BEFORE THE BIJOU: In mid-19th Century Knoxville, the Lamar House was the finest hotel in town. Note the gable and chimneys, long since removed.
Historic Gay Street Theater Reopens After Renovation . Knoxvillians over 40 have read that headline four or five times in their lives. Maybe, if their memory is extraordinarily good, six or seven.
The conservative pragmatist, who thrives in abundance in East Tennessee, might well ask, Didn’t we just renovate a big historic theater on Gay Street? How many historic theaters does downtown Knoxville need? And, now that you mention it, didn’t we just renovate the Bijou, too, not long ago? And hasn’t the thing been bleeding money for 30 years, ever since it stopped showing porno films?
Since the 1909 vaudeville house was saved from demolition 30 years ago, the Bijou has seen high points and low points. Hundreds of great performers have played for hundreds of full houses of audiences appreciative and sometimes awed. But the theater has never consistently paid its own bills. Two years ago, it closed its doors, with an Oregon bank threatening foreclosure, and staffers, directors, and patrons accusing each other of not doing their jobs.
Its financial crisis has been solved, thanks to a wide variety of politicians, bankers, musicians, and other supporters. But then, we thought it was fixed before.
A more particular question has to do with that other historic theater, two blocks away. Historically, even back in the 1920s, the Bijou and the Tennessee have rarely thrived at the same time; one tends to dominate when the other is failing. There may be superstition in that observation, but it’s hard to ignore: When the Tennessee welcomed its first crowds in 1928, the Bijou was being converted into a parking garage.
When the Tennessee underwent its first major renovation, in 1966, the Bijou had just become a seedy porno house.
When the Bijou was first being renovated in the mid-1970s, the Tennessee was in steep decline, and local businessmen were predicting it would soon be demolished.
Two years ago, as the Tennessee was undergoing its biggest renovation in history, the Bijou was bankrupt, struggling for its life.
Whether by coincidence, market pressures, or deliberate design—as it happens, all three may have played a role—the Bijou and Tennessee have been on a seesaw for most of the last 78 years.
Several larger cities have lost all their old theaters. Can one medium-sized American city afford to support the repeated renovations and regular use necessary to maintain two historic theaters on the same street?
The answer has a lot to do with one company, and, to some extent, one man. Knoxville’s two historic theaters, typically rivals, have never been run by the same entity—until this year.
A stocky guy in a scruffy, graying beard is cutting a corner across a parking lot toward the Bijou from Market Street. On a weekday afternoon, he’s wearing a gray work shirt. If he were dressed better, he might be mistaken for a parking attendant.
As it happens, he’s Ashley Capps, and he may be the most powerful live-entertainment entrepreneur in a region much broader than East Tennessee.
His company is in charge of two shows this evening alone: one, a near-sellout featuring Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard at the 1600-seat Tennessee; the other, an outdoor show at Market Square featuring trendy Southern jam band Government Mule, which will draw over 10,000. He’s also planning, for next month, Bonnaroo, the biggest annual rock festival in America.
But he wants to meet a reporter to talk about the Bijou Theatre.
It’s coming along. There are cables all over the place, the backstage is agape and industrial, and as we walk in, guys are still mixing paint.
The new roof’s on, the interior scaffolding’s up. Most of the improvements are out of sight. “But look at those seats,” Capps says. “That’s what people will notice.” The wine-colored seats have been reupholstered.
“The biggest challenge has been the unknowns involved in the process,” he says. They knew the roof needed replacing. They didn’t know the extent of the water damage allowed by the previous roof, which dated back to the first 1970s renovation. “There was a termite infestation in the major beams that were holding the whole place together,” he says.
“Any time you work on a building that old, you’re going to have some surprises,” says Lee Ingram, the architect who also worked on the 1998 improvements. He says the worst damage was in the front of the theater, above the balcony, much of it attributable to leaks in the 30-year-old roof. They rebuilt it with a combination of pine and steel.
He says the Bijou has been more fully “sprinklerized” than ever before, better prepared than ever for that condition one should never mention in a crowded theater.
Capps has a deep history with the Bijou. Not long after the paint from the first renovation dried, he first booked a show there back in 1980, a visit from jazz percussionist Jack De Johnette and his band. After AC Entertainment was formed, its first office was in the Lamar House, handy to the Bijou, which was for a time before their association with the Tennessee, their main venue. “We did 35-40 shows a year here in the ’90s,” Capps recalls.
What he says next is apparently still a surprise to many casual attendees who have witnessed the improvements to the theater over the last several years. “There’s never been a full renovation of the theater. It’s never happened.”
It may have been considered a tactical error to fix the theater’s public-comfort aspects first: When the air-conditioning and new bathrooms went in, many assumed the Bijou was all better.
Much of the master plan for the theater, including a new roof and new sound system, was not accomplished in the 1998-99 effort. “They ran out of money and weren’t able to execute it,” says Capps.
Even back in 1998, Bijou staff told reporters they were looking forward to a Phase III, which would include a new roof and sound system. And soon, the original wooden rigging system that towered above the stage, described as recently as the ’90s as the theater’s “most unique” feature, was beginning to look less charming and more dangerous.
Meanwhile, the theater’s drama-centric management was getting in trouble with the IRS, the mortgage holder, and several creditors. The Bijou’s obese and inactive board disbanded, suffering sharp criticism from several sides, and the staff resigned.
Outgoing Home Federal banker David Sharp—then under fire from preservationist groups for his decision to demolish a century-old apartment building on Union that some developers wanted to renovate—saved the Bijou from foreclosure by paying $22,000 of the mortgage, buying time for Sam Furrow and Fred Langley to work out a deal whereby a local non-profit Bijou Theatre Foundation would gain control of the building at a low-interest loan. “Those two Knoxville business leaders stepped up and saved the theater from a very predatory lending situation,” Capps says.
About a year ago, Mayor Bill Haslam led a $2.1 million fundraising drive, as Congressman Jimmy Duncan announced almost $600,000 in previously secured federal funding.
Capps mentions the fundraising leadership of Robert Webb, the schoolmaster whose death just before Christmas came half a year too soon to allow him to see the theater rehabilitated.
At the front of the current effort, Capps says, was a prominent construction entrepreneur. “Raja Jubran spearheaded this entire process,” Capps says.
There’s something nautical about a theater, with all the ropes and beams and the fly loft exposed up above, and maybe that prompted a metaphor about Jubran: “He was the extraordinarily thorough and firm guiding force that kept the ship sailing through difficult and uncertain waters.”
“It’s also a testament to Mayor Bill Haslam and his leadership in the community,” he says.
Capps, who spends much of his career traveling, is better acquainted with theaters around the country than most of us are. “These acoustics are without parallel,” he says. “They are as good as any acoustics in any theater I’m aware of.”
Capps, who also runs the Tennessee, won’t say anything disparaging about the big theater down the street, but some with trained ears have expressed disappointment with its acoustics, at least in some concerts even after the multi-million-dollar renovation finished early last year. Such complaints are nearly unknown at the Bijou.
Capps adds, “And the arrangement of seating lends a certain intimacy and closeness to the audience.”
Of the historic rivalry between the historic theaters, Capps shrugs. “I think they complement each other,” he says. “The Bijou is half the size of the Tennessee.”
He admits that some shows would work much better at the Bijou: unusual visual and dance shows like Pilobolus and Momix, which recently played to less-than-sellout crowds at the Tennessee.
“For the larger shows, the more technically challenging shows,” Capps says, “the Tennessee will be the appropriate home.
“I don’t want to limit it to a genre, but I’m interested in establishing the Bijou as a home for Americana music: bluegrass, country, folk, rock, rhythm and blues, jazz. All that will find a home at the Bijou. Developing acts, artists with small but developing followings.” He mentions the reported likelihood that the Bijou will work in conjunction with public-radio station WDVX, whose daily Blue Plate Special shows a few blocks to the north have been a surprise hit.
He admits he’s gotten some comments that the lineup as announced isn’t as explosive as some might have wished for, or as the Tennessee’s first month or two was last year. Several on the list for June and July are familiar on Knoxville stages. The current lineup includes British folk-rock icon Richard Thompson; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who played a recent Sundown; former Allman Brother Dickie Betts; regional bluegrass group Mountain Heart; Austin string band the Gourds; young English jazz pianist Jamie Cullum; offbeat singing group the Roches; Texas songwriter Jack Ingram; and Southern Culture on the Skids. An improv group called the Yard Dogs promises to evoke the Bijou’s vaudeville past.
There are white spaces in the schedule; the Bijou clearly won’t be busy every night of the summer. Capps cites the relatively slow summer season—and that it’s partly the nature of a 730-seat theater, that only occasionally will it host a blockbuster show by a household-name star. But he says the Bijou will reward attention given to lesser-known acts.
He mentions one in particular. Though your parents—or children—may never have heard of him, Richard Thompson is well-known among his international fan base and has played Knoxville more than once before. He will appear at the Bijou on June 7. Capps describes him as an ideal Bijou performer. “He’s one of the greatest guitarists alive, a great songwriter, a strong performer. But he’s a little too intellectual an act for mass audiences”—like those the Tennessee can hold.
“The Tennessee is a splendorous, magnificent building. It’s also expensive to operate.” Each act invited involves “a significant financial hurdle. The Tennessee demands a certain level of ticket price—which, by Knoxville standards, is sometimes perceived as being a little higher . ”
Tickets for concerts at the Tennessee are often upwards of $40, even for country and rock shows.
Knoxvillians are often envious of the rock tours that stop in Asheville, technically a much-smaller market, but not here. The irony is that Capps, the Knoxvillian, books many of them. He mentions the well-known Asheville club, the Orange Peel, which though it has little else in common with the Bijou, has a comparable capacity. “People ask, how come you’re not bringing them to Knoxville? Only because we didn’t have the appropriate venue. Think of a band that doesn’t want to play a club, but weren’t ready for the Tennessee.”
He adds, “At the Bijou, we could charge $20, or even $15.”
Getting Capps to describe the advantages of the Bijou over the Tennessee is like asking a mother to rank her children.
“They are both extraordinary venues. To have two of them in one town is remarkable,” Capps says.
Reading the Bijou clippings files at the public library can be an especially heartbreaking way to kill an afternoon. For more than 20 years, one director or business manager after another calls the Bijou a “treasure” and announces confidence that a new approach would put the Bijou “on the right track.”
Capps is so familiar with the question that he anticipates it: “We’ve been saving the Bijou for 25 years. What’s going to be different now?
“The Bijou’s had a lot of people devoted to saving the theater. Our theater owes them a tremendous debt. At the same time, I don’t think there’s ever been the right plan to assure the theater’s success.”
And the new, 21st-century Bijou has other advantages, too. “For the first time, the Bijou has state-of-the-art sound,” Capps says. “It has an excellent lighting system that can accommodate a lot of different kinds of shows.”
The Bijou may also finally reap the full benefits of the improvements finished in ’99. Before then, the theater’s bathrooms were extremely limited (and shared with the Bistro), and the theater had no air conditioning, which made summer shows problematic at best; in vaudeville days, the Bijou sometimes closed for the entire summer. A few remember an especially excruciating show by punk-rock legends the Ramones in the early ’90s, when the doors to the street had to be opened. Since ’99, that’s no longer a hindrance, but in its air-conditioned years, the Bijou has mainly been trying to interest the Knoxville audience in middlebrow drama, with only occasional success. “It was a noble goal to establish a resident theater company at the Bijou. But I don’t think it’s a workable plan.”
He adds, “I don’t feel like the Bijou’s really had the opportunities it should have had in the last few years.”
One big difference may turn out to be the business arrangement. When Capps was programming shows at the Bijou in the ’80s and ’90s, he often brought acts that packed the house. But the Bijou management at the time, sometimes at odds with AC, complained that they never made much money off those shows. One reason the Bijou moved away from music and toward locally produced live drama is that the potential profit margin was much higher. Still, though, you have to sell tickets.
When the booking agent is the same as the house, the numbers for live music may come together better than they used to.
AC’s new business manager of the Bijou is a tall, quiet, rugged-looking fellow named Tom Bugg who makes you wonder how Abe Lincoln would have fared if he’d gone into rock ‘n’ roll. He’s an old associate of Capps’, ever since he ran the bar at Ella Guru’s, the ’80s nightclub that brought major acts to the Old City. Bugg later became AC’s manager at the Tennessee. He left to accept a plum job as vice president for operations at the Peace Center for Performing Arts in Greenville, S.C. An impressive, modern facility, it includes a 2,100-seat concert hall.
“Ashley called me around Christmas, and we talked a little bit. I was intrigued, more than anything,” Bugg says. “It was a tough choice. But Knoxville’s home, really. My parents are here. And the Bijou’s a wonderful place. I was well aware of what a great venue it is.” He remembers seeing NRBQ there in ’87, and without a pause ticks off several of his favorites from the first AC era: Dizzy Gillespie, the Ramones, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, the Replacements, Cowboy Junkies.
“If you’re in to see the show, it’s a great place to see a show. You’re so close. Even in the back row of the balcony, you’re so close.”
That’s one obvious advantage over the Tennessee. Another is economic. The Bijou can be run efficiently with a full-time staff of three people.
There are still a lot of issues to figure out, Bugg admits, “But I’m optimistic.”
He pauses. “Give me another week or 10 days. I’ll probably be freaked out.”
Also auguring well for the Bijou-Tennessee tag team is that the Knoxville metro area is bigger than it has ever been—and Knoxvillians are coming downtown on a regular basis more than they have in decades. The 730-seat Bijou is acoustically the best theater in a region that includes more than a million potential ticket buyers.
Capps ticks off the origins of people buying tickets for shows at the Tennessee just last week: North Carolina, Kentucky, Nashville. “Knoxville is already—and has the potential to be even more—a cultural hub for this region,” he says.
There seems reason, at least, to hope this time is different.
Throughout the last few decades, through the various renovations and sellouts and the long months of darkness, the only thing that has remained constant in the Lamar House/Bijou building is the Bistro. The Bistro At the Bijou, as it’s formally known, is the venerable restaurant/bar that opened about the time of the first renovation in the ’70s, in a space known, a century earlier, as the Lamar House Saloon. The Bistro’s business is strongly affected by the theater’s success but is apparently not dependent on it. They’ve had consistent lunch, supper, and bar crowds for the two years that the Bijou has been mostly closed and have recently had success with a Saturday brunch.
“If I’d depended on the Bijou, I’d have been gone long ago,” says Martha Boggs, who has been proprietor of the Bistro since the early ’90s. She likes the Bijou, of course, and even took a small role in a play called Run For Your Wife there, a dozen years ago. She says the Bijou’s very good for business. “Usually I have one bartender, one server, one cook” for the dinner hours. “On show nights, I have four servers, two bartenders, four cooks.”
It’s not all good; she says each new “renovation to the renovation” cramps her restaurant a little more. She used to have a rear exit. “Now you’d run into the dressing rooms of the Bijou, or the holding cells of the courthouse.” Some support work took out seating space, and the bathroom rearrangement took her old pantry.
“The people at the galas, I don’t think they care much about us,” she says. “But I think our piddling amount of rent has kept their lights on.” Still, she admits she comes out ahead. She’s looking forward to the lady’s return.
Capps is pleased with fundraising. He won’t say, if he knows, exactly how much is left to raise, after the grand benefits at the Tennessee featuring Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, and Merle Haggard last week. “We’re definitely within striking distance,” he says.
What is it with the Bijou, anyway? And why do we go to such lengths to keep saving it? The answer may have a good deal to do with its unique history.
Unlike the histories of many other old buildings downtown, people talk about the history of the Bijou Theatre, and the much-older Lamar House that forms its front. The city and some philanthropic organizations are funding a short documentary, currently being produced by DoubleJay Creative, which occupies another renovated building around the corner. The chief researcher is Dominic Moore, a young Englishman who has been working with original source material, as well as a thorough history written in 1985 for the East Tennessee Historical Society by Bijou historian Dean Novelli (whose work cites earlier research by erstwhile County Commission write-in candidate Archie Ellis).
The Lamar House/Bijou Theatre is close to the troubled soul of East Tennessee, and it’s not surprising that it may be the most haunted house in town. Bijou workers in the upper balcony have felt an unwelcome cold hand. Others have seen unexplainable lights. Others sometimes see, in the corner of the eye, a grey figure with a hat.
The combined building’s history is so complicated that it doesn’t take long before you turn up new information. Moore has assembled a list of performers and their shows at the Bijou; though six pages long, and in very small print, it’s nowhere close to complete, but it contains a few surprises, even to Bijou aficionados.
Moore is gathering as much detail about the pre-Bijou Lamar House as about the theater itself; he’s turned up a few details not widely known, for example, that former presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge gave an incendiary secessionist speech there in 1861. Moore also looked into the 1877 visit of President Rutherford B. Hayes, and was impressed that, when he called the Hayes Presidential Library in Ohio, they already seemed to know all about the visit. “They said, ‘Oh, yeah, he was in Knoxville then.’” Through them he found some of Hayes’ own rapturous descriptions of the East Tennessee countryside, and the first documented photo of Hayes’ speech there—useful, because it’s needed to replace a long misattributed photo of a political rally historians had assumed was a photo of the Hayes visit.
“The film will only be 10 minutes,” he says, to be played at the Bijou on its gala opening night, Friday, June 2. “But we’re collecting enough information in the hopes that we could make it a bigger thing.”
Built in 1909 as a venue for vaudeville and live musical drama, the Bijou may be the oldest existing theater in Tennessee (with the arguable exception of Nashville’s 1890s Ryman Auditorium, though it was built to be an evangelical church). In any case, none of the other cities in the state have anything like it.
She may seem like a sweet old lady today, but the Bijou was born fighting. The theater’s 97-year history is largely one of rivalries, and sometimes bare-knuckle fights, with other Gay Street theaters.
When the Bijou opened in 1909, it was a deliberate challenge to Staub’s Theater, directly across the street. For 35 years, that classic Victorian opera house had reigned without rival as the Knoxville area’s premiere live-entertainment venue; metropolitan philharmonic orchestras performed there; major touring plays appeared there. Later, when Staub’s showed motion pictures as an occasional novelty, many Knoxvillians saw their first movies there.
Knoxville furniture magnate C.B. Atkin bought one of the most storied old buildings on Gay Street, a fleabag called the Old Homestead Hotel—which had once been an antebellum hotel known as the Lamar House. Built in 1816, it had once hosted presidents and generals but had long since been outmoded by larger, more modern hotels. Though not much recognized for its background at the time, the Lamar House was arguably the most historic stack of bricks in Knoxville, having witnessed fetes for Andrew Jackson, the young hero of New Orleans; the death of General William Sanders, the ill-fated young Union general who never expected his name would appear on a major hospital chain; and balls attended by posh ladies from Confederate spy Belle Boyd to English author Frances Hodgson Burnett—whose brother tended bar at the Lamar House Saloon.
In 1908, a group led by Atkin and William G. Brownlow, II—the grandson and namesake of the notorious Fighting Parson—led an effort to build a new theater into the back of the old Lamar House. By one account, the theater was modeled after the Lyric in Atlanta; by another, the design reflected Atkin’s experiences with theaters in Europe.
They eventually contracted with former baseball star Jake Wells, whose Richmond-based entertainment company controlled 30 theaters in the South. Wells’ participation seemed to assure the success of the Bijou before it was even completed. But when it opened in the spring of 1909, the Bijou seated around 1,500 with its two balconies, the upper one accessed by a stairwell to Cumberland Avenue side entrance, and generally reserved for blacks.
Atkin’s relationship with the Bijou would turn out to have some irony in it in years to come, but he was there cheering with tears in his eyes on opening night, when he watched the play that some say gave birth to American musical theater: George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones . The show, which features the songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was more than four years old when it christened the Bijou, but as a show it might have seemed an auspicious beginning for a new theater in which music would dominate.
The lore, repeated in recent promotional literature, is that Cohan himself was there; the record suggests otherwise, but plenty of other stars of Broadway and Hollywood really did appear at the Bijou in its early years. Billie Burke, the popular singer who a quarter century later would become known to a new generation as Glynda, the Good Witch of the North, headlined a performance at the Bijou in 1912. On March 23, 1913, when the Bijou was four years old, it welcomed a production with the innocent-sounding title of Mr. Green’s Reception —which featured a bizarre family act of young Yiddish-inflected brothers named Groucho, Harpo, Gummo—and a new cast member, Chico. Sixteen years before their first film, the Marx Brothers were touring with their play.
The Bijou was segregated, but did allow blacks to be seated in the second balcony. Staub’s had offered bi-racial shows, too. After the Bijou, though, it was rare for mainstream Knoxville theaters to cater to blacks at all. (The Tennessee, for example, did not permit blacks in its audience at all for its first 35 years. Some remember the Bijou as the only place in mid-century Knoxville where blacks and whites could watch the same show in the same theater.)
Like most American theaters, the Bijou often hosted blackface minstrel acts, nationally popular and little criticized at the time. Later, philosopher/journalist Joseph Wood Krutch would defend minstrel shows in the national media, claiming that they were popular with both black and white audiences at the Bijou back home. Good and bad, minstrel shows launched many popular songs, like “Lovesick Blues” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” both by blackface singer/songwriter Emmett Miller, who may have performed at the Bijou.
Though several of the Bijou’s early performers, like Vivian Prescott, Blanche Cornwall, and Franklin Pangborn, were also stars in motion pictures of the day, the theater seems to have made a point to avoid stooping to anything as common as movies.
The Bijou seems not to have shown a single movie until Oct. 23, 1911, and when it did it was a doozy. The silent was called Dante’s Inferno ; the Italian film is remembered today as the first to show male frontal nudity. Film appeared at the Bijou only rarely during the theater’s first 20 years, at least as a main attraction—but the exceptions tended to be standouts. Three films were shown at the Bijou in the year 1924—but they happen to be three of the most extravagantly famous silent films of all time: The Hunchback of Notre Dame , The Thief of Bagdad , and the original version of The Ten Commandments .
Live shows remained the Bijou’s bread and butter, though, and the early-to-mid-1920s saw some of the Bijou’s finest hours:
In 1922, the Bijou hosted performances by the definitive American bandleader/composer John Phillip Sousa, as well as immortal Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler.
In 1924, the Bijou hosted, one month apart, both Blackstone, the “Greatest Magician the World Has Ever Known”; and the Ballet Russe, starring Anna Pavlova, probably the most famous ballerina alive—a little past her prime at 43, maybe, but still able to pack a house. We don’t know what it looked like, but the ballet company was at the time working with designers Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso. Documents indicate she got $1,000 for the performance, the equivalent of well over $10,000 today.
Keeping the joint lively between all the high-profile appearances, a local theater company, Peruchi Players, which often performed in Chilhowee Park in the summers, put on popular plays for Knoxville audiences.
The old Staub withered under competition with the across-the-street theater and eventually began hosting wrestling matches. But after the bloom was off, the Bijou had its ups and downs, too, catering to a rapidly shifting entertainment market. The giant Riviera opened down the street in 1920, hosting both major motion pictures and some jazz-age musical performances.
Meanwhile, Vaudeville was dying; it was a new era, the era of the extravagant “motion-picture palace.” The Bijou closed abruptly in 1926, when it was sold—with an unusual proviso, apparently at the behest of Atkin, that it not be used for entertainment purposes for five years.
The same man who’d shepherded the construction of the Bijou had a new dream, that of building a major motion-picture palace. Atkin was so concerned about insuring the success of the expensive new theater that he wanted to minimize competition, even from the theater whose opening night had moved him to tears when he was a much younger man.
When the Tennessee opened two blocks down the street in 1928, the Bijou was only 19 years old, but already a relic of another generation. The Bijou’s seats were stripped out, and for several years, the theater where Kreisler and Pavlova and the Marx Brothers had performed served—an image hard to picture—as a parking garage. As the Riviera thrived and the Tennessee became famous—and a dozen other smaller, cheaper theaters were drawing downtown audiences with the new sound movies daily—few in circa 1930 Knoxville would have bet on the long-term survival of the old Bijou.
After it reopened as a theater in 1932, in the depths of the Depression, the Bijou recovered some of its dignity. The Peruchi Players returned, eventually giving way to films, mostly, and the occasional visiting act, like the Ziegfeld Follies, though by the mid-’30s, it was only a pale stepchild of the jazz-age original. Also, in 1936, the Bijou served as midwife to the development of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of founder Bertha Roth Walburn Clark.
It’s ironic that the Bijou’s all-time most-glamorous year came during its movie-house era, in the months just before the nation would be mobilized for the biggest war in history.
In early 1941, Tallulah Bankhead and Dan Duryea starred onstage in a presentation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes . Bankhead was already a Hollywood legend; Duryea’s prolific film career began that year with a film version of the same play. Later that year, another old siren of the silents, Dorothy Gish, appeared in Life With Father . Still another Hollywood star, Zasu Pitts (of Erich Von Stroheim’s classic, Greed ), appeared on another night at the Bijou that year, in Her First Murder.
On November 12, 1941, the Bijou shuddered with a night that it might never excel for sheer fabulousness—when the theater presented a traveling production of Robert Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night. On the Bijou stage were Broadway’s golden couple, the enigmatically happy Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. The same boards groaned under the weight of Sydney Greenstreet (right between his two most-famous cinema roles as the heavies in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca ). Also in the cast was a slim 21-year-old unknown named Montgomery Clift, several years before his first movie role.
On the night after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performed. But for the Bijou, the war years were a second golden age of celebrity cameos.
Ethel Barrymore appeared in The Corn Is Green at the Bijou in 1943—the year before she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, which she claimed bored her. (Some sources claim “John Barrymore” performed at the Bijou—but in 1944, two years after that celebrated actor’s death; they apparently refer to his son (Ethel’s nephew), John Barrymore, Jr., who later enjoyed a minor film career.)
In 1944, the Boston Opera Company, perhaps in a stripped-down version, put on The Merry Widow at the Bijou. In early ’45, English actors Mona Barrie, Reginald Denny, and Lillian Harvey appeared in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit .
The Bijou’s oddly glamorous Hollywood years seemed to end with V-E Day. The postwar years saw a few visiting stars, like singers Robert Merrill and Eileen Farrell, but generally concentrated more on local productions. The Bijou rarely featured live country-music shows, but did tolerate the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in 1942; the Grand Ole Opry’s touring show made an appearance there in late ‘46.
It was in the postwar years when the Bijou, now best known as a movie theater, hosted local productions, including those of UT’s growing theater department. One of the Bijou’s chief claims to fame outside of East Tennessee is that it launched the career of local actor John Cullum. More than a decade before Broadway stardom (and two Tonys), he appeared in several shows at the Bijou, like Front Page and They Knew What They Wanted , in 1949.
Postwar audiences were mostly about movies, though, and as a movie theater, the Bijou never compared with the larger, fancier Tennessee. In the novel Bijou , an autobiographical novel of adolescence from the point of view of an usher in a fictionalized city of Cherokee, Tennessee, the Bijou is the Bijou, but the Tennessee is the Hiawassee, described as a much more elegant place to see a movie, and, for teenage ushers, the much more enviable place to work. Madden recalled the Bijou’s Bugs Bunny Club, a pre-television Saturday-morning show for kids.
By the 1960s, the Civic Coliseum and Auditorium and UT’s several enhanced on-campus performing spaces like Clarence Brown Theatre had noticeable effects on the market for live entertainment in central Knoxville, for the most part leaving the old Bijou behind.
The old Lamar House, at the front of the theater, had a reputation as a whorehouse long before the Bijou lapsed into something called the Bijou Art Theater—a pornographic movie house—in the mid-1960s.
During that time, the Tennessee was still East Tennessee’s premier movie theater; through the ’60s, the Tennessee was so popular that it often loaded its brightly-lit lobby with hundreds of people willing to wait through one showing of the latest hit movie so they could get good seats—or just get in—for the next one.
However, as the Tennessee began to decline in the early days of the multiplex in the 1970s, the Bijou was suddenly the preservationists’ darling. Led by architect Glenn Bullock, the newly formed preservationist group Knoxville Heritage (later retitled, more inclusively, Knox Heritage) saved the Bijou from certain demolition by raising money to buy it for about a third of a million dollars. Success was assured when the architectural firm of Joseph Goodstein, then acting as trustee for the theater, donated $50,000.
Just as Knoxville donors large and small donated to Save the Bijou, though, some local businessmen were predicting the Tennessee would soon be torn down.
As the Bijou had been the performance birthplace of the KSO, it also launched another longstanding arts organization, the Knoxville Opera Company. Several of the opera’s first productions were at the Bijou, beginning with Verdi’s La Traviata in 1978. More than 20 years later, the Bijou hosted opera performances for the first Rossini Festivals.
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is larger than it was when it debuted at the Bijou in the ’30s, but it means to return. The KSO’s chamber performances held at the Tennessee this past weekend were originally scheduled for the Bijou, which had once been expected to reopen in March. The KSO’s next chamber performance may appear at the Bijou on Oct. 8.
Capps and architect Lee Ingram admit that the Bijou’s still not finished. There’s still another phase; maybe there always will be. The next phase calls for restoring seating in the old second balcony, unused, except for equipment and the Bijou’s famous ghost, in many years.
According to Ingram, the rule that there’s not a bad seat in the Bijou applies even there. “If you’re not afraid of heights, they’re great seats,” he says. They’re just doing four rows, though. Farther back, at the back of the second balcony, “the stage looks like a postcard. It’s not worth it.” The addition will add about 120 more seats, making the Bijou close to 850 in capacity. At this date, no one knows when it will happen.
There will always be more things to do. The detailing of the Bijou’s paint job won’t be nearly as elaborate as what the Tennessee accomplished. “Originally, the Bijou had an interesting stenciled ceiling,” says Ingram. “None of that has been done.” Whether it ever will be may be up to future generations.
Ingram adds that they may also install an amenity dear to the heart of Bob Webb, the electrolier—an electric-light chandelier that hung in the original theater. Ingram has some regrets they didn’t push to include it this time.
The lastest iteration of the 97-year-old Bijou opens on Friday, June 2, with a special kickoff show featuring the DoubleJay film and performances by a couple of Knoxville’s own recording stars, Robinella and R.B. Morris, as well as the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.
In 2006, the Bijou and Tennessee may occasionally still compete for the Knoxville entertainment crowd. But East Tennessee’s two premiere historic theaters now seem more companionable, at the center of a metro area much larger than it has ever been. The population of the six-county area may approach a million by the 2010 census. Maybe, this time, they can keep both a 1,600-seat theater and a 730-seater in business.