Bijou celebrates 100 years

Four-day jubilee kicks off, culminates marquee effort

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam speaks during the “Light Up the Bijou” ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville. The event kicked off a four-day jubilee providing entertainment through Saturday.

Photo by Saul Young

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam speaks during the “Light Up the Bijou” ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville. The event kicked off a four-day jubilee providing entertainment through Saturday.

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

Photo by Saul Young

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

Video

A documentary about the history of the Lamar House/Bijou Theatre made by DoubleJay Creative. Created to celebrate the theater's 2006 re-opening, the documentary received a nomination for a regional Emmy Award.

A documentary about the history of the Lamar House/Bijou Theatre made by DoubleJay Creative. Created to celebrate the theater's 2006 re-opening, the documentary received a nomination for a regional Emmy Award. Watch »

Video

A tour behind the scenes in the Bijou.

A tour behind the scenes in the Bijou. Watch »

Video

Is the Bijou haunted? Bijou Technical Director Jason Fogarty tells his side of the story.

Is the Bijou haunted? Bijou Technical Director Jason Fogarty tells his side of the story. Watch »

Video

Bijou Jubilee commercial. Video by DoubleJay Creative

Bijou Jubilee commercial. Video by DoubleJay Creative Watch »

Downtown Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre got a bright start on its next 100 years Wednesday.

A blue vertical sign with 448 LED bulbs and sidewalk marquee was turned on just before 6 p.m. at the 803 S. Gay St. theater to celebrate the building’s first century.

The ceremony began four days of Bijou 100 Year Jubilee events and the culmination of the “Light Up the Bijou” campaign that raised money for the marquee and sign that gave the Bijou a look similar to one of its past. The Bijou for decades had a sign and marquee. The last marquee apparently was removed when the theater was saved from demolition in the 1970s.

Bijou Board President Larsen Jay said before the ceremony that about 90 percent of funds needed for the “Light Up the Bijou” campaign had been raised, with about $10,000 still needed. He said he hoped much of that money would come during jubilee events as Bijou visitors bought the sign’s $25 bulbs.

The jubilee entertainment began Wednesday with a sold-out “Tennessee Shines” radio show and continues through Saturday with 22 shows. Dance, music, lectures and tours about the building’s history, a Saturday children’s show, a performance by comedian Henry Cho and a midnight ghost tour are on the schedule. Ten of the events are free.

The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation operates the Bijou as a nonprofit, overseen by the Bijou Theatre Foundation. The Bijou is managed by A.C. Entertainment, which also manages the Tennessee Theatre on Gay Street.

The 783-seat theater also Wednesday recognized the support of a major sponsor by naming its stage the U.S. Cellular Stage. The company extended its support of the Bijou through 2011 in a sponsorship that exceeds $150,000.

The Wednesday lighting ceremony marked another step in the Bijou’s history. Built in 1909, the theater with astounding acoustics has hosted entertainment from the Marx Brothers to Doc Watson. Built on the back of a 1816-17 hotel now called Lamar House, it have thrived through an array of uses. Some or all of it have been a stage palace, grand hotel, tavern, movie theater, Civil War hospital, place to store used cars, brothel and adult movie house.

Saved from demolition in the late 1970s, the Bijou went through renovations and management changes. In 2005 it closed for almost two years but avoided foreclosure through business, government and individual support. Some $2.1 million not only renovated the building but helped pay its bills so it could reopen in 2006. Many people who helped with that renovation were in the crowd of about 150 people standing on a closed Gay Street Wednesday.

The Lamar House and Bijou are “the fourth-oldest building in Knoxville in the front and the oldest running theater stage in the back,” Jay told the crowd. “Today is not just a birthday party but it’s an open house. … We open our doors to everyone who is proud of our history, proud of our city and who loves the performing arts.”

Amy McRary may be reached at 865-342-6437.

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