The future of Expresso House up in the air
Boosting the Bijou
Will an emphasis on live music save the old vaudeville house?
Though the building’s been empty since then, the interior that can be seen through the glass door is noticeably different; the furniture has been cleared out, and the walls have been painted a rich carmine hue. Rumors have been buzzing about town as to what exactly is going on with the beloved coffee spot.
Word had it for a while that Rita Cochran, whom you might recognize from the former Crescent Moon Café, was planning to reopen the place with a new name, The Blue Apple. Cochran confirms that she originally had an agreement to sublease from Loretta Roscoe-Granath, who had run the Expresso House. That plan has now come to a halt due to some rather hazy details and a reported falling out between the two.
The city’s records confirm that Roscoe-Granath, who couldn’t be reached for comment, hadn’t been paying rent for some time, but that the city wasn’t evicting tenants of the Victorian houses because it plans to sell those properties to Kinsey Probasco, the Chattanooga-based company that, in conjunction with Cardinal Development (whose president is Metro Pulse Publisher Brian Conley) has been selected by the city to revitalize World’s Fair Park, the Candy Factory and the Victorian houses.
“Basically the city has made the decision not to evict the tenants [of the Victorian houses] who are behind on rent. They will attempt to collect the rent, and if they can’t, they’ll just write it off,” says Director of Public Buildings Dale Smith. “Once the city sells those assets to Kinsey Probasco, they will determine the tenants. It’s my understanding that the sale will close in December or January.”
Smith isn’t clear on what agreement was made between Roscoe-Granath and Cochran, but he says no one in his office has seen any documentation. “[Roscoe-Granath] doesn’t actually have a lease, so she doesn’t have the right to sublease,” says Smith. “The truth is, it would be pretty pointless for someone to start a business down there right now unless they have a deal cut with Kinsey Probasco.”
Regardless, Cochran did the aforementioned renovations on the interior of the building and has a business plan ready should things fall into place. “The restaurant we were going to open was going to be a bistro format, with great salads, soups and sandwiches, as well as made-from-scratch baked goods, coffee and tea,” says Cochran. “I still hope for it to work out because I love the space and I love the area.”
Conley says the Kinsey Probasco plan is to renovate the houses, some of which need a lot of work, and utilize them as mixed-use residential and commercial spaces. “We don’t actually own the property yet,” he says, “and we’re not comfortable negotiating with tenants or prospective tenants until we do.”
City Councilman Chris Woodhull weighs in with his opinion that renovations are certainly called for, but he says that “my first priority is to support the existing businesses there and give them all the support they need to participate in the redevelopment.”
For now, the future of the Victorian houses remains up in the air.
When the Bijou first closed in June 2004, and its massive financial problems—more than $1 million in mortgage and other debt—came to light, some thought it looked like curtains for the old vaudeville house. Though the subject of an ambitious but never-quite-completed renovation in the late 1990s, it limped along in recent years staging mostly dramatic presentations, with unpredictable and often disappointing results. When the Bijou went into receivership, suddenly owned by an out-of-state bank, there was anxiety about how long it would continue to exist even as a historic building.
The theater entered a limbo as a rental house, occasionally mounting fundraisers for itself. This year, thanks to initiatives of the Haslam administration, some generous donors, a $571,000 federal grant, and the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, things are looking up for the old lady. If all goes well, beginning in March 2006, the Bijou will be fully reopened—and much more oriented toward live music than it has been in recent years.
Promoter Ashley Capps envisions a wide variety of shows at the Bijou beginning in about six months. The guru of AC Entertainment, East Tennessee’s most vigorous booking agency, Capps is also chiefly in charge of programming at the Tennessee, and appears to be the key figure in the Bijou’s future.
Its alliance with Knoxville’s only other historic theater may seem counterintuitive. For the better part of a century the two have been rivals for the ticket-buying public, and an examination of their history might suggest that when one was up, the other was most often down.
Capps thinks that’s the wrong way to look at it. “They’re complementary theaters,” he says. “We have an opportunity to create some real synergy in programming between the two theaters.”
According to the minutes of the Aug. 25 meeting of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, that foundation “will effect a synergy between the two theaters. The Bijou will be charged a management fee for services provided.” AC will “book shows complimentary [sic] to the events at the Tennessee Theatre.” The Tennessee foundation chartered a new group called the Bijou Theatre Foundation to lead the theater’s recovery and future operation.
The Tennessee seats more than twice as many as the Bijou can, but the older theater is more personal. “The Bijou is fabulous,” Capps says. “It has an intimacy that’s very special.” Capps’ experience with the Bijou goes back to 1980; he booked many of the theater’s most memorable music shows, from the Ramones to Dizzy Gillespie.
“We’ll have similar types of shows,” as the Tennessee, Capps says, “with a variety of music, acoustic performers, bluegrass groups, jazz, up-and-coming rock and pop acts. It will be a new opportunity for some performers to come to Knoxville. For some performers, the Tennessee’s just too big—and Blue Cats is either too small or not quite appropriate.” (Blue Cats, in the Old City, is downtown’s largest bar/nightclub that regularly hosts live music; AC books many of its shows, as well.) “The Bijou can fill a void for performing artists in Knoxville.”
Furthermore, Capps says, the Bijou is less expensive to operate than the Tennessee, and can render lower ticket prices.
He says the Bijou may host dramatic presentations but strictly by contract with community theater groups. The Bijou itself will no longer be in the business of mounting shows of its own. Though previous leadership saw the in-house theater company approach as the only way the theater could make a living, Capps rejects that idea. “I’ve got a different perspective on that,” he says. “I think it’s a surefire way for the Bijou to not work.”
One wild card in the Bijou’s future might have a lot to do with iconic public-radio station WDVX, whose live-music shows at One Vision Plaza, the new tourist center at Gay and Summit Hill, are often standing-room only. The station keeps its main studio in a custom-built corner in that cafe-like setting, and some imply they’re already outgrowing the space. But a move to the Bijou is not imminent.
“We’re excited about WDVX,” says Capps. “There has been a discussion of the possibility of WDVX moving its studios into the Bijou. Getting into the nitty-gritty of details of different aspects of that, we thought the smartest way was to move a little more slowly.”
In the meantime, the Bijou Building Committee is concentrating on the here and now, what Capps called “the due-diligence phase.” The roof needs repair, and Capps expects construction to commence “shortly,” probably in October. Fundraising, a $2-million-plus drive initiated several months ago by the Haslam administration, has gone well, stirring up money from both public and private sources. “As we’ve learned new things, the goal has shifted here and there, but we’re very close,” Capps says.
“Our goal is to open the Bijou in March 2006,” Capps says, “and I’m very optimistic we’re going to meet that goal.” The Knoxville Chamber Orchestra already has performances lined up at the Bijou next spring.
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