Clarence Brown on World's Fair Park? Some Thoughts on One of 2014's Dilemmas

Talk of a university performing-arts center in World’s Fair Park is at least interesting.

I may be in a minority in that I haven’t yet developed a strong opinion about the prospect. I’m writing because I’ve found it frustrating to listen to the arguments.

I’m a fan of Clarence Brown theaters. Most folks don’t know how much goes on there and how good it is.

Some critics of the proposal have noted that a drama building would be empty most of the time, because the University of Tennessee had plays only “a few nights a year.” I feel obliged to offer this point of information. The Clarence Brown “mainstage” hosts their bigger shows about 55 evenings a year. If you include the Carousel and the Lab Theatre, which are more or less at the same address and would be incorporated in the same new building, the CBT offers performances right there about 108 evenings a year.

And that’s not including use of the facilities by other troupes, like an independent student group that put on a production of Rent there recently. All told, its activity compares well to most venues.

The fact that people don’t know how busy the place is may in itself be a strong argument in favor of moving it.

They’ve got a great complex now. There’s not a bad seat in the house. The Lab Theater’s a nearly perfect place to experience a play. The Carousel, which began as a Knoxville-community project, and which may be America’s oldest theater-in-the-round, is a wonderfully quirky thing with lots of resonance back to the Truman administration, when it stood on a street in a tree-shaded neighborhood.

Abandoning it would mean abandoning some heritage, and heritage means a lot in theater. It’s Clarence Brown Theatre, and nowhere else, that has 44 years of mainstage performances going back to the days of Sir Anthony Quayle’s residency. Major actors like Mary Martin, Zoe Caldwell, and Dame Judith Anderson have performed there. The 1979 Broadway hit Sugar Babies actually started in that building. Its seats sometimes accommodated retired MGM director Clarence Brown himself. Greta Garbo’s favorite director was also one of the university’s most generous benefactors. That theater is UT’s only building that’s associated with him personally.

Any outsourcing of activity would make these storied old buildings seem expendable. That’s a reason not to move it.

But the thespian cluster’s main problem is that it’s an island in the middle of a university campus. That campus is a large, carefully controlled area with no private residences, no non-collegiate businesses. Closing down Andy Holt to automobile traffic was a welcome development, but as a result no one ever accidentally encounters Clarence Brown Theatre except on foot.

That theater complex, as well-designed as it is, as well-programmed as it is, is isolated from the Knoxville mainstream. So isolated that folks become convinced it’s open only a few nights a year.

We forget Clarence Brown is there. That’s a reason to move it.

To theatergoers, the siting’s a problem, too. When evening plays let out, campus is closed for business. After each show, hundreds step out of the theater into a tombish campus of locked buildings.

Maybe you’d like to sit down somewhere and talk about the play, figure it out, recite jokes, compare notes. But there’s nowhere handy for a snack or a drink. The library’s Starbucks isn’t open late. On campus, restaurants or bars serving beer or wine are forbidden. Maybe you can fight traffic to find parking on the Strip, then wedge your way in amongst the kids in a nightspot. Or you can just drive home. Most often, that seems the sensible choice.

The theater experience would be different at World’s Fair Park. It could be more like a night on the town than a single-destination driving experience.

Also, football traffic’s an issue on some Clarence Brown weekends. Visiting professional actors have told me they’re surprised Saturday performances are banned just because football’s being played down the hill. So on game days, UT pays talented performers to sit around. One game night, I ran into the celebrated visiting star of Clarence Brown’s then-current musical, moping alone on a barstool in Bearden, paid to be in Knoxville but with nothing to do. Downtown, I bet, we could have plays even on game days.

The South Lawn would be a loss, too. Just as opponents of moving the theater tend to underestimate the amount of activity Clarence Brown generates, advocates of moving it there may underestimate the amount of activity on that lawn. When the weather’s half-nice, more often than not, there are people on that lawn, mostly young people with books or Frisbees or blankets or dogs, or some combination thereof, enjoying it.

It’s downtown’s only passive lawn, the only place you can run reckless through the grass, like you can even in some denser cities’ parks.

It’s also a great place for certain big events, like East Tennessee’s biggest beer festival, the annual Brewers’ Jam.

When the Urban Land Institute came to Knoxville in 1999 to advise on siting the convention-center project, they were taken with the South Lawn. It was accidental that they arrived in town the same weekend of a John Fogerty concert on that lawn. Thousands were there to enjoy the show, and the warm night, and the moon.

These seasoned experts were charmed by the scene, and concluded, that evening, that it would be a mistake to put a building there.

A third option proposed in a recent city charrette was the question-mark McClung space on Jackson Avenue. It would be a fun place for a theater, though it’s farther from campus, and the freight yards might offer some acoustical challenges.

And there’s the old State Supreme Court site. It’s an option some had been discussing quietly even before an ambitious hotel/apartment development proposal for that site fell through last week. It’s on UT’s side of downtown, in fact adjacent to UT’s conference center.

That seems promising to me. I just want to be sure all sides know what they’re saying.

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Comments » 4

Willers writes:

Summarizing Mr. Neely: Professional theatre needs to be downtown where it can feed off peripheral businesses (like bars and restaurants) and they can feed off it. The Supreme Court site would be an excellent one; that block is over 80,000 sq. ft. and could certainly contain more than just a theatre complex.
However, I'm not able to understand how the academic side of the theatre could exist so far removed from the Humanities area on campus, if that is a goal.

murfvol writes:

The court sight would be a fine option. Just keep the grass.

scarygales writes:

UT seems to be able site any number of parking garages. Why not build the complex atop one of those...would also be a good solution to non-UT theater goers' need for parking. At the same time there is merit regarding the Supreme Court site. However whatever, keep the lawn. Knoxville has a penchant for converting passive open space to site some kind of memorial not even relative to the location or some other construction that could go almost anywhere. In this case the highly land acquisitive university seems to think it's needs trump a passive but long-term amenity. That they have committed so much of their own property to athletic related functions is not an acceptable excuse to elbow their way into the south lawn under the guise of a lack of room.

pfbrown writes:

With the apparent unanimity of support for redeveloping the Supreme Court site, I was surprised to see the courtroom building recently listed among Knox Heritage's Fragile Fifteen.

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