In the late 1970s when downtown Knoxville, as many urban areas around the country, was in decline, it became clear the Tennessee Theatre would no longer be a viable first-run movie house. The action was all out west and the construction of the fancy new West Town Theater across the parking lot from West Town Mall seemed to be the death knell for the Tennessee. It led one local to predict that the Tennessee Theatre would soon be a paved parking lot. If you’d like to visit the modern theater which led to the prediction, travel to West Town Mall and drive out to the northeast corner of the parking lot near the corner of Morrell and Kingston Pike. It’s foundation should be somewhere just below the paved parking surface. That the Tennessee Theatre has survived is something of a miracle. That it thrives today and looks as pristine as it has in more than a generation defies all odds. Built in 1928, the year more movie palaces were built than any other single year in their era, with a predominantly Spanish Moorish architectural style, it is one of only two remaining theaters built by Graven and Mayger which survives today. The other is the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, which was completed two years earlier. At a cost of one million dollars, it seems an amazing bargain by today’s standards.
Becky Hancock, Executive Director of the Tennessee offered to take me on a behind-the-scenes tour and was gracious enough to include the extended Urban Family. This represents her second stint with the Theatre after some years away to work with Knox Heritage. Her excitement about the building, its history and its future are infectious. It’s hard to listen to her, to look around at the glorious building and imagine that the story could have ended in a much worse fashion. It’s literally hard to imagine Gay Street without that marquee. Built with silent movies in mind, the design included a Wurlitzer organ intended as accompaniment to the silent films to be shown there. In a strange twist, that organ never accompanied a silent film until 1969 because by the time the construction was completed, talkies had taken over.
It remained a first-run movie house for many years, but also hosted some of the greatest names in entertainment in the 1930s and 40s with marquee names like Thomas Dorsey, Glen Miller and their orchestras. One local man, remembering the era noted that if one was serious about a girl, he might drive into town, park in the Pryor Brown Garage and take the object of his affection to the Tennessee Theatre. Modest renovations in 1966, resulting in a reduced seating capacity from 1,996 to 1,545, proved to be inadequate to stave off competition from suburban theaters. The 1970s and 1980s saw hard times for the Theatre. Ultimately it closed in 1977, it’s future uncertain. Knoxville radio pioneer James A. Dick, of Dick Broadcasting, purchased it in 1980. In 1981 it was placed on the National Register. By 1983 the Knoxville Opera began their long-term relationship with the Theatre and the Knoxville Symphony began their use of the facility just two years later. By the mid-nineties ownership of the Theatre was transferred to the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation who launched plans for a major renovation. It was also during this period that AC Entertainment began handling all bookings.
Several logistical problems plagued the Theatre. Among them was the fact that the loading for all shows had to come through the front of the building due to the fact that the stage, located adjacent to State Street is two stories above street level. Additionally, the stage, originally intended for movies or small traveling groups had great difficulty supporting productions with large sets. The board, after discussing piecemeal options decided to attempt to do everything the theatre would need to be restored to its original grandeur while simultaneously becoming a functioning modern facility. The estimated price tag was twenty million dollars. In the end it required thirty million dollars. The funds were raised over the next years and by 2004, the funding was in place. Approximately twelve million dollars in public money, twelve million dollars in private money (donations ranged from a few dollars to over a million) and six million dollars in tax credits.
The restoration was magnificently completed. Exquisite attention to detail may be found at every turn. The lobby floor, which had begun to crumble and sink was restored. Extensive research revealed original paint colors which had been obscured for years. Their restoration allowed to see the walls as they were originally seen in 1928. Every painted surface in the theater was re-painted by hand. Consider that the next time you walk into the lobby or performance hall. The twelve foot chandeliers in the lobby, which are valued at approximately a quarter million dollars each, were taken down, shipped to Saint Louis, disassembled, repaired and reassembled before shipping back to Knoxville. Photographs revealed unique lamps on each side of the theater which had long-since disappeared. These were replaced with custom-made replicas. The list goes on.
Structurally, the biggest challenge was to build a larger stage, adequate for traveling Broadway productions and to find a way for those sets to be loaded at the rear of the building. The solution was to build an extension over State Street, but to have it cantilevered in order to avoid external support columns. The rear wall weighs over a million pounds, making the structural requirements extreme. A massive lift was added stage left to move equipment and sets from State Street up to the stage two floors above. Lighting throughout the hall was re-configured and LED lights installed. Seating capacity was increased to 1638 as a result of the renovation, largely thanks to a re-configuration of the seating.
Since re-opening in 2005, the theater has hosted over a million visitors to a myriad of events from Widespread Panic concerts to the Opera, from Broadway shows to BB King, just last night. I have great memories over the years of concerts in the Tennessee by Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, BB King as well as local artists such as the Black Lillies, Dirty Guv’nahs and RB Morris. We’ve enjoyed Broadway, opera, symphonies. Urban daughter even enjoyed her senior prom on the stage of the Tennessee. In the past year over forty shows were featured in addition to the standing runs by the Symphony and orchestra. Nearly all of them made money, which is a major accomplishment. “Jersey Boys,” which recently completed an eight show run, sold 12,000 tickets, grossing over $800,000. The recent success positions the Theater well going forward. Ms. Hancock envisions new initiatives to connect the community to their theater.
And the improvements continue. Just this week Regal Cinemas, who Ms. Hancock notes have been very gracious toward the Tennessee, donated a massive digital projection system which not only improves the quality of the viewing experience, but opens up a much wider set of possible films for showing. The first to be featured will be Back to the Future which will be shown First Friday in June. The evening will include public tours and music on the Mighty Wurlitzer from 5:00 – 7:00. The movie, which is free to the public, will begin at 7:00 PM.
Try to make it to the First Friday events or seek out another opportunity to appreciate this Knoxville treasure. It’s a great example of a building that seemed antiquated and useless in a modern era, but was preserved by forward thinking citizens. As we enjoy it, it also serves to teach us to value what we have and to think carefully about destroying something that seems useless now, but which may be a treasure to future generations. As with many such undertakings, the job is never finished. The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation accepts tax deductible donations which help them continue preserving this treasure for our city and region.