secret_history (2006-21)

Bijou, Sez You

Corrections and amplifications, with a cameo by John Barrymore

by Jack Neely

I like to get things right, the second time if not the first. My feature on the Bijou Theatre a couple of weeks ago included some speculation, and my old friend Wallace Baumann, former proprietor of Woodruff’s and the ranking historian of Knoxville’s own Great White Way, thinks I jumped to conclusions about the historical antipathy between the Bijou and its neighbors. I suggested that the Bijou battled for survival with other theaters, like Staub’s, the Riviera, and the Tennessee.

One of the most prominent backers of the massive Tennessee Theatre improvements, Baumann remembers shows on Gay Street in the 1930s. He and I don’t agree on everything, but when he talks about Gay Street theaters, I don’t argue much.

My interpretations were based on connecting some anecdotal dots, and on some apparently naive assumptions of how the theater business works, or worked, in Knoxville. For most of my life, our two historic theaters have endured a yin-and-yang opposition. When the Bijou was a seedy, dank porno house, the Tennessee was a busy, brightly lit family cinema. In the ’70s, when the forsaken Tennessee closed, the Bijou was being restored for the performing arts. A couple of years ago, as the Tennessee was extravagantly reborn, the long-ailing Bijou went dark, threatened with foreclosure.

However, Baumann says the relationships between the Bijou and each other theater in the neighborhood was more complicated, and less romantic, than a fistfight. The relationship apparently wasn’t always a zero-sum deal. 

I suggested the Bijou was built in 1909 as a brazen challenge to Staub’s Theatre, East Tennessee’s most famous performing-arts venue, which was directly across the street. However, Baumann says it was more a cooperative thing. He cites articles stating that Fritz Staub himself, son of the Swiss immigrant who built Staub’s, was, along with Virginia showman Jake Wells, one of the original advocates of the Bijou. “They thought Knoxville needed a second theater,” Baumann says. “Staub’s was doing big business, they thought, why not have a second one?”

I don’t understand the economics of opening a big theater directly across the street from another big theater in a town of under 40,000, putting on roughly the same sorts of shows, serving the same audiences—but somehow not competing for them. It seems to me the equivalent of opening a new Mexican restaurant next door to your old one.

Baumann says it worked pretty well that way for almost 20 years, forming a miniature theater district at the intersection of Gay and Cumberland—with Staub’s, eventually renamed the Lyric, thriving alongside the Bijou.

In the motion-picture era, despite their differences in size and style and history and specialty—one theater, the Rialto, regularly featured a hypnotist—most Knoxville theaters tended to be under the control of some big national chain. By the 1920s, Baumann says, the theaters of most middle-market cities were controlled by one of the major Hollywood studios, and Knoxville’s boss, in various guises over the decades, was Paramount. Gay Street’s several theaters were all controlled by Paramount and its associated company, Publix. The corporation played them like an organist, muting one pipe while another’s blowing. And occasionally reaching up to smash one offending one with a hammer. That’s my analogy, not Baumann’s.

Thus the Bijou did close in 1926, deliberately to prevent it drawing away from a new theater project. However, Baumann says original Bijou backer C.B. Atkin, who would soon back the construction of the extravagant Tennessee Theatre, wasn’t involved in the decision to close the Bijou. That call was made by Tennessee Enterprises, a front for Paramount. He says the Bijou closed not to allow for the success of the Tennessee, but for another theater that was announced for the area behind the Fidelity Building at the corner of Gay and Union—but never built.

Sometime after the Bijou reopened as a movie house, it and the Tennessee were run by the same organization from the ’30s to the early ’60s—albeit with the smaller Bijou accepting a supporting role, showing only movies that had been at the Tennessee a few weeks earlier. Wilby-Kincy, another out-of-state conglomerate associated with Paramount, was in charge.

It’s kind of disillusioning, like hearing that Macbeth and Macduff were both taking orders from some multinational conglomerate based in Amsterdam. I still hold that my simpler version of the Bijou’s political life makes for a better tale.

In that feature, I remarked on the apparently humble gray work shirt that Ashley Capps wore when we met at the Bijou. Reporters are always looking for those little ironies: I thought it remarkable that the most powerful music promoter in the region should, on a day he brought Bob Dylan and other big acts to town, be dressed in a shirt that would get him thrown out of Club LeConte.

I have since learned that the shirt was actually a Kenneth Cole.

“He’s a designer,” one of my colleagues told me, when I asked. I did some research on the Internet, and she’s right. Cole’s work shirts are harder to come by than any of my suits.

Dozens played important roles in the Bijou’s heroic renovation in the 1970s, but a few readers wanted to mention a few in particular who were left out of the story: especially Pat Roddy, Barbara Gentry, and Marg Newton. I’m sure there are more who deserve mention. The reopening night gala, next Friday, June 2, will include a tribute to one of the Bijou’s staunchest supporters, the late Bob Webb.

Finally, Baumann mentioned that Ethel Barrymore appeared at the Bijou more than the one time I mentioned, at least twice, anyway. He’s also quite sure that her brother John did indeed perform at the Bijou, in a play called My Dear Children , probably in March of 1940.

 I’d been skeptical, considering that in the researchers’ inventory, the only reference to a “John Barrymore” playing the Bijou was dated two years after the famous actor’s death, perhaps a reference to his son (Drew’s father, for those keeping score), who had a minor acting career.

But Baumann says he saw the real John Barrymore here. Baumann was a college student home on spring break when he joined a couple dozen other fans down at the L&N station to watch the great Barrymore get off the train. “It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, about 2 o’clock,” Baumann recalls. “He was wearing a fedora hat, tilted rakishly to one side, along with that famous mustache.” Barrymore, in his late 50s, was accompanied by his latest aspiring ex-wife, the 25-ish starlet Elaine Barrie, who appeared with Barrymore in the play at the Bijou the following night.

The legendary actor was dead of cirrhosis of the liver soon afterward, but Baumann says Barrymore seemed healthy and sober that sunny day.