Tennessee Theatre

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Burwell Building Tennessee Theater
The historic Tennessee Theatre on Gay Street
LocationKnoxville, Tennessee, USA
Coordinates35°57′44″N 83°55′10″W / 35.96222°N 83.91944°W / 35.96222; -83.91944Coordinates: 35°57′44″N 83°55′10″W / 35.96222°N 83.91944°W / 35.96222; -83.91944
BuiltOctober 1, 1928
ArchitectGraven & Mayger
NRHP reference #82003979
Added to NRHPApril 1, 1982

The Tennessee Theatre is a 1920s-era movie palace, located in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee at 604 South Gay Street.


Clay Brown Atkin (1864-1931) founded many buildings and was claimed to be the biggest mantel manufacturer in the world. Atkin set his attention on a tall building, originally known as the Knoxville Banking & Trust Building, a 10-story steel frame building on the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue. The building was completed in 1908, and for four years it was Knoxville's tallest and first "skyscraper". The Knoxville Banking & Trust Building became a prestigious address for Knoxville professionals, and in 1917, Atkin bought the "skyscraper" and honorarily named it after his wife, Mary Burwell (1871-1949). Measuring at 166 feet (51 m) in height, it was Knoxville's tallest building until 1912.[1][1] In the 1790s, the lot now occupied by the Burwell Building was home to a two-story log structure where the classes of Blount College — the forerunner of the University of Tennessee — were first held.[2]

The theater first opened on October 1, 1928, and with nearly 2,000 seats in the auditorium, it was billed as "Knoxville's Grand Entertainment Palace". The theater was designed by Chicago architects Graven & Mayger in the Spanish-Moorish style, although the design incorporates elements from all parts of the world: Czechoslovakian crystals in the French-style chandeliers, Italian terrazzo flooring in the Grand Lobby, and Oriental influences in the carpet and drapery patterns. It was built by George A. Fuller, another Chicago native, who also built the famous Flatiron Building in New York City. Tennessee Enterprises hired the George A. Fuller Company because of his prominent works in New York City, and his work on the Tennessee proved Fuller to be a great fit for the job. By this point, the theatre was turning out to be an almost all-Chicago project, and Fuller broke ground on November 1, 1927. On Christmas Day the News-Sentinel reported that the theatre was pouring concrete. The theatre was one of the first public buildings in Knoxville to have air conditioning, and it also featured the beautiful Wurlitzer Organ.

During its heyday, the theatre played host to a few world movie premieres, including So This is Love (1953), and the adaptation of James Agee's All the Way Home (1963).

After a refurbishment in 1966, the theatre's seating capacity was reduced to 1,545.

The theater changed owners several times over its life, and eventually closed for the first time in 1977. Thereafter it was open and closed intermittently for the remainder of the late 1970s. It was purchased by local radio company Dick Broadcasting in 1981, who started a renovation effort to prepare it for the 1982 World's Fair. On April 1, 1982, the theater was placed in the National Register of Historic Places.[3]

Portions of the 1999 film October Sky were filmed in and around Knoxville, and the facade of the theater can be seen during a scene in which the main characters go to the movies.

The theater is home to the Knoxville Opera, and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

The Mighty Wurlitzer[edit]

The Wurlitzer was installed in the Tennessee Theatre at the time of its opening in 1928. It was built by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in North Tonawanda, New York, and cost about $50,000 at the time.

The organist at the Tennessee is always advertised as the star of the show, and the first organist was Miss Jean Wilson, whose name appeared on the marquee alongside early films.

In October 2000, virtually the entire organ was shipped to Reno, Nevada, to master organ rebuilder Ken Crome, who painstakingly restored the instrument piece by piece. Artisans and craftsmen returned the organ's appearance to its original 1928 color scheme and design. The chambers on either side of the stage, which houses the pipes, were replastered to fully ensure the protection and preservation of the restored instrument.

The Wurlitzer returned to Knoxville in August 2001 and was re-installed over the course of the next month. Acclaimed theatre organist Lyn Larsen was involved in the configuration and tonal regulation of the organ, and was the first to publicly perform it at a gala concert on October 1, 2001.

Renovation and restoration[edit]

Entrance along Gay Street

The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation (HTTF) was formed in 1996 and Dick Broadcasting donated the theater to the non-profit. It was designated "The Official State Theatre of Tennessee". In 2001, the Foundation announced a campaign to completely restore and renovate the Theatre. The $29.3 million project was funded through public and private donations with the help of $6.3 million in tax credits.[4] The theatre closed for renovations in June 2003 to completely restore it to its original glamor.

Renovations included expansions of the stage depth via a cantilever two stories above State street, which accommodated larger and more elaborate productions, a custom orchestra shell to enhance the acoustics of the new larger stage, an enlarged orchestra pit, upgraded dressing room facilities, modernization of the lighting, rigging, and other theatrical equipment, the installations of elevators, and a new marquee.

The restorations included new carpets, draperies, and lighting fixtures that duplicated the original designs, and historically accurate restoration of all plaster and paint surfaces throughout the lobby, lounges, foyers, and the auditorium. Integration of acoustic treatments into the restored auditorium and lobby, and a substantially improved exterior sound isolation system were included in the restoration design. Seating capacity is now at 1,645 patrons.[4]

The theatre reopened on January 14, 2005 and presented a near sold-out season. It now offers a wide range of performing arts events and classic films to the public, and it is managed by AC Entertainment.

The design team for this renovation effort was led by McCarty Holsaple Architects of Knoxville, Tennessee and included Westlake Reed Leskosky Architects of Cleveland, Ohio; Evergreene Studios, Historic Restoration Consultants of New York, New York; and Acoustic Consultant Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, Illinois. The conductor was Knoxville-based Denark Construction.

Broadway at the Tennessee[edit]

After the failed "Broadway in Knoxville" series at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum finally came to an end due to a lack of profit, quality 'Broadway-style' entertainment was transferred to the Tennessee Theatre for a 2008-2009 season. The series, now presented by the Tennessee Theatre, was renamed Broadway at the Tennessee and kicked off with Fred Ebb's Chicago.[5] Productions at The Tennessee Theatre included Movin' Out, Hairspray, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweeney Todd, and Stomp.[6]

  • Since its inception in 2008, the Tennessee has presented 176 performances of 54 Broadway titles
  • The Tennessee has welcomed over 200,000 attendees to Broadway at the Tennessee performances
  • The Theatre celebrated its one millionth post renovation visitor during Mary Poppins in March 2013. Mayor Tim Burchett proclaimed March 5, 2013 as Mary Poppins Day in Knox County
  • The set of Jersey Boys holds the record for the heaviest set, weighing a whopping 73,000 lbs.
  • Shamicka Benn, a Bearden High School graduate, returned to Knoxville in 2008 and again in February 2017 as Go-to-Hell Kitty in Chicago

Historical Facts[edit]

  • June 3, 1936, The Reverend W. Herschel Ford married two brothers, Ben Howard Easterday and Claude Raymond Easterday to their respective mates, Marcy Alive Hall and Lula Myrtle Norman.
  • On September 2, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt's motorcade paraded through downtown Knoxville on its way to official dedication ceremonies. The Tennessee was playing the new Bing Crosby musical comedy Rhythm on the River as the president waved with his hat
  • Mr. Billy Barnes came back to Knoxville to play his favorite Wurlitzer one last time to accompany the showing of Yankee Doodle Dandy in September 1985. His history with the organ had spanned almost half a century
  • Bill Cosby came to the Tennessee, the first of several visits, to help raise funds. Cosby would not have been allowed in the door, even as a paying customer, 40 years earlier. In 1998, he was at the Tennessee helping to raise funds for its preservation. At the time, he was so popular his appearance sold out within 36 hours of the announcement.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Burwell Building, Emporis.com
  2. ^ Daughters of the American Revolution plaque on the Burwell Building, 1925. Accessed: 17 April 2010.
  3. ^ Knox County Listings at the National Register of Historic Places
  4. ^ a b The Rehab Tax Credit at Work: Knoxville's Historic Tennessee Theatre, National Trust for Historic Preservation website, accessed February 8, 2010
  5. ^ http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2008/apr/20/chicago-inaugurates-new-series/
  6. ^ http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2008/jun/01/broadway-gay-street/

External links[edit]