The Two-Theater Town

As the Bijou Theatre celebrates its 100th anniversary, we take a look at Knoxville on the day the Bijou opened

For people who like to think of municipal progress as absolute, an afternoon in the local archives can be unsettling. The deja vu can give you the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes, like a patient recovering from a stroke, Knoxville seems to approach what it had a long time ago. And you wonder what happened, and wonder whether it's going to happen again.

A century ago, the disorderly town of Knoxville seemed finally turning a corner and gaining, once and for all, everything it needed to be taken seriously as a Great American City. In 1909, Knoxville became, suddenly, a two-theater town.

It was a smoky city of about 35,000 factory workers, salesmen, lawyers, seamstresses, bankers, and mechanics. That number won't impress until you realize they all lived pretty close together, all of them within a 20-minute walk of downtown. The population was much greater if you counted the unannexed suburbs of Bearden, Lonsdale, Park City, all of South Knoxville. Knox County was home to almost 100,000, and it was enough to support most of the urban amenities. The city had a state-of-the-art electric streetcar system, 10 different lines running in all directions every few minutes; two train stations; two daily newspapers; and then two big theaters.

Automobiles were beginning to appear in the streets. Knoxville had 143 automobiles, a fact we know because all their owners were listed on one page of the Journal as a matter of public record. The most popular makes were Reos and electric Pope-Waverleys. A typical Gay Street scene might include a couple of streetcars, a few horse-drawn buggies and mule carts, a couple of bicycles, lots of pedestrians, and maybe one rich sportsman's Reo.

Knoxville was ahead of the nation, for once, in the matter of banning saloons. The local brewery still bottled beer for out-of-town sales, and sold a popular "temperance brew" called Swanky. But without saloons the crime rate had plummeted, convincing even some Wets that maybe the Drys had a point. Knoxville was finally civilized, out of the woods. In cartoons, prohibition was depicted as a happy sun.

Knoxville had other stuff to do, anyway. In 1909, downtown was one big entertainment arcade. The city supported 22 billiard halls, 15 cigar stores, 59 restaurants, 46 soft-drink stands, and 29 confectioneries, almost all of that downtown.

The Lyceum, a dignified pocket arts center at Walnut Street and Cumberland Avenue that hosted musical recitals and an art gallery and a Smithsonian exhibit about invertebrates, announced plans for an extravagant expansion to add a larger museum and larger auditorium with a ballroom and a glassed-in garden on the roof. The Opera Club was planning a production of the Balfe opus, The Bohemian Girl. The Lyceum was much boasted about, "an advancement in the musical life of the city," a privately funded complex designed to uplift the city culturally.

At another end of the spectrum but hardly three blocks away was the Auditorium Skating Rink, at Gay and Main, which offered roller skating all day, with special events like roller masquerades and Ladies' Roller Polo, and, every night, short, silent motion pictures and a brass-band concert. Down on the wharf, excursion riverboats offered dance-orchestra shows. At least five other storefront theaters showed either vaudeville shows, or, more and more often in 1909, movies. One, the Columbia, at 609 Gay, seemed to have higher aspirations than most of the little dime theaters, advertising visiting novelty acts who'd recently appeared at New York's Hippodrome.

When optimists spoke of a "second theater," they weren't counting any of those. The unrivaled mother of all East Tennessee theaters was Staub's. The former "Opera House" had been downtown Knoxville's most popular destination for 37 years. After a major remodeling and expansion completed seven years earlier, it seated almost 2,000, with a balcony, gallery, entresol, and box seats. Staub's hosted operas, vaudeville shows, orchestra concerts, and, lately, a few movies, too.

Run by Fritz Staub, son of the Swiss immigrant who built it, it was busy most nights of the week, drawing crowds to see headliners named Barrymore, Bernhardt, Cohan. Around 1906, Staub entered a partnership with Jake Wells. Originally from Memphis, Wells was a handsome, mustachioed fellow in his 40s who'd been a pro baseball player for teams in Detroit and St. Louis, later manager of the Richmond Colts, before he made the logical next step into show business. Beginning with his first Bijou in Richmond in 1899, Wells opened theaters throughout the South, about 30 by 1909, and booked shows with big-name acts to keep them packed. Noting Knoxville's rapid growth, he introduced himself to Staub, the two began talking, and decided Knoxville looked like a two-theater town.

They needed backers, of course, and found one in Clay Brown Atkin, owner of the Atkin Mantel Co., which operated two large factories in Knoxville and claimed to be the largest mantel manufacturer in the world. He was also a major real-estate developer; some North Knoxville suburbs and several buildings downtown, including a couple of Knoxville's best-known hotels, like the Colonial beside Staub's ("Knoxville's Newest European Hotel"), were Atkin properties. He liked the Staub-Wells proposal, and with partners Will Brownlow, grandson of the hardcore Unionist-Republican Fightin' Parson and Reconstruction governor, and Jeanette Cowan, who was related to the family who built the Lamar House, came up with the required $50,000.

It may seem odd that a theater company would pick a spot directly across the street from the biggest theater in the region to open a slightly smaller theater. One advantage was that the front of it was already a well-known building. The Lamar House hotel had been a Knoxville landmark for more than 90 years—in 1909 it was already one of the oldest buildings downtown—and had its own heritage as an entertainment center, having hosted dances and masquerade balls with live bands since at least the Civil War. It had fallen on hard times, and the building was available.

Construction took about 10 months. It was originally scheduled to open on March 1, but scheduling difficulties pushed the date back to March 8. (This year's centennial celebration is a few weeks early.) Though the Bijou's famous for its acoustics today, what people noticed the Monday night it opened was how pretty and brightly lit and modern it was. It was thoroughly electric, with a magnificent "electrolier" hanging from the ceiling. The box office even sported a telephone, a clever new way of taking reservations for tickets.

The Bijou was originally intended, emphatically, to be a "legitimate theater," no common vaudeville house. The opener was a week-long, 75-member production of legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan's famous musical, Little Johnny Jones, a four-year-old show already renowned for the songs it unleashed, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway." Advertisements for the show—"Music-Laughter-Girls"—don't suggest the Bijou was necessarily all about high art.

That weekend could have been written by a dramatist: Downtown tragedies seemed to signal the changing of the era. On the Friday before the Bijou opened, one of those new automobiles struck and killed an elderly black woman, a maid for a downtown family, on West Cumberland. Her grief-stricken husband, a blacksmith, asked that her body be delivered to his home for a funeral. But when the "dead wagon" arrived, the undertakers' assistants found the widower dead, himself, of a heart attack.

The same evening as that fatal accident, police found an 85-year-old white woman "burned to a crisp" in her Union Avenue apartment. An eccentric recluse from New Orleans, known to her neighbors only for her odd habits, like the fact that she still used old-fashioned oil lamps, she was believed to have dropped one, spilling the accelerant on her dress. She died trying to find the key to her door.

Knoxville's celebrities turned out for the Bijou's opening. "Captain" John Brooks was the 68-year-old mayor of Knoxville, a Confederate veteran wounded at Chickamauga who recovered to make a success of himself in postwar business and politics; before he was mayor of Knoxville, he'd been mayor of Middlesborough, Ky. He shared a box seat on the right, with Atkin.

Some guests were new to town, like Charles Blaney, the theatrical manager famous as the King of Melodrama and manager of the young beauty Cecil Spooner, whose two-week stand performing four different plays at the Bijou later in March would mark the theater's second big production. Another tuxedoed dignitary was Edward Stair, the Detroit newspaper publisher and well-known booking agent. And Hugh Cardoza, a Wells associate from Atlanta; the company controlled most of that city's theaters.

And, of course, Jake Wells himself, recognized and applauded immediately as he emerged on stage. Mayor Brooks presented a unique Knoxville souvenir to the showman, a "handsome gold elk's head." Wells seemed overcome by the adulation, said he'd never been "thus remembered," his 30 other theaters and his pro baseball career included.

When the crowd shouted for "Atkin," Brooks slipped down from his box and attempted to coax him out. Atkin balked at the sight of the well-dressed crowd of 1,500, and remained backstage.

The play itself unfolded perfectly. Ada Gifford was the most recognizable star, and Charley Brown sang "Give My Regards to Broadway" in a center-stage spotlight. But supporting actor William Keough stole the show—"there is something quite realistic about his jag and slight stagger which affected the risibilities of all," assessed the Journal's critic.

Fritz Staub didn't offer his newer, smaller baby any sort of a break. Even in the Bijou's inaugural week, ads for Staub's shows were bigger than ads for Bijou shows. That week, the Grand Dame across the street showed some of its biggest shows of the year. That Wednesday, international sensation Alla Nazimova performed there, in Ibsen's A Doll's House. The following night saw one of the most popular blackface shows in America, Lew Dockstander and His Minstrels. (Taboo a few decades later but little criticized in their day, minstrel shows were the prime purveyors of pop music in 1909.) Dockstander was famous, just then, for his dead-on impersonation of newly inaugurated President Taft. His company boasted a cast of 70, but one of its name stars was the 22-year-old singing sensation Al Jolson. And that Saturday, William H. Crane, a major Broadway star, appeared in a more serious drama, Father and the Boys, a George Ade play that had been on Broadway a few months earlier. Staub's was still the Queen of Gay Street, a larger theater with shows so big they could still charge more per seat than the 50-cent Bijou did. Sometimes as much as, in Mme. Nazimova's case, two bucks.

That first week, Knoxvillians had a choice of seeing plays with Broadway stars, in different theaters across the street from each other. And that week, both theaters did well. In its first week, the Bijou sold 12,000 tickets.

The brightly lit 800 block of Gay Street, with two theaters, each with well over 1,000 seats, a couple of hotels, and a big roller rink, could almost pass for a block of midtown Manhattan, and that may have been the idea.

Those Reos and Popes clattering down the street soon gave people different ideas.

Most of the cast of Little Johnny Jones are obscure today. A couple appeared in a few early silent films. Ada Gifford was in a handful of movies before retiring at 30.

Charles Blaney, one of the manager-celebrities pointed out in the Bijou's first audience, married his client Cecil Spooner, the star of the Bijou's second show; she was at the time working on a novel called The Fortunes of Betty. Four years later, she would be arrested at her theater in the Bronx for indecency for her part in a 1913 off-Broadway production called The House of Bondage.

C.B. Atkin would soon buy the Knoxville Bank and Trust Building, one of downtown Knoxville's tallest skyscrapers, and rename it for his wife, whose maiden name was Burwell. By 1921, he was probably Knoxville's wealthiest man. In the mid-1920s, he led the effort to build still another grand new theater adjacent to the Burwell, this one called the Tennessee, primarily for motion pictures. When it opened, almost 20 years after the Bijou, the theater company succeeded in closing the Bijou, to dampen the competition. For a few years, the Bijou Theatre was a particularly elegant parking garage.

Jake Wells became known as the King of Vaudeville, and opened more theaters, like the New Wells in Norfolk, Va., which still thrives. But he lived to see vaudeville begin to evaporate, as motion pictures dominated.

In the mid-1920s, he attempted to adjust by diversifying. He started a major building project in Hendersonville, N.C., a 10-story hotel. There, at age 63, while on what a friend thought would be a therapeutic drive through the Smokies, he shot himself in the head. His acquaintances agreed that he "worked himself to death."