1980-1987: Town and Gown, Department of Theatre and Dance, School of Humanities, Vice President for University College, President of UAB;
1987-1989: Town and Gown, Department of Theatre and Dance, School of Arts and Humanities, Vice President for University College, President of UAB;
1989-1995: Town and Gown, Department of Theatre and Dance, School of Arts and Humanities, Vice President for Academic Affairs, President of UAB;
1995-1999: Town and Gown, Department of Theatre, School of Arts and Humanities, Provost, President of UAB.


James F. Hatcher, 1950-1991
Gary Robertson, 1991-1996
H. Langdon "Lang" Reynolds, 1996-1999


In 1950 the University of Alabama established a theatrical program at its Birmingham Extension Center. Under the direction of founding director, James F. Hatcher, the theater gained a reputation for professionalism and quality. Hatcher, better known as “Jimmy,” “Hatch,” or “Mr. Theatre,” was a native of Enterprise, Alabama. He graduated from Birmingham-Southern College and following service during World War II, continued his education. In 1950 Hatcher received a Master’s of Arts degree from the University of Alabama. Soon after graduation, he accepted the first full-time speech and theatre position at the Birmingham Extension Center. Hatcher would remain with his beloved Town and Gown Theatre for the rest of his career, even as the Birmingham Extension Center became the new College of General Studies at the newly independent University of Alabama in Birmingham and later as the University was renamed as the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). (Note: For a complete biography of Hatcher, see the finding aid for the Hatcher Papers, Manuscript Collection 16)

Town and Gown Theatre combined local community talent, local students and faculty, and a host of Broadway and Hollywood veterans to create a unique community theatre that was connected to the University. Hatcher earned a reputation as a lovable and affable perfectionist, something of a taskmaster who expected the best from his actors and his company.

The first production of Town and Gown, Born Yesterday, was held in Birmingham’s Temple Arena Theatre. It opened on December 6, 1950, with Broadway and Hollywood star Tommy Dix in the lead. While the University had established a formal theatrical program under Hatcher’s leadership, there was no permanent home for the Town and Gown theater. When the program was initiated, the Birmingham Extension Center was still housed in an old wood frame house located in downtown Birmingham at 2131 6th Avenue North. The extension programs had opened in September of 1936 and had, by 1950 having outgrown its original home, had expanded to numerous buildings around the city center.

For the first several seasons, Town and Gown productions were held in venues across the city, including Ramsay High School, the Chamber of Commerce building, the Tutwiler Hotel, and the Birmingham Art Museum. Things improved for Hatcher during the theatre program’s fourth season. In December 1954 Augusta (Clark) Noland and her family donated to the University a theatre facility located at 1116 South 26th Street in the Highlands neighborhood on the Southside of Birmingham.

The first Town and Gown production held in its new home, Candles in the Canebrake, opened on February 14, 1955. The play by Lulie Hard McKinley of Birmingham was based on the early Nineteenth Century Vine and Olive Colony settlement near Demopolis, Alabama, and the production of Canebrake was held in conjunction with the Birmingham Festival of Arts. Starting in 1953, Hatcher – also the honorary chair of the drama division of the Festival of Arts – conducted a contest for an original three-act play to be produced at Town and Gown as part of the city’s annual arts festival. In 1953 the first winner was Ruth Lloyd Apsey.

Following renovations to the building, on January 31, 1956, the building was formally reopened and dedicated as the Louis V. Clark Memorial Theatre with an opening production of Best Foot Forward. This show had music and lyrics by Hugh Martin (a Birmingham native) and Ralph Blane and featured a special guest performance by Tommy Dix. Dix had appeared in the very first production of Town and Gown Theatre back in 1950 and had starred in the 1941 Broadway and in the 1943 Hollywood production of Best Foot Forward. Clark Theatre remained home to Town and Gown for the rest of the program’s history.

From the very first season, Hatcher took Town and Gown on the road taking live theatre to areas where it either did not exist or was not available on a regular basis. In 1951 The Trial of Mary Dugan was staged at the Lawson Air Force Base at Fort Benning, Georgia, just across the state line from Alabama. The starring role was played by Mary Hewitt Badham, wife of Army General Henry Badham, Jr.  A Town and Gown state tour was launched in the spring of 1952 when Hatcher took For Love or Money on the road to Tuscaloosa, Fort Rucker, and Daphne. Other tours over the years were taken to cities around the state, including Fairhope, Gadsden, Sylacauga, Talladega, and various points in-between. A statewide tour of The Man Who Came to Dinner during the fall of 1961 traveled from Anniston to Tuscaloosa from Valley to Fort Payne and featured the unknown Patricia “Pat” Neal. Neal – later known as Fannie Flagg – received her first experience in the theatre in the 1957 Town and Gown production of Pal Joey. She would appear in her first show in December 1959 when she had one line of dialogue as a maid in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Town and Gown tours traveled outside the State of Alabama on numerous occasions. The Boyfriend was staged in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in 1962, and a national tour of The Boyfriend in 1967 had productions staged at Clemson University, Southern Illinois University, and West Virginia State College and at venues in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. In 1988-89 Hatcher’s production of Speak of Me As I Am traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, Washington, DC, and to Wisconsin where it was staged as part of the local celebrations for Black History Month. In 1971 Hatcher went international when he took the UAB production of Kaleidoscope: A Celebration from Minstrels to Mod on a summer tour of Italy. Other UAB productions later traveled to Sweden to perform in the 1987 Malmo arts festival and again in 1988 to appear on Swedish television in honor of actress Ulla Sallert.

The first theatrical production in the state of Alabama to have a multi-racial cast was staged at Town and Gown Theatre. Director Hatcher selected Alabama native Mae Nolden Pickens for a role in the January 1969 production of A Member of the Wedding. Pickens would go on to appear in numerous Town and Gown productions, as would John Nixon, a local African American dentist. In January of 1975 Dr. Nixon was cast in the starring role of Othello, a show that received much local press and national attention because of its multi-racial cast. Nixon would also appear in several Town and Gown productions over the years.

When the 25th anniversary for Town and Gown was celebrated in October 1974, the Silver Anniversary Celebration was the inaugural theatrical event held in the city’s recently completed Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

Intrinsically linked to Town and Gown and founding director Jimmy Hatcher, were both Summerfest and the Miss Alabama Pageant. Summerfest was founded in 1979 by Hatcher and Birmingham Mayor David Vann “as a summer stock company that would extend the Town & Gown Theatre’s repertoire to musical theatre” [quote from www.bhamwiki.com]. The first production of Summerfest was Mame, which opened at the city’s Boutwell Auditorium in July 1979. A non-profit entity, Summerfest was also established to provide training and education to area high school and collegiate students. In 2007 – well after Hatcher’s death in 1993 – Summerfest was renamed as the Red Mountain Theatre Company.

Hatcher was also deeply involved in the Miss Alabama Pageant.  His involvement came most likely through his long friendship and collaboration with Lily May Caldwell, head of the Miss Alabama organization and the chief arts and entertainment writer – later editor – for the Birmingham News. The Birmingham News and Caldwell organized the first Miss Alabama pageant in 1936, and Hatcher maintained a long association with the Miss Alabama organization. From 1947, when he was still a student at Birmingham-Southern, Hatcher directed the annual pageant in Birmingham. He also helped Caldwell with the state’s contestant to the Miss America Pageant and in 1960 Hatcher directed the annual national pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Their greatest success came when the 1950 Miss Alabama winner, Yolande Betzbe, became the first Alabamian crowned as Miss America. His work with the two pageant organizations would in later years prove fruitful as several women who had won the Alabama or the America title would travel to Birmingham to appear in Town and Gown or Summerfest productions. (Note: For more information on Hatcher’s work with the Miss Alabama organization, see his manuscript collection. For more information on Lily May Caldwell, see the finding aid for the Caldwell Papers, Manuscript Collection 15.)

The Birmingham Extension Center grew and in the 1960s gained more autonomy from the University of Alabama main campus in Tuscaloosa. In 1954 all programs were moved from their downtown location to a newly completed University of Alabama Extension Center building that was located on South 20th Street adjacent to the University’s Medical Center and hospital. In 1966 the extension and the medical programs were officially joined to form the new “University of Alabama in Birmingham” a degree-granting branch of the University of Alabama. Additional changes arrived soon afterward and in June 1969 Governor Albert P. Brewer announced that a new administrative structure would be implemented for the University of Alabama. Starting with that fall semester, there would be a new three-campus system with independent and autonomous universities in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville. The University of Alabama in Birmingham – renamed as the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1984 – became a separate university.

Hatcher’s faculty appointment transferred like it did for all other faculty in Birmingham from the University of Alabama to the new UAB, and Town and Gown became a component of the new university. Hatcher had acted somewhat autonomously as part of the extension program in Birmingham and this continued for Town and Gown, especially in the very early years of UAB. Later, as UAB developed into a comprehensive urban university, Hatcher’s autonomy was reduced as Town and Gown became more entrenched within the administrative and academic structures of the university. In 1973 the former Division of Humanities within the College of General Studies was elevated to the status of an academic school as the School of Humanities. One of the components of the new school was the Department of Performing Arts -- renamed as the Department of Theatre and Dance in 1980. Town and Gown theater was one of the units within this academic department. In 1987 the school would be renamed as the UAB School of Arts and Humanities.

Hatcher and his highly successful program were valued by the local Birmingham community and by UAB administration and the program continued to flourish. But the absorption of Town and Gown into the academic programs at UAB caused a considerable amount of friction between Hatcher and the department chairs and, at times, the school deans. The 1971-1972 annual report for the School of Humanities noted that Town and Gown had been organized “as a continuing education activity” for the University and had, from its beginning, provided “a training ground for talented Alabamians who want to pursue a professional career” and offered a “creative outlet to other talented citizens who use the theater as an avocation.” In the report of 1973-1974, the chair of the performing arts department noted that he was nominally responsible for the “relatively free-floating” Town and Gown Theatre which “operated with little connection with the objectives and authority of the department, indeed in some cases even of the University.” The chair did write that Hatcher and his program were very effective in their extramural activities and had “enthusiastic followers outside the University, for whom they perform very well the University’s function of public service.”

Town and Gown survived several department chairs, numerous departmental name changes, various school deans, and all three of UAB’s first presidents, most of whom were supporters and/or proponents of the theatre and of Hatcher. In 1989 President Charles A. McCallum, Jr., presented Hatcher the President’s Medal. The medal is given as an honor to a person who has provided distinguished service to the university.  For many years, Hatcher was one of the longest serving members of the UAB faculty and he attained the distinction as the longest serving member as of the June 1989 commencement ceremony. But after a tenure of 41 years Hatcher retired from UAB and from his beloved Town and Gown Theatre in 1991. But even in retirement, Hatch maintained a connection to the UAB campus as a special assistant to the President for performing arts.

Gary Robertson succeeded Hatcher as the second director of Town and Gown Theatre, but his tenure was brief and he left the position in 1996. Langdon “Lang” Reynolds, who became chair of the UAB theatre department in 1993, then took over the direction of Town and Gown. Reynolds headed both Town and Gown and the theatre department until he left the university in 1999. It was during the tenure of Reynolds that things changed drastically for Town and Gown Theatre.

In the fall of 1996, UAB opened the first phase of a long-awaited and planned performing arts complex in the heart of the University’s western campus. That facility, the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, initially opened with a large concert hall seating over 1,400. Three years later, in September 1999, the facility’s remaining venues, two smaller theatres and a recital hall, were officially opened at the completion of phase two. As Stephens Center construction was nearing completion, UAB administration announced that it would eliminate Town and Gown as an entity following the end of the 1998-1999 season and would move all student productions to the new performing arts center.

The final Town and Gown production was the musical Cabaret, held at the Clark Memorial Theatre in May of 1999. The final Cabaret performance on May 16, 1999, marked the end of a long and successful theater company and the end of the run in the Clark Memorial Theatre. UAB had announced its intent to sell the Clark Memorial Theatre once Town and Gown had ended. Eventually, the Metropolitan Arts Council (MAC) raised funds to acquire the Clark Memorial Theatre from UAB. Following a major renovation, it was reopened in May of 2002 as the newly renamed Virginia Samford Theatre.

By Tim L. Pennycuff

Records Series

45.1, Administrative Records, 1932-1998: Bulk 1950-1998, 1 cubic foot
45.2, Administrative Production Files, 1946-1998, 4 cubic feet
P45.2, Production Photographs, 1936-1998, 5 cubic feet
45.3, Programs and Playbills, 1927-1999: Bulk 1950-1999, 4 cubic feet
P45.4, Miscellaneous Photos, 1965-1988, 0.33 cubic foot
45.5, Scrapbooks, 1977-1999, 3 cubic feet
P45.6, Celebrities and Entertainers Photographs, 1930s-1990s, 3 cubic feet

Related Series

Note: A large amount of records of Director Hatcher can also be found in the James F. Hatcher Papers (Manuscript Collection 16). These items arrived at the UAB Archives soon after Hatcher’s death in 1993 and were originally processed in 1994. Patrons will want to review material in Record Group 45 and in Manuscript Collection 16 to obtain a more complete view of UAB’s Town and Gown Theatre.

This page created 2015 and last updated by Tim L. Pennycuff on 10 October 2023.

Copyright: The University of Alabama Board of Trustees.

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