Find what you love and call it work: Shoals Community Theatre gives Steve Price purpose

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Steve Price turned 70 years old in November, but he said he’s no closer to retirement than the day he turned 60.

As manager of the Shoals Community Theatre, he said he’s content with his not-so-routine line of work, which ranges from meetings with local and national celebrities to sweeping floors in the concession stand.

“There’s a line in a country song: ‘Find what you love and call it work.’ That’s what I’ve done here,” Price said. “I love this theater. It’s not like work.”

Before he came to Florence, Price worked as manager of the Ritz Theatre in Sheffield for several years. In 2015, he was asked to step in as the first full-time manager at the Shoals Theatre to help diversify the types of events held at the venue on North Seminary Street.

“I’m a musician, and they knew I had a lot of contacts in the business, so they brought me in specifically to do that,” Price said. “They operated with a kind of house-manager situation before I came. I’m the only paid employee in the whole shooting match. It’s kind of odd. That’s why I depend on my volunteers.”

The Shoals Theatre, which was designed and built by Florence business leader and philanthropist Louis Rosenbaum, opened its doors on Oct. 21, 1948, and first screened “That Lady in Ermine.”

When it opened, the theater was the fourth largest movie house in the state of Alabama.

The theater featured films like “Taxi,” starring Dan Dailey, and “Meatballs,” starring Bill Murray, until it shuttered its doors in 1980. In the early 1990s, the building was purchased by the Shoals Association of Ministers & Musicians (SAMM), led by Mike Simon.

Following renovations in 1997, SAMM sponsored events at the theater, rented out the space for community events, and maintained the building until 2007.

At that time, the building was sold to the Shoals Community Theatre, the organization formerly known as the Tri-Cities Community Theatre that was made up of the Zodiac Players and Gingerbread Players.

Price said the Shoals Community Theatre put in its own restoration efforts, including installing a replica of the iconic Shoals Theatre sign and marquee that had been replaced with generic lettering sometime before the theater closed in 1980.

Throughout the early 2000s, following its chain of ownership, the Shoals Theatre kept afloat by housing the theater groups, and opening primarily for live theater productions.

“The doors were closed way too often,” Price said of the situation before he was asked to step in about eight years ago.

“That was my biggest goal — to get where we had a lot of different events going on, and we have. You know, we’ve added the story-telling festival, which is great. It’s an annual thing every year now. The (Shoals Chamber of Commerce) does events here. We’ve had the governor come through and speak, and we’ve done special things through the school systems.”

Perhaps what Price is most proud of is his work in lining up shows with several musical legends at the Shoals Theatre.

Great solo artists and famous bands like Travis Tritt, Ricky Skaggs, Jack White and the Raconteurs, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jason Isbell, St. Paul and the Broken Bones have all graced the stage in Florence since Price took on the job.

While he’s awed by the all the famous names he has seen spelled out in block letters across the Shoals Theatre marquee, Price said he regrets having a few famous acts slip through his fingers a time or two.

A couple of years ago, Price said the theater came so close to hosting Jimmy Buffett, the singer-songwriter known for his tropical rock sound.

Buffett was actually going to come. Mac McAnally is a dear friend of mine, and we’d been working for years. Mac and Jimmy Buffett would do these one-offs, which were freebies, because Jimmy Buffett’s foundation benefitted small venues,” Price said.

“So, during COVID, I got a call from Mac. Jimmy Buffett was going to play the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night, and Buffett called Mac and said, ‘Hey man, talk to Steve. Let’s do this.’ So, Mac called me, and it was going to happen,” he said. “Then Buffett’s agent and his wife both reminded him that Nashville was at the height of COVID.”

At the time, the public was unaware that Buffett had secretly been battling Merkel cell carcinoma, which claimed his life on Sept. 1, 2023.

“COVID was peaking in the city, and you know, Jimmy Buffett didn’t need the money. The last thing he needed was COVID, which none of us knew how sick he was,” Price said.

With Buffett’s death, so too died Price’s hopes of having the star back in Florence. It was a dream he shared with a late friend, Joel Anderson, who was also a benefactor of the theater.

“Joel had offered $20,000 for the front row if Jimmy Buffett ever played the theater,” Price said with a laugh. “Anyway, we came so close, but it didn’t happen, and that was so sad. But, you know, we’ve had some really amazing artists come through here, and Kris Kristofferson would be at the top of the list for me. That’s music royalty if there ever was.”

Though Price probably most enjoys booking musicians for the theater, he said he also looks forward to the plays and movies now that the theater is screening once again.

When Price joined the efforts at the Shoals Theatre, he said it became a personal goal to reinstall projection equipment to get the venue back to what it was originally built for. It was a goal that was realized thanks to funding from the Anderson family in Price’s late friend’s memory.

“When we lost Joel, that really hurt,” Price said. “I approached his children after that. I waited a year and told them what our last meal was, and he told me his bucket list for the theater. He wanted to see movies in this theater. I said, ‘Well, you can make it happen, Joel,’ and thanks to Joel Anderson, actually the Anderson Foundation, we did make it happen.”

When the screen was finally ordered, Price said the theater ran into one more minor hurdle of actually installing the thing. The 32-foot screen was delivered in a 34-foot crate, and weighed around 1,760 pounds.

“They informed me the day before they were going to deliver it that I was responsible for off-loading. I went, ‘Are you serious?’ Man, I was freaking,” Price said.

A few quick calls, and several neighbors, including the University of North Alabama football team, came to help with the heavy lifting.

“That’s what you call a community event right there. We never could have made it without those guys,” Price said. “That’s what you do. We all come together, and that’s how things happen.”

Though Price has checked several items off his to do list for the Shoals Theatre, he admits he still sees no end in sight. That’s in part thanks to his love for his work and for the arts.

“That’s one wish for this whole Shoals area, if we could big time encourage everybody to support — not just the musicians, not just the actors and actresses, but the artists as well. It’s something that I don’t see enough of,” Price said, adding that his work at the theater is just one small way of keeping the arts alive in the Shoals.

“It’s a great place to be, and I really do love it,” he said. “It keeps me young. You see people retiring and becoming stale and stagnant. I like to keep living. You know, it’s all about purpose. This theatre is my world.”