The Other Riviera

Two befuddling memories of an old movie house

Secret History

by Jack Neely

The summer just after I turned 5, my dadâ"I think he was driving that boxy little Opelâ"told me he wanted to see what the old Riviera looked like after the fire. I was only dimly familiar with the place. It was a big movie theater, not quite as big as the Tennessee, but otherwise bigger than any other theater in town. It didn't make a big show of itself for the sidewalk. The front was just an old 1880s brick commercial building, a couple of stories, like a lot of buildings on Gay Street. The only thing that made it stand out was the sign. The theater was over 40 years old then, but the sign, in big breezy electric cursive, seemed to suggest bold modernity, New Frontier comfort and pizzazz.

Several older folks have lately insisted, often with some indignationâ"a sort of reverse proprietyâ"that the only way to pronounce it correctly was to mispronounce it. â“Everybody called it Riveera ,â” they say. Any show of pronouncing that second i was considered as pretentious as pronouncing Lenoir City the French way.

However, I do know at least a couple of older folks who tell me that their family, at least, did pronounce all four syllables, like that Mediterranean beach with the ladies in bikinis on newsreels. I'm not sure its pronunciation was ever standardized, whether one management or another pronounced it a certain way on radio ads. It could be that every night the place was packed with patrons who didn't know they disagreed about pronouncing Riviera .

I grew up calling it Riviyerra . When I first heard of the French Riviera, from a newsreel about ladies in bikinis, I considered it quite a coincidence that it shared a name with the old movie house on Gay Street. I'm not sure how Dad pronounced it that morning he told me that it had burned. They'd been showing a movie I'd heard about, Jason and the Argonauts , and the whole thing went up in flames. My dad is not a chatty fellow, and he didn't tell me much more than that. We were just going to see it. He liked to show me curiosities, usually without much commentary.

He slowed the Opel down on Gay Street in front of it. I'd heard it had burned down , and was surprised to see walls standing: a dark, dead building, gloomy with soot and utterly silent.

I saw the sooty windows, and didn't want to see in. I could picture the interior all too well. It was a cathedral of horror. A thousand dark movie-theater seats, each occupied by a charred corpse. Toasted skeletal hands holding burned bags of scorched popcorn. All facing the big smoke-blackened arch of the proscenium, waiting for the next feature.

I was sure nobody would want to touch dead people, and figured the scene inside was so horrible that they'd just seal the Riviera up and leave it alone forever. It's what I would have done.

For years thereafter, the word Riviera had a heavy whiff of doom about it, as the scene of a great tragedy.

I didn't know until I was grown that no one was hurt in the Riviera fire. The Sunday-afternoon crowd had evacuated in an orderly fashion at the first sign of smoke. Just seven months later, it was showing Cary Grant movies again.

Reopened as a stripped-down, modernized theater, it remained in business for 12 more years. They closed it in 1976, blaming downtown's business climate, as failing entrepreneurs always did. Downtown was a dependable scapegoat for a lot of bad business models. The fact was that the era of the giant single-screen movie theater, wherever it might exist, was irretrievably over.

For five or six years there was talk of rehabbing the Riviera somehow, as an office building with an airy central atrium and a skylight, as a dinner theater, as a movie theater with a bar. On the back, an artist painted one of the largest murals in Knoxville history, a giant black-and-white frame of Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp, rolling his eyes. You could see it clearly from the James White Parkway, and for about a decade, it was downtown's most eye-catching feature from that side.

Around 1990, when I was working for Whittle Communications, a colleague from New Jersey said she wished Knoxville had an old, empty theater. She had some connections in the movie business and wanted to try opening an art-house theater. There wasn't anything of the sort in Knoxville at the time, a place to see independent and foreign films, except UT's Sunday afternoon series at the Clarence Brown, and she was convinced there was a market for it here. Oh, but there is one, I said. The old Riviera. She'd never heard of it, which surprised me, and was very interested. We met for lunch and walked down there. It had been closed so long I couldn't remember exactly where the Riviera was. But we walked down the sidewalk one way, and didn't see it the first time. Then walked back the other way, and didn't see any trace of it. I know what, I said. I walked back along State Street to see the big Chaplin mural. But it wasn't there. It was a strange afternoon.

It took longer than it should have to convince myself that the old Riviera was clean gone. It has been torn down two or three years earlier, without major opposition or publicity, and redeveloped into a below-grade parking lot.

Now somehow it's back, and I'm glad to see it, whatever it looks like. The Regal Riviera is the first new movie theater downtown in 75 years, and people are excited about it, you can see it in their eyes: the old people, the little kids, the teenagers, everybody. Those lining up on the sidewalk, of course, but also those who haven't been tempted by the Riviera's offerings yet. (â“I always wanted to see movies come downtown,â” one said. â“Just not these movies.â”)

One thing you can say about orange synthetic stucco: it doesn't seem permeable to ghosts.

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