Reading Knoxville: The Tennessee Theatre

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By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“I grew up with the Tennessee Theatre,” writes Jack Neely in his magnificent book The Tennessee Theatre: A Grand Entertainment Palace. Covering not only his fifty years of experiences, this book also discusses the origins of the theatre in the 1920s, its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, and the many declines and then subsequent renovations since the 1950s. The Tennessee Theatre is an entertaining exploration of Knoxville’s history.

“The 1920s turned out to be the era of the Movie Palace,” Neely notes, especially as silent pictures were replaced with talking pictures. Opening October 1, 1928, the Tennessee Theatre design was influenced by a Moorish revival in architecture, with theaters built in the Arabian Nights Fantasy. This design, though, is not apparent from the outside. “But part of the Tennessee’s charm to the first-time visitor is the sudden transition, walking into an apparently conservative early 20th-century American building and finding oneself in something like an Eastern palace.”

The Tennessee Theatre is a theater icon with a thousand resonances…

In its early years, the Tennessee Theatre played 100 films a year, with each film only staying at the theater for three days. Families had to plan their schedule around film dates. Each movie night was also a live show, with local talent, the organist (the Wurlitzer organ was purchased to accompany silent films but later became an attraction itself), and vaudeville style performers—singer, dancer, comic, magician, and an acrobat. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Tennessee hosted lots of the nation’s talent: Tom Mix on stage in 1933, Fanny Brice and the Ziegfeld Follies in 1935, the April 1938 screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the 1940s band performances of Glenn Miller and Desi Arnaz.

World War II put an end to the live shows. The advent of the television era in the 1950s kept more families at home than in the theaters. The Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, constructed in 1961, became the home for concerts and variety shows. The Tennessee Theatre was remodeled in 1966 but closed in 1977. In the 1980s, though, with AC Entertainment using the theatre as a venue for live shows and the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation providing support, the theatre made a comeback. It was fully renovated in 2003 to its present state.

This book is lavishly designed by Robin Easter and Whitney Hayden. The reader can indulge in photos of the theatre’s construction and renovation in various decades. Playbills and marquees announcements, lobby posters designed by Joe Parrott, photos of various performers, and historic letters such as the one addressed to children who joined Popeye Club from the 1930s tantalize the reader on almost every page.

Jack Neely provides the best summary of the book’s appeal: “The Tennessee Theatre is a theater icon with a thousand resonances: of Roy Acuff’s first performance, and Chet Atkins last; of Desi Arnaz, dancing the rumba with a local pharmacist, of screenings of most of the greatest movies ever made, of sham clairvoyants and regurgitation specialists; of massive war-bond drives; of hundreds of first dates that led to marriages; of major opera stars and instrumental virtuosos; of authors John Updike and Maya Angelou; of suave Glenn Miller and his polished band of live radio; of rock ‘n’ roll legends Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Lou Reed; of Tom Mix himself, and his talented horse, Tony.”

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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