The Bijou: On to Greater Things

History is on the side of another rejuvenation

The mayor's pledge to raise from private sources the $2.1 million in funds necessary to retire the theater's debt and place it on a firm financial foundation seems unprecedented here. As far as we can determine, no mayor of

Knoxville

has made such a commitment to bring private money to bear on a cultural project such as the Bijou. He did it at a time when the city's budget couldn't stand such a large, if noble, lick. Praise

be

a resurgence

Mayor Bill Haslam's brokering of the deal that put the Bijou Theatre in the hands of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation is more than just a commendable gesture. It seems like a minor miracle in the storied theater's checkered history.

The mayor's pledge to raise from private sources the $2.1 million in funds necessary to retire the theater's debt and place it on a firm financial foundation seems unprecedented here. As far as we can determine, no mayor of Knoxville has made such a commitment to bring private money to bear on a cultural project such as the Bijou. He did it at a time when the city's budget couldn't stand such a large, if noble, lick. Praise be to a mayor who has such confidence in his ability to persuade private contributions for a good cause.

It reinforces Haslam's dedication to historic preservation at a time when he needed to give firm evidence of that dedication. The city had just allowed the destruction by Home Federal Bank of the historic Sprankle Building on Union Avenue, to the chagrin of many preservationists.

Putting management in the hands of AC Entertainment is a part of the deal, and that decision bodes well for the future bookings into the splendid theater, the Tennessee's littler but older sister on Gay Street. AC's programs at the Tennessee have gotten off to a spectacular start, and the Bijou offers an alternative venue suited to acts predicted to draw fewer patrons. Getting all sides to agree to the new arrangement was a challenge. The Tennessee board's participation seems especially ironic in light of the fact that, some 75 years ago, the Tennessee's founders bought and closed the Bijou to forestall more Gay Street movie competition.

Doubtless the pledge by the mayor to get the debt retired allowed the Tennessee's board to take charge. Its fiscal hands were full in the wake of its $25 million-plus investment in the return of the Tennessee to its 1920s grandeur.

If the Tennessee deserves its new title as the State Theatre of Tennessee, which it clearly does, perhaps the Bijou will soon earn the designation City Theatre of Knoxville.

But to buttress Mayor Haslam's position in terms of the theater's historic significance to Knoxville, it seems appropriate to run through its past once more. The theater occupies a special corner in the city's heart.

Built in the 1815-16 year as a tavern or inn, the building at Gay and Cumberland Avenue has been known as the Knoxville Hotel, Jackson's Hotel, City Hotel, Coleman House, Lamar House, a Civil War Confederate headquarters and Union Hospital, the Lamar House again until near the turn of the century, then the White House, the New Lamar House and the Old Homestead Hotel.

The Bijou Theatre, built by Clay Brown Atkin and partners, was completed in 1909, taking in much of the hotel property, for inclusion in Jake Wells' theatrical circuit. It opened with George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones , a production that featured the introduction of the songs, "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "Yankee Doodle Boy."

The Bijou flourished for a time as a venue for theatricals and vaudeville shows, but it slowly gave way to the movies, then to a resurgence as a music and theater venue in the late '30s and the '40s.

Open to black as well as white people from its beginnings, but with only a gallery set aside for blacks in the first four rows of the balcony, it remained an integrated but segregated theater through stints as a movie, stage show and music house and a porn film palace, except for a weird interim ca. 1930 as a garage for a car dealer's used vehicles, with a fruit stand in the lobby. That was when the Tennessee's promoters bought it and closed it in fear of its competition.

It degenerated during its adult-film days until its owners willed it to the Church Street (United) Methodist Church in 1971. The church sold it to a group of businessmen, but it closed and appeared destined for demolition in 1975, when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places (as the Lamar House Hotel), and it was rescued by a Knoxville Heritage "Save the Bijou" campaign that raised enough to retire its debt and preserve it for a 1977 reopening. It faltered again in the 1980s, but another drive, called "Restoration '84: Behind the Scenes," fostered renovations that have kept it open since, albeit sinking slowly into debt once more.

We think Gay Street can and will support the Tennessee, the Bijou and the eagerly anticipated multi-screen cinema in the 500 block. Isn't this, then, the right moment to ask again that question that appears all-important to the momentum achieved so far in the downtown's resurgence?

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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