The Carousel: Maybe America's Oldest Theater With a Stage in the Middle

Last year, the University of Tennessee chose not to level Clarence Brown Theatre, as planned. It's not old enough yet to be formally historic, but it's getting there. Clarence Brown is one of UT's three or four most famous alumni, and the university's most generous. Since his 1910 graduation, most of the campus he knew as a student has been torn down. His theater is the only building on campus with which he's known to be associated. It was much praised, upon its construction, as a model work of modernist architecture well-fitted for its purpose.

Traditionally, many wealthy alumni make their bequests out of some yen for immortality. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But if we're going to announce the demolition of a 40-year-old building less than 25 years after the bestowing alumnus's death­—because our bathroom standards have changed?—that could be a sobering message to potential university donors.

Still in the UT bulldozer's long-range sights is the Carousel Theatre, which sits separately, like Clarence Brown's big garden shed. It probably has a few more seasons left; the play Fuddy Meers, a contemporary comedy, opens at the Carousel this weekend. I'm not sure how they choose to put a production in the ragged, intimate Carousel, but it sometimes seems as if the round theater hosts plays with sharper edges.

It is not gorgeous. I once noted that from the outside, it resembled a bathroom at a YMCA camp. Some aesthetic authorities in the neighboring Art and Architecture Building say they'll be relieved to see it go.

Just 20 years ago, though, UT was proud of it. UT Chancellor John Quinn claimed the Carousel was the oldest theater in the round in America. Since then, Peoria's Corn Stock Theater has claimed to be the oldest—but it was established in 1954. Tyler, Texas, has a theater claimed to be America's first permanent theater-in-the-round, dating to 1951, though it's been radically remodeled and expanded since.

UT's Carousel first hosted plays in the summer of 1951, a few months before the building was completed with a permanent roof. Is our Carousel the oldest theater-in-the-round in the entire nation? I don't know. I just know it's older than some that are claimed to be the oldest.

It's definitely the oldest thing on its block. When it was built, "to evoke the gay carnival spirit," as one reporter had it, this part of campus was barely part of campus; it was mostly a residential neighborhood. During the Truman administration, this peculiar octagonal building stood in a "grove" near the corner of South 17th Street and Rose Avenue.

Though its construction was proposed by Professor Paul Soper, head of UT's speech and theater department, and UT offered a loan—not a grant—to build it, the Carousel wasn't just a UT project. What remained of the old community troupe known as the Tennessee Valley Players, which gave Patricia Neal her start, devoted its last assets to building the Carousel. Many of the Carousel's early actors were non-collegiates who liked to perform and happened to live in Knoxville. Among the Carousel's listed patrons are lots of old Knoxville families: Fanz, Rodgers, Roddy, Lotspiech, Van Gilder, Albers—and old Knoxvillians, like Mayor George Dempster. A 1951 Carousel playbill hardly mentions UT, except for thanking General Neyland for contributing some ramps to the structure.

The architectural oddity caused a small stir. In 1952, the Nashville Tennessean Magazine ran a photographic spread about the Carousel, praising architect Frederick Roth for its design, "a happy blend of Chautauqua-arena openness and sound theatrical engineering." Roth, a TVA architect later prominent in Philadelphia, was still later a professor of architecture at Clemson. When he died in 1997, a Philadelphia Inquirer story mentioned the Carousel as an early accomplishment.

In the 1950s, the Carousel helped launch the careers of Broadway and TV star John Cullum and Colin Wilcox, best known for her unsettling performance in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, among others.

The first live drama I ever saw was at the Carousel. As was the second, and I'm pretty sure, the third. Probably the first 20 or 30 plays I ever saw were at the Carousel, and at least a dozen of them were Rumplestiltskin. It was a regular field-trip destination for Knoxville elementary schools. Yellow buses would drop us off, and the Carousel was a refuge. Even after Rumplestiltskin's denouement was no longer a surprise, it was always preferable to long division.

Years later, when I was a student at UT, the Carousel still had removable walls, and in the summertime it was a perfect place to see, in the twilight, a startling foreign play or an avant-garde comedy.

Its formal name, at least for the last couple of decades, is the Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre. I'm always impressed that UT people pronounce that entire mouthful whenever they refer to the Carousel.

If you guessed the honoree was another wealthy alum-philanthropist, you'd be part right. Ula Love—she didn't add the name Doughty until she married prominent lawyer John Doughty, when she was elderly—was a philanthropist who attended UT briefly in the early 1920s. But she also had a fun show-business career as a pretty dancing girl in Ziegfeld's Follies and at Radio City Music Hall; and later in Hollywood, she appeared in seven movies over about four-and-a-half years, mostly in comic roles. On film, she sometimes served as Golden Age star Constance Bennett's double, and played some roles on her own, sharing a stage with Shirley Temple, Gene Autry, Laurel & Hardy. Not in the same movie, though that would have been something to see.

In later years, Ula Love seemed especially fond of the Carousel, because in 1991 she made a "substantial" donation to the university to improve it. She died in 2000; I should have interviewed her for this column.

Anyway. Go see Fuddy Meers and have a fresh look at the Carousel. It's one of the older, odder, and most-storied buildings on campus. See if whatever you don't like about it is something that can be fixed.