Gay Theatre

3811 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue,
Knoxville, TN 37914

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Originally opened as the Rivoli Theatre, this later became the Burlington Theatre, and on August 17, 1931 had been renamed the Gay Theatre.

Contributed by Will Dunklin

Recent comments (view all 14 comments)

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on July 5, 2006 at 7:57 am

The Gay Theatre (3811 McCalla Ave) was located in one of Knoxville’s most interesting suburb – a genuine small-scale 2nd downtown several miles east of the actual city center. The area, Burlington, stands near the city’s large “street car park” and was home to a large blue-collar population. Unfortunately, the neighborhood declined and practically every business and church closed or moved away. The Gay stood in the row of shabby, one-and-two-story storefronts and weed-strewn empty lots until the late 1990’s.

The Gay was a long narrow hall, barely 25 feet wide and over 150 long. The height at the street was less than 20 feet. The auditorium floor sloped down away from the lobby, conveniently following the contour of the land. There was a tiny triangle-shaped, neon-edged marquee and a little vertical sign of budget Art Deco design. When I saw it, the floor had been leveled (with wood) and the building had been used as a bar. That business too had long gone – along with the roof.

At the time, being a dreamer, I had kept my fingers crossed that I would one day be able to buy and renovate the hall – possibly piggy-backing a new roof-top loft/living space above the auditorium. Silly dreams maybe, but it kept me smiling while in architecture school dealing with the Bauhaus and Frank Gehry.

It was with real sadness that one Sunday morning I drove past the theatre and found the front had collapsed into the street. MLK Boulevard was closed and the block roped off. The marquee and vertical sign were still visible, under several tons of brick. The roof was sagging and the side walls bulging outward. That afternoon, bulldozers pushed down the remains. By the end of the week, there was no indication that a theatre had ever been there.

Efforts are underway to revitalize Burlington, but to date, very little has been achieved.

bbrown1 on July 5, 2007 at 6:48 pm

In the 70’s, I lived in East Knoxville,and used to go by this little theatre quite often. There was a little IGA Supermarket still open in what had been the business district of Burlington that I often shopped at that was very close by the theatre building. I think the bar there was still open at the time. I am sad the building is gone. I would like to learn more about it’s history.

Bob Brown

BannerJohn1954 on December 9, 2007 at 12:19 pm

At some point in the late 50’s/early 60’s the Gay was turned into a bowling alley. My brother was a pin-setter there when he was in his early teens. One day while rummaging around back,my younger brother and I found the old wooden frames that once held the posters and lobby cards out front. WE took what we could carry home and had some fun playing theater.
I miss Burlington. It was a thriving place when I was young. It is an overlooked gem that has been largly forgotten by Knoxville’s past two millionaire mayors,because it is East,not West. A smart developer could do wonders with it today.
By the way,Bob,,the IGA was Cox & Wright’s…operated by Jack Cox and Fred Wright,two of the finest men who ever lived. If not for their kindness, I,as a baby,would have gone hungry many times. They didn’t give credit,but Jack would always let mu mom have formula and stuff for us kids til payday.
There is still a Cox& Wright in Rutledge Tn,still owned by the family as far as I know. Come to think of it,Burlington had more than its fair share of good men..Blaine Farmer at the hardware store, Dr Greenlee at the drug store…Mr Keaton (Jewelry store) Mr and Mrs Pass ( dime store)…there were no bad people in Burlington in those days.
You can take the boy out of Burlington,but you can’t take Burlington out of the Boy.

tndrivein on December 17, 2007 at 5:44 pm

I have a few photos of the exterior of the theater from 1994 – Will post one when that part of the site allows. Anyone want copy email me. ,,,Another Burlington Boy… The Gay was a machine shop in its last days – at least the back part.

bbrown1 on June 14, 2009 at 6:35 pm

At the link below is a photo of the Gay Theatre in 1956:

View link

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on July 17, 2009 at 9:44 am

Bob, the link doesn’t work – at least for me. Can you check your end?

bbrown1 on July 20, 2009 at 6:54 pm

The whole RESTORE KNOXVILLE website seems to be down. Hopefully it’s just temporary. I’ll let you know when and if it comes back up.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on October 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I have a KNOXVILLE Newspaper Sept 24 1967,Movie ads No GAY THEATRE listed so it was Closed then.If tthat even helps.

bbrown1 on March 13, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Below are the photos of the Gay Theatre in 1956 and then 1994 noted above. The original links both appear to be broken:

rivest266 on September 3, 2018 at 10:02 am

This opened as Gay (Burlington) on August 17th, 1931. Ad posted.

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