Odds Without Ends

Clearing the decks for summer: old movies, Greystone, the Knoxville 22, and Knoxville High

Seeing the list of films showing at the Tennessee Theatre this summer gave me the uneasy feeling that maybe I’ve lived too long.

It’s great that they’re playing old movies again. The grand old place was built to show movies, after all. But I looked at the list with some perplexed dismay. It’s not just that I’ve seen all these movies before. I’ve seen each of them 12 to 40 times. They’ve all been on prime-time TV, and they’ve all been available on video for a quarter-century or more.

Looking at each one of them, I know what it’s like to take dates to see them, to take small children and teenagers to see them, to see them alone, to see them in the living room with a bowl of popcorn and daiquiris, to see them in revivals at the Tennessee. Maybe, once humans reach this point, all we have to look forward to is comfortable redundancy.

But I know there’s more. I began to love old movies in that big room with the strange decor. About 30 years ago, soon after the Tennessee stopped showing first-run movies, the management made a perhaps desperate gesture. Unable to come up with another use for an overlarge single-screen theater in those days when only the intrepid, the eccentric, and the creepy came downtown at night, the Tennessee played old movies. Almost at random, it seemed, a couple of different ones every week, mostly black-and-whites from the ’30s and ’40s. I’d never seen any of them, and was hypnotized.

Few others were tempted. I’d look around that big room, watching this fascinating old movie, and count maybe a dozen other people. I later heard the series was a financial disaster. Those months convinced me that there are thousands of old movies worth seeing, for the moody scenes, for the witty dialogue, for the subtle portrayals of complex characters, for the plots so fresh and surprising you sit there baffled about how these strange people are going to get out of their messes.

But what people will come out in large numbers to see is Holly Golightly finding true love once again. (Is it because we know that in the book, she didn’t?)

My complaint is not with the management, but with human nature. People won’t pay to see a movie unless they’ve seen it many times before. That may explain a lot of the philosophy of Hollywood today.

***

A few weeks ago I wrote about Alfred Mullett, the doomed architect of the Greystone mansion on Broadway, and got a note from University of Tennessee architecture professor George Dodds, who noted his puzzlement that Greystone is actually made of brown stones. They could pass for beige or tan, it seems, but not gray. I’ve taken it for granted for years, but suddenly I remembered that when I was a kid, that bothered me. Have the decades in the Tennessee sun browned it? Has the definition of what constitutes “grey” shifted in the color palate since 1890? Or did the builder order the huge marble block with the expensively carved name before he knew what it was going to look like?

That’s one moment in the life of Eldad Cicero Camp I don’t envy. Unpacking that block and realizing, you know—my new house isn’t exactly grey, is it.

***

I’m still getting stray comments to my story about the anti-war movement at UT that reached its most dramatic period from January to May of 1970. About once a month I hear from someone who’s just read it. It was the cover story a little more than 10 years ago. The Internet’s funny that way. I bet even long-dead reporters still get “I bet you didn’t know” comments.

I considered revisiting the subject for the 40th anniversary of the famous President Nixon visit at the Billy Graham crusade at Neyland Stadium. However, I see that Barry Bozeman, who’s reputedly No. 22 of the Knoxville 22—the activists arrested in early 1970 for protesting UT’s administration—has laid it all out in a blog, to which he invites the surviving members of the other 21 to review and add their two tokes. It’s at knoxville22.blogspot.com.

***

Last weekend, Knoxville High celebrated its centennial, sort of. It was in 1910 that the grand columned building on Fifth Avenue was completed. It’s still grand, but threatened; on Knox Heritage’s recently announced Fragile 15 list, it’s a new entry. There’s a lot of history there; academy-award-winning actress Patricia Neal began her career in that building, acting in school plays in the 1930s.

The founding date of 1910 celebrates more the building than the high school itself, which has a longer history. Before 1910, Knoxville High was downtown, in the palatial Girls High School building at Union Avenue and Walnut, where the Daylight Building is. Still called “Girls High” years after it began admitting boys in the upper grades, it was also referred to as Knoxville High by the early 1900s. One of KHS’ most celebrated alumni is MGM director Clarence Brown, who graduated from Knoxville High in 1905. He said his treatment of the school in the 1935 movie Ah, Wilderness was based on his memories of Knoxville High on Union. When he opened the film with a KHS banner, it marked a glamorous moment for this high school with more than its fair share of connections to show biz.

But any occasion is a good occasion for a reunion, and I hope this one will raise the profile of a worthy old building.

We should remember, of course, that it wasn’t everybody’s high school. It closed before the era of desegregation, so throughout its history, Knoxville High on 5th Avenue was just the high school for white kids. It could be fun to throw a joint reunion with the old black high school, which was called Austin High. Elderly Knoxvillians of the same age, meeting each other for the first time. That would be a story.

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