The iconic Tennessee Theatre turns 95 years old this month and the folks there threw a little party on the stage to celebrate. Guests were encouraged to dress in 1920s attire to reflect the time of the beloved institution’s birth.
When the Tennessee Theatre opened in October of 1928, it was a single-screen movie theater. After a lifetime of ups and downs, today it is a venue for all kinds of musical performances, Broadway shows and, still, the occasional movies.
During the 1970s, the Tennessee Theatre’s future looked dim. It was closed and shuttered several times as downtown Knoxville also looked forlorn and abandoned. But the Tennessee took a turn for the better when businessman and philanthropist James A. Dick purchased it in 1981 with the intention of saving it.
In 1996, Dick turned the facility over to a new non-profit organization, the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, whose first president was Bruce Hartmann, then publisher of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. (At the time, there was still a hyphen in the newspaper’s name!)
Led by Hartmann, the foundation after several years of study and preparation, launched a campaign to raise $30 million to restore the theater. As part of this project, the theater’s stage was expanded by cantilevering it over State Street, making it suitable for many more performances such as the ones we see there today.
The foundation hired a downtown public relations firm called Moxley Carmichael to assist in the fundraising project. As the CEO of that firm, one of my fondest memories is of re-opening night in January 2005 when the entire community was invited to see the “big reveal” after the Tennessee Theatre had been closed for 18 months.
Before the doors were opened to the public, I was standing in the back of the darkened auditorium next to Mayor Bill Haslam watching the folks on stage get ready. We were both a little overwhelmed by the stunningly beautiful interior of the hall. “Well, Mayor, what do you think?” I asked. He sounded like a small child on Christmas morning when he answered: “I just can’t believe we get to keep it!”
Well, fortunately we did get to keep it. And earlier this month at the birthday party, Becky Hancock, executive director of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, which still operates the theater, ticked off a list of interesting historical facts:
- When the theater opened in 1928, tickets cost 60 cents for evening movies and 40 cents for matinees.
- It originally was billed as “an acre of seats in a palace of splendor.”
- Early performers included Tom Mix, Fanny Brice, Helen Hayes, Glenn Miller, Roy Acuff and Desi Arnaz.
- The movie “Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs” welcomed 70,000 patrons in one week in April of 1938.
- Bill Snyder played the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ for the first time publicly in 1979.
- The chandeliers in the lobby are named after the girlfriends of the stagehands! They are: Angie, Molly, Susie, Wendy and Gretchen. Ha.
- The Knoxville Opera began performing there in 1983 and the Knoxville Symphony in 1985.
- When the theater reopened in 2005, it was able to accommodate traveling Broadway shows, which began appearing there in 2008.
- “Les Misérables” was the first show to hold a full weeklong run at the Tennessee in January 2012; “Hamilton” was the first to hold a two-week run in February of this year.
- The Tennessee Theatre closed for the COVID pandemic on March 14, 2020. The next touring concert to appear there was Aug. 21, 2021.
- There have been more than 2,700 events with 2.8 million visitors since the theater re-opened in 2005.
- The foundation runs the Tennessee with a staff of 22 full-time employees.
- It is the official State Theatre of Tennessee and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here’s a little snippet of the Old City Buskers to take you back in time: