Compiled by Jack Neely for the Knoxville History Project.
The Tennessee Theatre’s tall sign, removed this week, is only about 12 years old. A vertical sign was there during the theater’s early years, but it was removed in 1956. When the theater underwent a massive renovation in 2003 to 2005, there was sentiment to match the interior restoration with a replica of the 1928 sign that older supporters remembered, this time with a new computerized electronic marquee below it.
Both now need improvements to update the electronics, repair some damage caused by hail and passing trucks, and add 5,700 new, better LED lights to the six-story tall sign. A new campaign is raising money for the project. For more, go to tennesseetheatre.com.
Designed by the short-lived Chicago firm of Graven and Mayger, the Tennessee Theatre was a long-promised project of Hollywood’s Paramount studio. In a typical week, the theater debuted two new movies, most of them here for just three nights each. That’s why the theater, which originally seated almost 2,000, had to be so big. The Tennessee showed more than 100 new feature films a year.
But it was not just a movie theater, especially in its early years. The first movies shown at the Tennessee are considered “silents” because they didn’t include recorded conversation, although most came with their own musical soundtracks. By 1930, though, most movies were “talkies” with recorded dialogue. A Mighty Wurlitzer organ, installed with the theater’s construction, was considered a necessity in big movie theaters, because a live organist had played an accompaniment to the movies as they were shown. By the time the Tennessee opened, recorded soundtracks made this unnecessary, but a live organist greeted theater audiences for decades.
Each movie followed a vaudeville show, typically four acts that usually included a singer or musician, but might also include a magician, an acrobat, a comedian, a psychic, or an animal act. Several nationally popular performers, including jazz guitarist Nick Lucas and crooner Gene Austin, kept the audience entertained while they were waiting for the movie. Even Glenn Miller’s often-mentioned national broadcast at the Tennessee in 1940 was before a regular showing of a feature film. Young Cuban actor and musician Desi Arnaz performed four shows at the Tennessee later that year, singing, playing guitar, rhumba dancing, and promoting a movie called Too Many Girls.
The Tennessee also hosted talent shows. Fiddler and singer Roy Acuff played for his first auditorium audience at a talent show in 1932. His band, the Three Rolling Stones, were runners up. By the end of the decade, he was a national star.
The Tennessee’s biggest show ever may have been the Ziegfeld Follies of 1935, starring singer and comedian Fanny Brice. Because 100 standing-room only tickets were sold, the audience was well over 2,000. Other big shows of the 1930s included cowboy star Tom Mix’s acrobatic rodeo show, with live horses on stage; Helen Hayes in the Broadway show Mary of Scotland; and Earl Carroll’s Vanities, starring the sometimes-controversial Fifi D’Orsay.
The theater later focused more on movies, and offered “world premieres” of some, including So This is Love, in 1953, featuring a stage show by four of the film’s actors, including singer Kathryn Grayson and the young singer Merv Griffin, who played the Tennessee Waltz on the piano–and All the Way Home, the James Agee film set and filmed in Knoxville.
The Tennessee closed as a regular cinema in 1977. A series of renovations, especially a major one in 2003-5, reinvented the old theater as a place suitable for all sorts of music, including Broadway shows and major operas.
Since 1980, the Tennessee has been mainly a live-music venue, a stage for Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, and many others, most of them arranged by local firm AC Entertainment. But every year, it still shows some movies.
This weekend’s movie, the first in the Tennessee’s summer series, is Some Like It Hot, which was No. 1 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies poll. This particular movie had its Knoxville-era debut half a block away at the old Riviera in May, 1959. However, the comedy, starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis, seems intimate with the Tennessee. Its setting is 1929, the era evoked by the theater’s design. And its plot involves itinerant musicians of the sort that once performed on the Tennessee’s stage.
Featured Photo: 1928 or 2016? Can you guess? One clue is the movie on the marquee, Masks of the Devil, a 1928 silent starring John Gilbert. Another is the building on the right, which is the original S&W Cafeteria, before its 1937 move to the next block. The Farragut is in the background. Image courtesy of Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.
The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city.