Downtown Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre, like its sister the Bijou Theatre, has both a grand, historic past and what looks to be a bright future.
The theater opened in 1928 as a movie palace. It was contracted by Chicago-based George M. Fuller and designed by architects Graven & Mayger. The venue was at the time owned and operated by Publix. Movie patrons paid 40 cents for matinees and 60 cents for nighttime shows. Knoxvillians got their first look at the theater at showings of “The Fleet’s In,” starring Clara Bow, James Hall and Jack Oakie.
The 1,631-seat theater has an exquisite interior, designed in Spanish-Moorish style, and filled with bright colors, intricate tapestries, carpets and draperies, French-style chandeliers and a domed ceiling that could rival the Sistine Chapel. The building feels like an actual palace, and gawking at the theater’s design could well be worth the price of admission.
The theater has transitioned over the years. In its early days the theater was strictly a movie theater. The Tennessee was purchased in 1981 by Dick Broadcasting and renovated for the World’s Fair. The Appalachian Ballet and Knoxville Opera Company began using the theater for produc-tions in 1983, and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra started performing its Masterworks concerts there in 1985, further transitioning it to a multi-use venue.
The Tennessee received a major $25.5 million renovation and expansion which began in June of 2003. Restored from that date until its reopen-ing again in January 2005, the project refurbished the theater to its original grandeur, expanded the stage and orchestra pit, fitted the venue with modern acoustics, and added restrooms for guests and dressing rooms for performers.
Today the theater is managed and operated by A.C. Entertainment. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also the Official State Theatre of Tennessee. Located at 604 S. Gay Street, the Tennessee hosts classical music, films, dance, drama, stand-up comedy, musical per-formances and even the occasional wedding reception. Since reopening in 2005, patrons have witnessed performances by and of Alison Krauss, B.B. King, “Sweeny Todd,” David Sedaris, Wilco, “Stomp” and have screened films like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Visitors to the Tennessee will also experience the building’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Built by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of New York, the pipe organ is currently played by former Chancellor and Dean of Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Bill Snyder. An organ perform-ance may also be worth the price of admission.
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 www.tennesseetheatre.com. 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.
Concessions are available at most shows in the lobby, including snacks, sodas, beer, wine and popcorn at movies.
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