It was a new era, both exciting and confounding, when automobiles were clattering down streets previously reserved for horses, bicycles, and pedestrians. They were so popular they smashed into each other occasionally. Before cars, people and horses had shared a mutual preference not to collide. But cars, lacking brains of their own, and harder to stop, were proving themselves to be a different animal.
Christmas had a couple of distinctions in 1913. One was the announcement that on Christmas Day, the “acting president” of the United States would be a former Knoxvillian, William Gibbs McAdoo. Famous here for introducing the first electric streetcar lines back in 1890, and for his role in provoking a deadly riot concerning an abortive second line, in 1897, McAdoo was, in 1913, the new Secretary of the Treasury. President Wilson and other top dogs took the holiday away. A single widower, McAdoo would be the highest-ranking official stuck in Washington on Christmas Day. So, perhaps as a booby prize, he was “acting president.”
On Friday night, six days before Christmas, 15-year-old Sophia Preston was playing the role of Santa Claus in a play at South Knoxville School, at the south end of the Gay Street Bridge. Some sparklers caught her costume on fire. Her older sister, Hattie, a teacher at the school, tried to put out the fire, but was burned badly, herself. Sophia, “terribly burned from the waist up,” was finally taken to a local hospital.
Downtown swarmed with Christmas shoppers. Cable Hall, Gay Street’s music store, advertised Victrolas. Biddle Brothers had velocipedes and roller skates. J.H. Webb’s, on Market Square, was “the Merry Xmas Store,” with “the most complete Toyland in town.” Woodruff’s was pushing men’s exercise equipment, punching bags, Indian clubs, dumbbells, and Pope’s new Motobike, “a racy wheel, built along motorcycle lines.”
It was a racy era. The Racy Cream Co. on Chamberlain Street, near Mechanicsville, offered Frozen Dainties, in multiple holiday flavors, egg nog, fig nut, Canton ginger, tutti-frutti, maple nut, Neapolitan.
The stores were all about Christmas. The theaters were not at all. No one demanded that all live entertainment in December be holiday-related.
The Bijou Theatre opened days before Christmas, heralding “a new era,” in the form of a big variety show. “From far-off Japan, the very home of the occult, comes Kajiyama.” That was Tameo Kajiyama, the Japanese handwriting marvel, who could write with both hands simultaneously, “a calligraphic exhibition of psychological interest.” It was said that he possessed a “double brain.” It was the only way to explain what he could do.
He got more attention in the local press than all the others, who included the Nichols Sisters, “the Kentucky Belles” former Broadway performers who created a rare female blackface act, and “funmakers” Kirk & Fogarty. (A few weeks earlier, Variety had hailed the duo, calling Ethel Kirk “some good looker!”) There was Carl Eugene’s acrobatic act, and juggler Anita Bertling. Neil McKinley, the “nut comedian,” and Harry Tighe, the Broadway actor, doing a one-act collegiate farce called “Taking Things Easy.”
All on one bill, these minor stars took up residence at the Bijou that Christmas, performing two shows a day for a long, open-ended stay.
Across the street at Staub’s was Ellery’s Royal Italian Band, “the World’s Greatest Concert Band.” They’d been the house band at the National Conservation Exposition at Chilhowee Park earlier that fall, playing daily for two months. There was some anxiety they wouldn’t draw a crowd in a proper theater, but they did. Director Tadeo Giralamo directed a program of short pieces from Wagner, Schubert, Dvorak, Liszt, and Mendelssohn, some of them featuring M. Donato, on soprano saxophone.
And at the Grand Theatre, a block down—in 1913, three large theaters offered live entertainment within a block of each other—was still another traveling vaudeville show, including an “eccentric acrobat,” a blackface yodeler, a male-female comedy duo, and the Duddies, who did something with “paper manipulations...quite a novel and interesting feat.”
Most people didn’t get a Christmas tree until Christmas week, often not until Christmas Eve. The big loads of them, mostly cedars, arrived the weekend before Christmas. There were the inevitable comparisons to Market Square being suddenly like a forest.
“Walking on Market Square, one can almost feel Christmas in the air,” wrote a Journal reporter on Dec. 22, “for nearly every wagon lined up along the sidewalk is loaded down with the finest holly and mistletoe....”
Tragedy always arrived with the greenery. A young man was shot to death in Burlington, reportedly for insulting people on their way to church. On Dec. 23, a motorized milk truck hit a bicyclist on West Clinch. Allan Watson, a county official who’d been involved in several political scrapes, had just gotten back to his home in Park City with a load of shopping, on Christmas Eve, when a .38 bullet shattered his window and struck his decorated mantel. Outside they could hear footsteps fleeing down an alley. Coolly, he acknowledged that it was likely an attempted assassination.
On Christmas Eve, 15-year-old Sophia Preston, who had “lingered, suffering terrible agony” for five days since her Santa Claus costume had caught fire, died.
It was the worst kind of news you could get on Christmas Eve, so bad one paper didn’t even report it.
On Christmas, it rained all day long. The city tried to keep on the jolly side.
Street traffic was sparse, and only a few “Knoxville Nimrods” went on the traditional Christmas Day hunt. But a lot packed the hotels for the annual holiday feast. “Many Knoxvillians prefer to take their [Christmas] dinner downtown, rather than undergo the work, trouble, etc.”
“Thousands of pleasure seekers” found their way into the movies. The big draw that week was Caprice, starring Mary Pickford, playing at the Rex on Gay Street, for a nickel a show. Many attended the Knoxville Bowling Club’s traditional Christmas-Day tournament at their clubhouse near Chilhowee Park.
And Recorder D.G. Leahy honored Knoxville’s old Christmas tradition of liberating all the public drunks in the hoosegow.