Inside the Haunted 200-year-old Bijou Theatre; Do You Believe?

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, October 2023
Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, October 2023

October is spooky season around Knoxville, and as we end the month, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of this history of hauntings downtown, specifically at the famed Bijou Theatre.

The Bijou Theatre property was purchased in 1801 to become a premier hotel, tavern, and three storefronts. Developer Thomas Humes began work on Lot 38 in 1815 but died before its completion in 1817. However, it still became a hotel with thirteen guest rooms, a bar, a ballroom, and a dining room. The hotel went through several name changes over the years, in addition to opulent renovations. It began as The Lamar Hotel, then the Jackson Hotel, City Hotel, Coleman House, and the Knoxville Hotel. It was the center of Knoxville’s social scene. Over the years, five U.S. presidents visited the Lamar Hotel.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, 1909 Grand Opening Photo, October 2023

During the Civil War, the hotel served as a hospital for both sides and was known as The Lamar Hospital. In addition to countless soldiers who passed there, General William P. Sanders died in the bridal suite of the hotel in 1863. From 1869-1881, the hotel was owned by seven different people.

Management changed hands almost as much as the ownership and name changes. By 1904, it was coined “Old Homestead.” The hotel experienced financial hardship and fell victim to other larger hotels and industries in the city. In 1908, a company purchased it and turned the ballroom into a theater named Jake Well’s Bijou Theatre, according to the Bijou website. In 1909, the theater began showing Vaudeville shows and the occasional motion picture. The 3rd-floor balcony, wholly separated from the 2nd-floor balcony and lobby, was designated for African Americans to watch shows along with white people at the time and had a separate entrance and exit.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, 3rd Floor Balcony seat impressions, October 2023

The theater spent time as an “adult” movie house and the hotel as a home for transients and prostitutes (a brothel). The hotel went out of business in 1969 after being determined a public health hazard. The theater, however, continued to operate until 1975, when it was shut down due to unpaid taxes. It was set for demolition but was added to the list of historical places in the National Historical Record, and the Knoxville Heritage Group set out to raise funds to keep it from being demolished. The theater reopened in 1977, still needing renovations. The Bistro at the Bijou opened in 1982. Renovations of the building were done in 1985, and it continued to operate through the 80’s and 90’s. More renovations were completed in the late 90’s, but cost more than pledged and had to be mortgaged. In 2004, the theater was shut down again.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, View from 3rd Floor Balcony, October 2023

In 2005, then-Mayor Bill Haslam helped secure federal funding to restore the historic building. In 2006, it reopened and has remained open and operating since that time, with building success year after year. You can find a more detailed history of the building on the Bijou’s website HERE and more on Knoxville’s theater district HERE.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, 4th Floor Brothel Room, October 2023
Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St,4th floor Brothel Room 2, October 2023

Now that we understand some history, let’s talk about the lore. Is the Bijou Theatre haunted? Many say yes, she is. I visited the building to learn more about its mystery and hauntings. We went up to the fourth floor, operated as a brothel, and due to renovations that placed the HVAC openly on that floor, it is a time capsule to the 1970s. One of our guides told of his experience of flickering lights and doors swinging open that are always locked.

The ghost of General Sanders, who died in the Bridal suite, is said to roam the theater. Many musicians have inquired about the “guy in the uniform with brass buttons in the 3rd-floor balcony” that hasn’t been used in decades. The answer is that General Sanders must love their music and has come out to watch the show. The second-floor women’s restroom is where many have felt a little tug from a spirit they feel wants a little attention. While I didn’t experience anything in the restroom, knowing there have been otherworldly encounters does make you move a little more quickly through the space. Some have said they have heard voices and crashes from above in the circa 1909 rig area.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, View of Rigging, October 2023

The director of the theatre, Courtney Bergmeier, took our group on the tour from the 4th floor to the basement. She told of having her cardigan tugged on and a separate time of hearing a voice late a night when she was alone closing up telling her to “Get out. Get out. Get out.” She did get out but kept coming back, booking shows and hosting tours. Though ghost hunters tell her she has around 20 spirits in the office with her on any given day, she is determined to bring the Bijou into its most successful period in history. They are working with an architecture company to determine how to reopen the 3rd-floor balcony, update the space, and welcome even more shows and guests to this historic venue.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, Courtney Bergmier points out former bridal suite door, October 2023

You can see more on the spooky side of the theatre here. In the 2019 story that WATE did  on the hauntings.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, 2nd floor Ladies Room, October 2023

If you are looking for some other spooky sites around Knoxville and East TN, Knox News did a breakdown of 9 haunted places early this month. If you’re brave, visit them all, but you won’t find me at any of them alone after dark! If you want to have your personal paranormal experience at the Bijou, check their website for tours and show dates, and keep your eyes, ears, and mind open.

Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St, October 2023