A true Gay Street icon, the Bijou Theatre is Knoxville’s oldest and one of the city’s most beloved theatres. It has a deep history dating back to the very early 1800s when Irish immigrant Thomas Humes built what we now know as the Lamar House, the front part of the Bijou Theatre. Humes, and his wife, Margaret (later Margaret Cowan Humes Ramsey, may have intended it as a residence, but after Thomas’s death, opened it as a hotel.
KHP is proud to share an episode of Knoxville Chronicles with Jack Neely: Bijou Theatre produced byKnoxville Weekend.
KHP’s historian Jack Neely looks back at what was going on at the Bijou roughly a century ago: “By 1916, Knoxville supported several small movie theaters, but the stage shows still drew the biggest crowds. On Gay Street, the Grand featured vaudeville. Less than a block down the sidewalk, the Bijou featured vaudeville, too, but with more variety, including some famous national acts. Across the street, Staub’s Theatre wasn’t too proud for vaudeville, but more likely to feature Broadway and opera acts.
The Bijou, “The Joy Spot of Knoxville,” “the Theatre Beautiful,” bought the most space in the papers. “The Bijou Habit Is Like Love. You Always Hear About It… But You Have to Get It to Appreciate It.”
Any holiday reveler who stepped out, especially to the Bijou, would have found something interesting.
The Imperial Bicycle Five played basketball on the Bijou’s stage. Ethel McDonough made her name as a “drummer girl” and as a high-dive act, but in 1916 she was a singer-comedienne and a “Statuesque Beauty.” Phil Bennett, “the Alpine Troubadour,” was a yodeler. Hazel Leona, “the Merry Sunshine of Vaudeville,” was on the same bill.
Among the many who performed at the Bijou in the days just before Christmas were Pietro Deiro, one of the country’s most famous accordionists; and Skipper and Kastrup, the song-and-dance duo billed as “the Original Grouch Destroyers.”
On Christmas Day, Mr. Choy Heng Wa and his troupe, variously known as “Chinese magicians” and “novelty acrobats,” performed several shows on the Bijou stage. They were known for spinning plates and breathing fire. On the same bill was Dorothy Kenton, the famous “Girl with the Banjo.”
Extract from “Magnificent Distractions: Christmas, 1916, Saw a Promenade of American Show Biz” from KHP’s “A Knoxville Christmas” now available in our online store.
For a historical timeline, visit the Bijou Theatre’s official website
The Bijou and the Birth of Knox Heritage
Without preservationist organization Knox Heritage, the city of Knoxville would lack many of its now-familiar landmarks. The nonprofit began in 1974 as a group of volunteers gathered to save the Bijou Theatre, at a time when it appeared the 1909 landmark was going to be demolished. Soon afterward, Knox Heritage took on an even more ambitious goal, that of saving the crumbling Victorian architecture of the Old City, the almost-forgotten warehouse district.
In recent years, Knox Heritage has played a critical role in saving and restoring several of the now-popular historic buildings that make up downtown Knoxville, including the Daylight, and the Standard. Also active in preserving residential neighborhoods, KH is well known for its work with Fourth & Gill, Old North, Mechanicsville, Parkridge, Victorian neighborhoods that have dramatically improved during Knox Heritage’s tenure. Lately KH has been exploring the best of the area’s “mid-century modern” architecture from the 1950s and even early ’60s. Learn more about Knox Heritage at knoxheritage.org