Knoxville Attraction: Bijou Theatre

People gather outside the Bijou Theatre on Wednesday as the theater’s new marquee was lit in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

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People gather outside the Bijou Theatre on Wednesday as the theater’s new marquee was lit in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

Just call the Bijou Theatre the little venue that could. Though the theater opened in 1909 and has been an important part of Knoxville’s history, there was a time not so long ago when the theater almost closed its doors.

When the Bijou opened, it was part of an existing hotel known as the Lamar House. That hotel and tavern was itself built in 1817, making it the city’s fourth oldest building today (Andrew Jackson partied there on at least a couple of occasions).

Over the years the Bijou exhibited a variety of performances, including vaudeville, comedy and opera, and acts like Gene Autry, the Marx Brothers and Dizzy Gillespie. For a time it was even an adult movie theater flanked by a brothel.

The theater reopened in June 2006 after being closed for two years when former owners defaulted on mortgage loans. An estimated $2.1 million was raised from government grants and donations to renovate and reopen the theater. Funds went toward repairing structural deterioration, revamping mechanical systems, upgrading heating and air, improving the sound and lighting systems, and other such renovations.

Since reopening, the Bijou has become an integral part of Knoxville’s downtown. The 700-seat venue is at 803 S. Gay Street and is managed by A.C. Entertainment (which also manages the Tennessee Theatre just down the street). The theater hosts a variety of performances, including theater, opera, orchestra, choral groups, bands and solo performers, stand-up comedians and even films. Noted “New York Times” music critic Ben Ratliff called the Bijou “one of the best-sounding rooms I’ve experienced in this country.”

Audiences at the Bijou have been entertained by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, comedian Louis C.K., Scott Miller, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, the everybodyfields, TV on the Radio, Over the Rhine and Philip Glass, and have viewed films like “Blue Velvet,” “Harold and Maude” and the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

The Bijou also hosts Tennessee Shines on the last Wednesday of each month. The live broadcast showcases music that reflects the Tennessee region’s artistic culture. The program is hosted by Grammy Award winning songwriter Jim Lauderdale. Tennessee Shines usually features four to six performers and lasts two hours. It is broadcast on the radio on WDVX 89.9 FM, 102.9 FM or 105.9 FM in Knoxville.

Tickets for shows are available at the Tennessee Theatre box office on Clinch Avenue in downtown Knoxville, at Tickets Unlimited Outlets, by phone at 865-656-4444 or online at Parking is available near the Bijou at various pay lots and on-street metered spaces. Free parking is available at garages on State Street, Market Square and Locust Street after 6 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends.

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