Ten years ago tomorrow, January 14, 2005, the Tennessee Theatre opened its doors on a new era. Closed for the restoration that brought its appearance back to an opulence most Knoxville citizens could not remember – likely better than it was in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – the era in which most older citizens recall – it looked as close to its original appearance as known records of the original construction would allow. No detail was left unattended.
At the same time, it was better. Originally intended to be a movie house and for very small performances, the stage was not designed for the large scale modern productions we’ve come to expect. As a result, staging a concert was a challenge and staging a modern production of any other sort was extremely problematic. These inadequacies and difficulties were also addressed – sometimes in very creative ways. The backstage area was increased dramatically and loading was made much easier by an expansion off the back of the building.
Becky Hancock, executive director of the Tennessee Theatre Foundation, told me recently that talk of documentation arose during the renovations and about the same time Bill Snyder mentioned to Jack Neely that a book should be done. The idea, dormant for several years, resurrected in 2012 when the board voted to commission a book about the entire history of the theatre. Sponsors Regal, Clayton and Visit Knoxville came on board with funding, Robin Easter Design and Lithographics Publishing donated their services – and the only choice for writing the content, Jack Neely, was engaged for the project.
Primarily written and assembled in 2014 and designed by Robin Easter employee Whitney Hayden (Becky Hancock called her “the creative genius behind the artifact we hold in our hands,” the book covers everything from Gay Street prior to the construction of the theatre to concerts as recent as last fall. Records were culled in the McClung Collection and a major contribution came via the records of Wallace Baumann whose grandfather and great-uncle were Baumann and Baumann Architects renowned architects who practiced in Knoxville. Wallace, whose portrait may be seen in the Tennessee Theatre operated Woodruff Furniture for many years and loved historic theatres. His passion for the Tennessee Theatre led him to be a major donor in the restorations. He insisted that every visible detail be restored to its original appearance. After his death in 2009, his papers which included, for example, notes about particular performances at the Tennessee, were donated to the McClung collection and they offered a treasure trove of information for the new book.
Tim Burns, technical director at the theatre since 1979 also provided large amounts of information. Becky Hancock, Tim Burns and Jen Mowrer compiled images for the book from many sources including Eric Smith and Jim Thompson. Photographs from stills archived online by DrMacro were donated. Far more extensive than originally intended, the book includes 358 photographs covering movies and concert performances during the theatre’s 85 year run.
The project, being a labor of love for everyone involved swelled well past its originally budgeted 160 pages. The final version includes 50,000 words and 228 pages. Ms. Hancock said, “We decided if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right.” Details were being confirmed up to the very last with the final photographs sent to the printer November 7. They’d hoped to finish it in time to sell it for Christmas, but doing it as well as possible dictated a little extra time. Details were being confirmed up to the last moment.
Ms. Hancock pointed out nothing like this had ever been done. “The Theatre has been around for 86 years and there has never been a single document that covered the period of Gay Street before the theatre, how it came to be, what it was like during the early years, the decline of downtown, segregation and the resurgence when Jim Dick bought the building in 1980.”
The care that was taken with the restoration is reflected in the care that went into the beautiful new book. Of the book, Ms. Hancock states, “I hope people who consider themselves familiar with the theatre are surprised how much they learn and that people who are less familiar are inspired to come see it for themselves. I hope it preserves the record when we are all gone.”
The book is an all-Tennessee affair, published by the UT Press and printed in Nashville. And it can be yours for only $60. An event at the Tennessee Theatre tomorrow (Wednesday) night will mark the first offering of the book to the public. People who have pre-ordered (which you can do at the link below) can grab their copies that night. The theatre will open for the Celebration of the Grand Re-Opening from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM with performances on the mighty wurlitzer, backstage tours, a gallery of historic photographs and much more. Of course, Jack Neely will be on hand to sign copies of the book.
After tomorrow night, the book will be available in the theatre box office and they hope to have it in book stores and other places within a couple of weeks. After only a glancing familiarity with the book, I can tell you it is worth more than its price. If you love Knoxville, Old Theatres, the Tennessee Theatre, history or Jack Neely’s writing, you will adore this book. If you don’t love at least some of those things, then you wouldn’t be reading this blog would you? Get your copy. I’ll see you at the open house.