The Carousel may be more comfortable today than it was in the 1950s, but its weatherproofed exterior, added in recent years, conceals an extraordinary building. Unusual even when it was built, the Carousel Theatre may now be the oldest theater-in the-round in America.
At the time, this spot was not part of UT’s campus, but a residential neighborhood. In 1951, the Carousel was described as existing in a “grove” off South Seventeenth Street, between Yale and Rose Avenues.
Leading the effort was Minnesota-born, Cornell educated Professor Paul Soper. The English scholar had been directing volunteer drama groups since 1938. Before the Carousel, faculty,
student, and community productions were nomadic. A few were staged at Alumni Hall, though it was too large for most productions, or rooms at Ayres Hall or the Tyson House, which were too small. Sometimes, when it was available, college thespians used the old Bijou Theatre downtown. In the 1940s, many UT productions took place at Tyson Junior High, on
Kingston Pike. By 1950, performing drama clubs had been putting on shows around UT for 40 years, but they’d never had a home. The Carousel was Knoxville’s first theater built expressly for locally produced drama.
In those pragmatic days, UT was growing rapidly, partly thanks to the GI Bill, but had no theater department and no funding for drama. The Carousel began as a community project. Among its early sponsors was the local Junior League and the fading Tennessee Valley Players, the troupe that flourished in the 1930s, when it helped launch teenaged actress Patricia Neal’s career. Others in the community who helped fund the Carousel were George Dempster —and football coach Robert Neyland, who contributed some used construction materials for th former Knoxville city manager and inventor of the trademarked Dumpster—and football coach Robert Neyland, who contributed some used construction materials for the project. The university was able to help with a no-interest loan to complete the project.
Soper and the effort’s other leaders chose an extraordinarily unusual design. Architect Frederick Roth, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus, happened to be in Knoxville working for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Roth would later be known for his work in Philadelphia, and still later as a prominent member of the faculty at Clemson. He chose an unusual design: a theater-in-the round venue, but one that was almost infinitely adaptable, with movable seating and removable walls. Without walls, the octagonal building resembled a merry-go-round, suggesting the name: Carousel.
Its founding date might puzzle historians. It was formally completed in 1952, but the Carousel hosted several plays, with audiences, in 1951, when the roof was a canvas skirt and the flooring was sawdust. Among the first plays performed there, in the summer of 1951, were the Moss Hart comedy, Light Up the Sky, and the Emlyn Williams thriller, Night Must Fall. Early performances were in the summertime, with open walls, allowing audience members to see stars and fireflies as they watched.
The architectural oddity got attention. In 1952, the Nashville Tennessean Magazine ran a photographic spread about the Carousel, praising Roth for its design, “a happy blend of Chautauqua-arena openness and sound theatrical engineering.”
Although UT students and professors were involved in it from the earliest days, many of the Carousel’s early actors had no connection to UT. Some of its most important supporters, including Dempster, had never attended college. Some were accomplished thespians, like Barbara Gentry, a Knoxville socialite who’d enjoyed a brief Hollywood and Broadway career. Others were just Knoxville professionals, like affable Al Heins, who ran a building-supply business. Among its early actors were Nancy Tanner, the elegant ornithologist—among the last ever to witness an ivory-billed woodpecker—and energetic Kermit Ewing, who later founded UT’s art department.
In its early seasons, the Carousel sometimes hosted as many as a dozen separate productions a year, mostly popular plays of recent years. Outliers included R.U.R., the Czech science-fiction play, in 1955, and Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet, in 1958. (Very new at the time, it would only later be interpreted as a Jerry Lewis comedy.)
In the 1950s, the Carousel witnessed the beginnings of several notable careers, including those of future Tony winner John Cullum, whose first Carousel performance was in a production of The Philadelphia Story in 1952 (he was the reporter). Cullum appeared in several more Carousel productions before his 1960 Broadway debut in Camelot. Collin Wilcox costarred with Cullum in a 1953 production of J.B. Priestly’s Dangerous Corner. Wilcox (1935-2009) later appeared on Broadway and in several iconic TV shows like The Twilight Zone, but will always be remembered for the difficult role of the disturbed accuser in the 1963 classic movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Appearing in more than a dozen Carousel productions, Wilcox was one of the Carousel’s busiest actors in its early years.
Even future novelist David Madden performed at the Carousel, once in a 1956 production of The Petrified Forest alongside the teenager Carol Mayo Jenkins and John Cullum. Madden also appeared in what was probably the Carousel’s first Shakespearean production, The Taming of the Shrew, in 1957. In March, 1955, the Carousel premiered the UT student’s one-act play, Cassandra Singing. Madden later expanded it into one of his best-known novels. By the 1960s, the Carousel was familiar to area schoolchildren on field trips, as long yellow buses lined up around the building for daytime performances of Cinderella or Rumpelstiltskin. It’s safe to say that tens of thousands of East Tennessee children saw their first plays at the Carousel–and, perhaps, got too accustomed to the idea that actors often burst into the play from behind the audience.
The campus of the rapidly growing university grew up around the Carousel. In the 1960s, its stretch of South Seventeenth Street vanished altogether, as the Carousel became part of the backyard of modernist McClung Plaza. In 1970, the Carousel was dwarfed by the Clarence Brown Theatre, but still played a role in UT theater, better suited to intimate productions.
In April, 1976, modern playwright Edward Albee made a guest appearance at the Carousel, leading students in two discussion sessions. Later, author Alex Haley, whose main connection to drama was writing the story for most popular miniseries in television history, Roots, came to the Carousel to read an unpublished memoir about his childhood.
Late in the century, its formal name became the Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre, to honor an uncommon philanthropist. Ula Love attended UT briefly in the early 1920s. She enjoyed a showbusiness career as a pretty dancing girl in Ziegfeld’s Follies and she appeared in several
Hollywood movies of the 1930s, mostly in comic roles, sometimes sharing a stage with Shirley Temple, Gene Autry, or Laurel & Hardy. In her later years, she was especially fond of the Carousel, and the former starlet supported it as a patron. The Carousel was central to an unprecedented cultural exchange in the late 1990s, when it hosted several cutting-edge European directors interpreting experimental themes.
Meanwhile, the Carousel has maintained a bit of its early community-theater cred. Well-traveled local troupe Carpetbag Theatre’s Between a Ballad and the Blues, an African-American musical narrative that subsequently toured around the country, debuted at the Carousel in early 2008.
Today, the Carousel is the oldest building in a part of campus known for major modernist structures of brick and concrete. And it may be America’s oldest intact theater in the round.
(Originally published in Carousel Theatre playbills, 2015-2017).