THE KNOXVILLE MUSEUM OF NEARLY EVERYTHING
The Knoxville Museum of Art attracted roughly 10,000 visitors a month with a year of extremely diverse sculpture, from the playfully modern sculpture of Red Grooms to, currently, the richly and religiously symbolic art of ancient Peru—to an especially popular local show, the imaginative stump-statues of the late Appalachian folk sculptor Bessie Harvey. If none of these drew the Rodin-sized crowds of '95—the 22,000 who paid to see the cartoon sculptures of native Tennessean Grooms is said to have been a disappointment—they demonstrate the museum's commitment to really big shows. The Peru exhibition, which has been shown in only one other American museum (San Francisco's famous DeYoung) has attracted 17,000 by the last count.
It took long months of political wrangling, financial shudders, and hurt feelings, and some are still smarting from the experience, but the statue of novelist and former Knoxvillian Alex Haley arrived at embattled Haley Square, half a mile east of downtown. The sculpture by New York artist Tina Allen was the result of a project spearheaded by Knoxville community activist and chanteuse Evon Easley Milton and her organization, Citizens for Haley Square. It's said to be the largest statue of an African American in the world. So far, it's not in exactly the site CHS wanted—and, as yet, it's not accompanied by the shops and genealogical research station, fountain, and amphitheater once envisioned—but it does have the company of a new playground, finished this year in a community effort. And the statue, which once seemed the least-likely aspect of the project, is there, and it's amazing, a huge statue of Alex as we remember him, relaxed, genial, telling us another story. The BBC and the Village Voice may question whether Haley deserved the Pulitzer, but we know he deserves this statue. He was, if nothing else, a hell of a nice guy.
As well-known biographer David Leeming finishes a major life story of Knoxville's best-known native artist, Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), many of Delaney's paintings remain in storage in a UT vault in downtown Knoxville, their fate still undetermined—along with thousands more paintings and drawings by his almost-as-famous brother, Joseph Delaney (1904-1991). Their painting styles and lifestyles were very different—but together, the Delaney brothers are considered by art critics to be two of the most important black artists of this century. Meanwhile, several heirs, including the brothers' closest surviving relative, Knoxvillian Ogust Delaney Stewart, are still battling with UT and other beneficiaries about who will carry the Delaney heritage. After years of frustrations on all sides, co-executors Stewart and former UT administrator Hardy Liston were removed and replaced by a third party with orders to liquidate the estate.
Expect to hear more about the Delaneys and their legacy soon; Leeming's book about Beauford will be published internationally by Oxford University Press in January, and tentative plans are for him to be here for a book signing in February.
MEET ME AT THE BIJOU
The 89-year-old Bijou Theater on Gay Street is the oldest and most haunted theater in metropolitan Knoxville. A couple of years ago, its board of directors kicked off an ambitious capital campaign to renovate the exterior (much of which is twice as old as the actual theater), install air conditioning, and add bigger, better bathrooms. After a completing a bang-up fundraising campaign that even exceeded its goals—they set out to raise $1.5 million and got $1.7 million— the actual work, which some thought would be finished by now, hasn't really gotten off the ground, stymied by unexpected problems balancing the theater's historical status with ADA codes and catering to the preferences of modern AC-spoiled audiences. But a contractor has been hired and construction should begin in earnest by spring.
One casualty of the renovation was the Bijou's relationship with local artists' group CHROMA, which for years had organized exhibits in the theater's second-floor gallery. Displaced, the group has found a new home at the World of Gifts warehouse-cum-concert-hall at 619 N. Broadway.
Meanwhile, the Bijou has continued to draw crowds for its shows, notably its fine bluegrass series.
Clarence Brown Co. took a few big chances in '97: first with the premiere of The Bronte Cycle, a lengthy, two-day, seven-hour play about the slow, wutheringly (sic) miserable declines and deaths of the three sisters Bronte—and later Mein Kampf, a play controversial even in Europe, which was risky on several levels: giving Adolph Hitler's anti-Semitism the funhouse-mirror treatment, for one; offering a not-momentary scene of frontal female nudity, for another. Other Clarence Brown shows took interesting chances, too: one set Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in a swingin' World War II officer's club; another (Terra Nova) examined the last days of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, harassed by ghostly appearances of his rival, Roald Amundsen. Meanwhile, Clarence Brown's enduring the loss—to graduation, the greatest threat to local talent—of one of their most energetic and distinctive talented MFA classes in years.
Partly because several small acting troupes lost their cozy deal with the Bijou Theater, we've been seeing theater pop up in the oddest places: Ijams Nature Center, the A-1 Artspace on Gay Street, a swanky dinner theater just past Bearden Hill. That would be Harlequin, which survived its first year. The Tennessee Stage Company showed up at the Clarence Brown Lab with a five-skit production called All in the Timing (plus their usually unusual interpretations of the Bard for their summer series, "Shakespeare in the Park," some of which was performed at Ijams) and Knoxville's oldest troupe, the Tennessee Valley Players, made a too-rare appearance at intimate Theatre Central for some witty Nunsense.
And Knoxville's most prolific producer, Theatre Central's Mark Moffett, premiered a play of his own, Bea and Fran Play Killer Yahtzee. (And it wasn't half-bad.)
Meanwhile, Knoxville's newest troupe, the renegade Actors Co-op, was the one to watch. Headed by young local actors Amy Hubbard and Katie Norwood, the troupe showed incredible versatility in '97, following two brutally stark one-character shows for small audiences seated on the floor of a downtown art gallery with a big-cast production of Moliere's wacky rhymed comedy, Tartuffe, to sold-out $35 a plate crowds at the Harlequin.
LET'S GO SEE A MOVIE--DOWNTOWN
One of the truly great success stories of the year, not only in entertainment but for downtown revitalization, was the resurrection of the grand Tennessee Theater as a prime entertainment destination. Last year, WIVK donated the famed movie palace to the Historic Tennessee Theater Foundation, who turned to Ashley Capp's AC Entertainment to manage it. It was a wise choice. In 1997, the number of events there nearly doubled, and more than 150,000 people attended performances by Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Santana, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, Doc Watson & David Grisman, and many others—not to mention the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Knoxville Opera Company. Most satisfying was the return of classic films to the giant silver screen on a regular basis—and with large turnouts to boot.
Has this been gratifying for Capps and company?
"[We're] pleased, but certainly not satisfied. There's too much work to do to be satisfied," says Capps. "But I think we've shown that the Theater is not only viable, but an extremely important asset to our community. And we're thrilled to have the opportunity to work there and put our creative energies to work. It's very rewarding."
The even bigger news for '98 will be the start of a restoration of the theater. Although still in the early planning stages, studies are in the works under the direction of Hardy Holtzman & Pffeifer, a New York City firm considered to be perhaps the foremost theater restoration experts in the world. And Capps promises even more bookings for shows of all sorts. It should be an exciting year for our own palace of dreams.
THE LIT SCENE
He done good. Knoxville resident and Soddy-Daisy native Brian Griffin snagged a full-length laudatory review from the notoriously chary New York Times Book Review for his funny and sweet debut short story collection, Sparkman in the Sky and Other Stories (Sarabande). Other local writers have been busy—Jeanne McDonald and husband Fred Brown tracked down and interviewed some of the South's best writers for their book Growing Up Southern (Emerald House), and sometime Sentinel columnist Don Williams is still publishing the ambitious New Millennium literary magazine. As Orchard Books prepares to release the last book from the late and beloved children's writer Libba Moore Gray, award-winning children's author Lisa Horstman is working on follow-ups to this year's The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball. On a more troubling note, 1998 will see the release of a book-length slam against local hero Alex Haley. And just when he got his own statue, too.
OUR MAN LOWELL
Quick: Who's the biggest Knoxville media star of 1997? (Okay, okay—the biggest nonsports media figure.) Some clues: It wasn't an actor, politician, or ax-murderer. In fact, this person's fame had nothing to do with trailer home construction, guitar-driven pop anthems, CD-ROM adventure games, or hard-bodied plastic owls. Nope. Our biggest celebrity last year was a comic book writer.
Yes, the gentlemanly Lowell Cunningham took the media world by storm. The quiet, pale fellow who created the universe behind Men In Black—the top-grossing movie of the year with $230 million in revenue (and counting—it just hit video)—became one of those rare writers whom the media actually seek out for profiles. From The Today Show to The Sci-Fi Channel to Entertainment Tonight, they all wanted to know: Where'd you get that crazy idea? The answer, he told The New York Times, was in Fort Sanders. Standing on the corner of Clinch Street and 16th Avenue one day in the late '80s, he saw a long black car ease by...and it occurred to him that this might just be a MIB car, driven by those secret agents who protect the world from alien incursions. Spurred by the incident, he took that urban legend and turned it into a short-lived comic book that was later purchased by Hollywood producers. Thus, years later, the movie summer of 1997 belonged to Men In Black—and Lowell Cunningham.
OUT OF THE BOX
The other Knoxville movie event of '97 was the long-awaited release of Box of Moonlight, the Tom DiCillo film shot here in the summer of '95. Although completed a year ago, the independent movie starring John Turturro took a circuitous route to the silver screen. In '96, it came very close to being purchased by indie powerhouse Miramax—who pulled out at the last minute, tainting its reputation. But after a strong response at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Trimark Pictures divvied up the cash and won the right to distribute it. Too bad their marketing was so cheesy, featuring a semi-naked Turturro leaping into the air. Box office was weak. ("This movie has had the most difficult time," DiCillo told us with disgust. "There's just an enormous amount of independent films being released right now, and Box of Moonlight is suffering...It's extremely disappointing.") Nevertheless, it had many positive reviews, some noting the beautiful scenery of East Tennessee. Here's a selection, good and bad:
Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "Whimsy sticks to Box of Moonlight like fairy dust on a greasy tabletop, beginning with the title: The receptacle in question is a knickknack owned by a backwoods sprite called Kid (Sam Rockwell), who dresses in Davy Crockett drag and boasts of being 'off the grid' of rule-abiding American citizenry. The box, he says, traps moonbeams smiling down on Kid's fanciful forest hideaway—poetry that is alien to Al Fountain (John Turturro), a rigid, joy-phobic electrical engineer who fortuitously crosses paths with Kid just when his own deadened life is most in need of goosing... But the sparkling nonconformist spirit the Kid represents never convincingly lights up the screen in this humid midsummer night's dream."
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon: "With his third and most ambitious film, a sweet, rambling, road-to-nowhere opus called Box of Moonlight, DiCillo sheds the black leather jacket and reveals himself to be his own man—and that man is Frank Capra. I don't mean to be snide: Like Capra, DiCillo is a skilled and honest craftsman, respectful of his materials and the audience, seeking to cloak his conventional moralizing in carefully constructed, nonassaultive entertainment. Faced with the collection of cynics, hacks, and morons who make most movies, I'll take that any day and feel grateful."
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Living in Oblivion made fun of more or less the exact kind of whimsical little indie film Box of Moonlight is, but so what? The fact that [DiCillo] knows what he's doing, and how close it is to parody, adds a smile to the material."
Melissa Morrison, Boxoffice: "It's nice to see a film that takes a familiar setup and then applies it to something audience members actually identify with—here, a sense of living within the boundaries while chaos and violence creep ever closer."
Janet Maslin, New York Times: "The 1970s-style premise of Box of Moonlight is so dated and fanciful that this quixotic film winds up seeming amazingly fresh. As it turns out, neither empty lives nor adorably free spirits have gone out of style. And DiCillo's taste for cool, mysterious understatement takes the treacle out of his story, which proves far more moving than might be expected."