The Lost Gem

An exhibit honors Knoxville's last black theater

Next Thursday evening, if you're mad at Metro Pulse for some reason and don't want to come to our "Best of Knoxville" show—or if your interest in our awards is eclipsed only by your interest in the history of black cinema—step around the corner, down Summit Hill to number 106, where after 4:00 there's going to be an exhibit of a few items you've probably never seen before.

Psychologist Ron Breazeale of Axiom Associates just finished renovating the century-old Keller building, which was on West Vine Street for most of its history, but has found itself on Summit Hill the last quarter century or so. His new offices are now on its first floor. A couple of years ago I wrote about how Breazeale was fascinated to find an apparent speakeasy up on his third floor, complete with stage, theater seats, and wooden doors equipped with sliding peepholes. Some still recall when it was a joint called the Workers Club that often featured live jazz and blues.

Today, though, the sign in the window reads, The Gem. Any Knoxvillian who's black and over 45 remembers the Gem. In her well-known essay, "400 Mulvaney Street," included in her 1971 memoir, Gemini, poet Nikki Giovanni outlines black Knoxville as she knew it in the 1950s. Of course, she knew the theater well: "The Gem Theatre was on the corner of Vine and a street that ran parallel to the creek," she wrote, "and for 10 cents you could sit all day and see a double feature, five cartoons, and two serials, plus previews for the next two weeks."

The Gem had an earlier history, too, before Giovanni was born, when it had an orchestra pit and a big stage and 2,000 seats and was still largely a vaudeville house. Like other big theaters, the Gem often hosted live shows: Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Cab Calloway, Billie Holliday. That Gem burned down in 1939 and was rebuilt as a conventional movie theater, with no orchestra pit.

The Gem closed with desegregation around 1964. It was later torn down as part of the urban renewal project that gave us the great sweeping nothingness of James White Parkway. The Gem was there for a long time and it has been gone for a long time.

But many don't know that there was another Gem Theater even before that old vaudeville house. As early as 1913 it stood near the same intersection but on the west side of Central. The silent-movie house closed around 1921, about the time the larger Gem, the one that living people remember, opened.

That ancient Gem Theater, the original Gem that no one's old enough to remember, older than the other Gem that was torn down in the '70s, older than the old Gem that burned down in 1939, is in one of the buildings that are still standing in a renovated cluster. The Keller Building is at 106 Summit Hill. The original World-War-I-era Gem opened at 102 Vine, in what's now a renovated apartment building next door.

That fact fascinated Ron Breazeale, who, after he found the traces of that apparently unrelated speakeasy/theater on his third floor, has made an avocation of learning about the old Gem Theater in all its incarnations. He has collected a good deal of Gem memorabilia. Some might say he's gotten a little carried away. Room 1 of the Keller Building is now called the Gem. It's not a theater, but a museum of sorts of movie posters and other Gem relics, from theater seats to the old fireproof sliding-metal projection windows to street photos of Vine and Central during the Gem era.

The movie posters, some in the original display cases, date from the 1940s through the 1960s. Most of them are mainstream features that played at the Gem, like On the Waterfront and forgotten teen magnets like Under Age, Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist.

More interesting may be the ones you never see on AMC. The oldest one here, and my favorite, is Professor Creeps, a 1941 all-black chiller from the heyday of the haunted house; it was still in regular rotation on the big screen in the '60s. The rare poster may be the most valuable one here. Comic actor Mantan Moreland, who starred in that movie, was one of those performers who once appeared in person at the Gem.

There's a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin ("The Story of Blacks and Whites In Color!"). Probably the latest black-cast poster is from the 1964 movie, Cool World, an intimidating urban movie advertised with new slang terms—"Hooker! Fuzz! Junk! Rumble!"—that wouldn't be easily defined by white audiences for a few more years.

There's also a poster for the film of the Liston vs. Clay fight ("See the Big Punches In Slow Motion!").

Breazeale obtained the posters from Homer Fowler III, who remembers the last Gem Theatre well. He got in free; his dad was the projectionist. "It was a long theater, three or four aisles, but not as wide as the Tennessee," the retired railroad man says. "The only theater I've ever been in where you entered by the screen." Sitting in the back, he says, "you'd see heads turn" whenever anyone walked in. Fowler himself was a projectionist at the Gem for a couple of years in the early '60s. They played black-cast films when they had them, he says, but most of what they played were second- and third-run mainstream white movies.

"You could stay all day, if you wanted to," he says. Saturday they played adventure serials. "You don't go there on a Saturday morning, because you couldn't hear anything for the kids."

He remembers well the Gem's the-show-must-go-on philosophy. During one forgotten feature, a man died suddenly a couple of rows behind him. "His head fell on this lady's shoulder, and she jumped up and said, "Oh, he's dead!" He says it took the hearse an hour to get there, but they kept running the movie.

He has specific memories of a few movies, like The Girl Can't Help It, which starred Jayne Mansfield and Little Richard. "That was the first color rock 'n' roll movie," he says. "People would stomp their feet, clap their hands. It wasn't like going to the movies now, where if you talk, people turn around and tell you to be quiet. At the Gem, you'd let your feelings show," he says, and adds, "That's why I liked it."

Fowler says the latter-day Gem had a stage and occasional live performers, but the ones he remembers weren't quite as glamorous as those that had visited in the '30s. "Just amateurs, local people trying to make a buck," he says. "They'd be singing, dancing, telling jokes."

When the Gem closed in 1964, Fowler's father found himself in the peculiar position of seeking a more-segregated city where he could find a job as the black projectionist. Though Knoxville was ostensibly desegregated by then, jobs for black technical specialists were apparently scarce. He moved to Columbia, S.C., where he worked for a black theater there until the early '70s, when he moved back home.

Fowler calls Breazeale "Doc" and seems happy about the attention the Gem's getting. Neither he nor Breazeale seem much interested in selling the posters. A few of them are worth hundreds of dollars to collectors, but they may be worth more to us right here, for their connection to a movie theater that has been gone for 37 years.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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