230 years of entertainment

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The interior of the Tennessee Theater, built in 1928. Source: Knoxville History Project

As hard as it is to believe today, entertainment of any sort was once a rare and treasured commodity.

Our modern world immerses us in entertainment on a constant basis, enabled by technology and driven by a bottomless thirst for distraction. Music, films, tv shows, comedians, sports, and every other conceivable pastime are so pervasive that it takes a genuine effort to avoid being exposed to them all day, every day. 

Such a state of affairs would have been inconceivable to our ancestors. With no way to store or broadcast a concert or play, anyone who wanted to hear music or watch a dramatic performance either had to catch a live presentation or do it themselves. 

To that end, almost all cultures have had theaters of some sort. In late 18th century America, there were plenty of places one could go to see a show in, say, New York or Philadelphia. Those who lived in frontier communities like Knoxville, however, either learned to entertain themselves or went without the fine arts.

That would change, of course. As the years passed and Knoxville grew far beyond its early limits, residents were treated to a succession of theaters and dance halls that offered a wide range of entertainment. By the mid-20th century, in fact, the scruffy city by the river was home to at least one world-class venue: The Tennessee Theatre.

Originally described as a “grand movie palace,” the Tennessee’s storied history is nearly as interesting as the celluloid tales that once graced its screen. Reborn in the 21st century as Knoxville’s most prestigious venue and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Tennessee Theatre regularly hosts a wide range of concerts and other events. 

How Knoxville’s residents went from playing fiddle for their families in log cabins to watching opera in “the South’s most beautiful theatre” is the topic that Jack Neely and J.J. Stambaugh tackle in today’s installment of Hard Knox Histories.

J.J. Stambaugh: Although the focus this week will eventually be on the Tennessee Theatre, I’d really like to discuss the history of more than just that building. I’m interested in what people in Knoxville/Knox County have done for entertainment over the many generations since European settlers first put down roots on the banks of the Tennessee River.

For instance, let’s flip ye olde calendar back to 1800 or so. Knoxville has only been a city for a few years and the state of Tennessee (which Knoxville is capital of) is even younger. Let’s say that you and your wife have just spent days riding a stagecoach from the east as part of a sightseeing tour of the frontier and you plan on staying in Knoxville for a couple of days. What is there for a couple to do on a Saturday night? 

Strand Theatre. Source: McClung Historical Collection

Jack Neely: In 1800, there was probably very little going on in terms of formal entertainment. Taverns offered drinking and gambling, and there was a dance hall. The closest thing to an auditorium there was the courthouse. There weren’t even any churches, at least not church buildings. I gather some hotels, like the Lamar House, which opened in 1817, sometimes had music or some spectacle (like a live orangutan) but not much in the way of drama or real concerts. 

JJ: Let’s move to the 1830s/1840s. Knoxville is no longer the state capital. It is, however, a growing inland port for traffic on the Tennessee River. You and your crew dock your boat as the sun starts to go down and you begin to wander about, looking for a way to pass the time. What’s available?

Jack: In the 1830s and ’40s, drinking and gambling were still popular. There were a couple of churches, and a little bit of rising interest in classical music and opera, but actual performances were scarce. Churches probably supplied the closest thing to entertainment, most but not all religious. 

Sometimes a traveling handbell choir or something like that would draw some attention.

JJ: Wow. It seems like Knoxville was a pretty dull place for the first century or so, at least when it came to entertainment options.  Let’s move on to the period of 1890 to, say, 1910 or so. The Victorian era is making way for the Edwardian, and nearly 30 years have passed since the opening salvos of the Civil War. Knoxville is swiftly developing into a densely packed urban center with well-defined, economically striated neighborhoods. Railroads and industry rule the economic lives of its residents, no matter if they live in a mansion or in the Bowery. As a growing, energetic city, Knoxville’s got a few places for people of various classes and tastes to be entertained, including the Bijou. What are the most popular options?

Jack: The 1890s were a whole new world. 

The city was about 15 times bigger than it was in 1830, and there were people here from all over the western world. (Our mayor that year was a German immigrant.) By then, huge Staub’s Opera House, built in 1872 by a Swiss immigrant, was at the southeast corner of Gay and Cumberland.  There were legitimate plays and concerts and occasional operas during that era, with some major performers, like Sarah Bernhardt and Lily Langtry. 

The Lyric Theatre, formerly Staubs. Source: McClung Historical Collection

But it was also the heyday of vaudeville, with singers, comedians, minstrel shows, acrobats, animal acts, magicians, monologuists, mind-readers, caricaturists, puppeteers, impressionists, etc., usually a crazy variety of them every night, each one on stage for just a few minutes. 

Staub’s was the biggest, but there were others. Shows changed frequently, often playing one, two, or three nights before moving on. In the 1890s, you could see a different show every single night. (Except, of course, Sunday.)

Even some of the larger whorehouses had little theaters in them, with vaudeville and even some pioneering movies. Some folks were proud that Knoxville was showing movies, sometimes outside at places like Turner Park, the German-immigrant park on the north side, in the 1890s, pretty early in movie history. Mostly short novelty bits. 

The 1890s were fascinating, and if you get a chance to spend an evening in any era, the 1890s would be the era least likely to bore. The Bijou was built in 1909, near the end of that era, but fully part of it. 

Interior of The Bijou in the 1930s. Source: McClung Historical Collection

J.J.: 1928 to 1945. A “grand movie palace” named the Tennessee Theatre opens on Gay Street at the beginning of this period. Who builds the theater and for how much?  How does it fit in amongst the various entertainment options in town, which are presumably more numerous and varied than ever? What are some anecdotes from its first years of operation? Who were some of the most popular acts to perform at the Tennessee?

Jack: The Tennessee was built in 1928, after years of planning. It was first announced in 1920 as a sort of partnership, chiefly involving Paramount Studios in Hollywood. 

Entertainment seemed to be changing, in the 1920s, to something grander and more elegant than it had ever been before, but movies were now at the center of the business plan. For a very brief era — just 1925 to 1930, the Moorish Revival motion-picture “palace” was in vogue, and that was when the Tennessee was built.

First-run theaters had to be big by the Hollywood business plan of the ’20s and ’30s, because typically a new movie would be here for only three days, and people would jam in, almost 2,000 of them, to see it together, with another few hundred waiting in the lobby for the next show.

Also — and this was a big surprise to me when I researched the Tennessee Theatre book — each movie was accompanied by a different vaudeville show. For the Tennessee’s first several years, there was no such thing as “just” a movie. There’d be a jazz band playing, some organ accompaniment, then four live acts, pop singers, comedians, dancers, etc. — then the cartoon, newsreel, and main feature. 

These performers were there just as part of the movie experience, and it’s interesting that several of those who performed for movie crowds at the Tennessee were actually well known, like pop singer Gene Austin, and pioneering jazz guitarist Nick Lucas. And they weren’t even headliners.

The really big names on the marquee at the Tennessee in those early days included Fanny Brice, who was there with Ziegfeld’s Follies on its only Southern tour ever, in 1935; Helen Hayes, who was there with the first real Broadway show ever shown at the Tennessee, “Mary of Scotland”; Fifi D’Orsay, the somewhat-scandalous singer and dancer; Tom Mix, the Hollywood cowboy, with his rodeo; Desi Arnaz, who was just the Cuban “Rhumba King” in 1940, when he was there to promote a football movie in 1940; Glenn Miller and his orchestra, who did a 15-minute national radio-broadcast performance there the same year. 

Staubs Theatre. Source: Alec Reidl Collection

Each movie palace’s style was unique, and there was no theater that looked just like the Tennessee — its broad proscenium is very unusual for a movie house — but there were dozens of distinct “palaces” around the country. Most were eventually torn down or remodeled beyond recognition. 

The Tennessee’s design came from a young partnership called Graven and Mayger. They were young Chicago architects, just together for a couple of years. The Tennessee is one of only two of their theaters still standing. It was built by a Chicago firm, Fuller, which was famous for skyscrapers and which also built the older Burwell Building that stands at the front of the theater, over the lobby. 

J.J.:  Postwar to today. What happened to the Tennessee Theatre in this timeframe? How did it compete with the profusion of suburban theaters and then multiplexes that started to dominate the film experience in the 60s/70s? When and how did it transition into the performing arts venue that it is today?

Jack: Suburban theaters existed throughout the Tennessee’s history, but didn’t really compete with it until the 1960s. They were second-run theaters you probably wouldn’t go to unless they were in your neighborhood. But by the 1960s, some of the bigger suburban theaters, like the Pike/Capri on Kingston Pike and the Park on Magnolia were taking the first-run role that used to belong to the downtown theaters. 

By the 1970s, the Tennessee was no longer a first-run theater, and limped along for a few years. I remember seeing Rollerball, with James Caan, there in 1975 or ’76. That was probably the last new movie I ever saw at the Tennessee. 

The Tennessee had some difficult years after it stopped showing movies in 1977, or maybe even before that, when they felt obliged to make some extra money by putting pinball machines in the lobby. But I’m glad to say nobody ever talked about demolishing it, at least not out loud. It was never really abandoned. There were some proposals to divide it up into different venues, make it a bluegrass center, etc., and an attempt to keep it going just showing old black and white movies. I liked that idea, and frequently patronized it in those days, watching every movie Bogart ever made — I think I preferred the obscure ones — but not enough other people did. 

Lobby of the Tennessee Theatre. Source: Knoxville History Project

In 1980, they started having live shows there again, first on a modest basis, while Jim Dick, who owned it for years, along with other big theater supporters like Wallace Baumann, tried different things, luring the KSO there for their regular seasons, etc. 

But it was really the massive multi-million-dollar redo in 2005, which was an extraordinarily exacting renovation combined with a rebuild of sorts, adding new amenities like elevators and roomy modern dressing rooms and a cantilevered extended backstage that may be unique in the world, along with the resourcefulness of Ashley Capps and his cadre, that really made it something like a performing-arts center, with everybody from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash to Diana Ross performing there.  

I’ve seen everybody from Morrissey to Johnny Mathis there. The Big Ears Festival alone, which has brought major international figures like composer Philip Glass, Carla Bley, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jonny Greenwood, has brought the Tennessee more international renown than it has ever had before. Famous critics for major newspapers and magazines in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and London come and describe these cutting-edge musical events at the Tennessee, and also describe the Tennessee itself, sometimes in awe. It’s definitely more globally famous now than it was in 1928.

If all this talk about the Tennessee merely whetted your appetite for more, you’re in luck. Jack will be leading a special tour of the Tennessee Theatre from 6 – 8 p.m. August 31. Jack will be going over the venue’s history in detail, from the days when Fanny Brice and Tom Mix and Glenn Miller and a few hundred different vaudeville troupes put on big shows to its current era as a modern performing-arts venue featuring a global array of performers. 

It costs $30 a ticket, but it’s for a worthwhile cause — proceeds will help fund the Knoxville History Project. For further information or to buy tickets, go to https://www.eventcheckknox.com/event/knoxville-history-project-behind-the-scenes-tour-of-the-tennessee-theatre-with-jack-neely/

If you’re interested in delving into the background of the venue, copies are still available of Jack’s big coffee table book, “The Tennessee Theatre: A Grand Entertainment Palace.” It’s a truly beautiful volume, and it’s available through the theater’s main office or their website at: https://tennessee-theatre.square.site/

Well, that pretty much wraps up this installment of Hard Knox Histories. Jack and J.J. will be back on September 10 with another look back at Knoxville’s colorful past. See you then!

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com

Jack Neely can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

Published on August 27, 2021