Ben-Hur is the new cinema spectacle, stumbling at the box office, an expensive remake of an old movie or two. Ben Hur is also a short, mostly residential street in East Knoxville, a quiet street of modest-sized houses and well-kept green lawns. Not quite half a mile long, Ben Hur runs southeast from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in the Five Points area. Ben Hur was once one of the streets that formed the original five points, along with Olive Street and old McCalla, now Martin Luther King.
That century-old business district is still called Five Points, but don’t make the common mistake of counting them. Some decades ago, traffic engineers engineered the acute angles away. Now they’re just right-angle streets oddly close together. Lots of other cities have a Five Points. Most other cities get to keep theirs. Nashville has a Five Points. Atlanta’s Five Points is famous. You can still count them on your fingers. But a five-points intersection is not considered safe enough for Knoxville. You might cut yourself on those things.
Ben Hur Avenue was always part of the Five Points party. It had that name long before the Charlton Heston movie they used to show on TV once a year on Sunday nights. The name first appeared on a street sign here around 1909.
Ben-Hur, always hyphenated, was, first, a popular novel. Published in 1880, its author was by Lew Wallace, a Union general from Indiana. The story of an enslaved Jewish prince and his challenge to his childhood friend, a Roman general, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was wildly popular in Knoxville and in the rest of the English-speaking world. Wallace had led troops in combat in several engagements in West Tennessee, including Shiloh, where he was sometimes blamed, probably unjustly, for the fact that Shiloh wasn’t a more decisive Union victory. Ben-Hur, his novel, was a redemptive success.
He was still alive in 1899 when Ben-Hur became a Broadway play. Presenting chariot races on stage requires some imagination.
Not many generals with combat experience get to enjoy second careers as international best-selling novelists. Wallace was so popular that people named their children for the author. A local inventor/businessman who competed with Dempster Dumpster was known as Wallace Brooks; his full name was Lew Wallace Brooks. He was born about the time Ben-Hur was a Broadway success.
It’s not all that unusual to name a kid for a novelist, or a road for a novel. There’s an Ivanhoe Road, north of Karns, and a couple of Kenilworths, one in North Knoxville, one in Sequoyah Hills; those share names with Sir Walter Scott novels. Bleak House, an actual 1858 house on Kingston Pike, is named for the Dickens novel of five years earlier. There’s a Robin Hood Road in Westmoreland, where the longest street is called Sherwood Drive. There’s a Hiawatha and a Nokomis in Sequoyah Hills. Those are both fictional characters in Longfellow’s 1855 narrative poem Song of Hiawatha. I bet there are others.
Why did the name Ben Hur appear on a street in 1909, almost three decades after the novel was a sensation? Its origin may have had to do with another movie. Before the Charlton Heston Ben-Hur, there was another, silent Ben-Hur, in 1925, with Ramon Novarro in the title role. It was a major spectacle.
But even before that, in 1907, before the era of feature-length films, there was a 15-minute version of Ben Hur, no hyphen, which was also a bit of a sensation. It starred seminal cowboy star William S. Hart—who had appeared in person in vaudeville productions on Gay Street—as the Roman commander Messala. He was the one who had created the role on Broadway a few years earlier.
As cinema, it was hardly more than a slapdash novelty, some scenes from a famous book, probably shown at the cheap new theaters on Gay Street. The 1907 version was the only Ben-Hur that wasn’t extremely expensive to make. They used what looks like a cardboard set. It was just a bit of fun. I gather that in those days a lot of people liked to watch movies drunk. That was the year we closed the saloons, so this was one of the last that would have afforded that opportunity. Legally, at least.
But the 1907 film got a lot of attention, and not just because it was the first film ever based on the Roman Empire. That Ben Hur became famous because of a landmark lawsuit. Wallace had recently died, and his heirs were not consulted for permission or offered royalties. The case got a lot of press, and eventually made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for the writer’s heirs. But it stirred interest in the old story, inspiring the production of a new illustrated book based just on the chariot race. By 1909, America was Ben-Hur crazy all over again, and it happened to be just during the time this part of town, soon to be known as Five Points, was being developed.
For most Knoxvillians, Ben Hur Avenue was on the way to Knoxville’s equivalent of the Roman Colosseum, barely two miles to the east. If we’d had chariot races in 1909, they’d have been held at Cal Johnson’s racetrack, that half-mile oval just off this long street now known as MLK. Were the developers of Ben Hur Avenue thinking about that?
Perhaps not. By the time developers named Ben Hur Avenue, betting was illegal in Tennessee, and Speedway Circle’s horse-racing days were over.
But it was on the way to some of the first auto races in Knoxville, which were also at Speedway Circle. Some of those early races were deadly, and I don’t doubt that, at least occasionally, a thoughtful race fan paused at the sight of Ben Hur Avenue and considered that stirring precedent.