Tennessee Theatre

604 S. Gay Street,
Knoxville, TN 37902

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Tennessee Theatre

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Opened October 1, 1928, the Tennessee was designed by Chicago-based architects Graven & Mayger, who designed the nearly 2000-seat theater for the Publix chain in a spectacular Moorish-Spanish style. It was the grandest theater ever built in Knoxville. The Tennessee featured terrazzo marble from Italy, Czech crystal chandeliers, handwoven carpeting and draperies, and museum quality artwork displayed all over the theater.

The lobby was designed to resemble a Moorish palace, with inlaid tiles on the walls and gold gilt on the marble capitals. The auditorium itself with its vast stage and Wurlitzer organ, velvet seats, and frescoed ceilings, was designed to resemble a royal palace of Granada. The first movie shown at the Tennessee was Clara Bow’s “The Fleet’s In”, accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer and a live stage show featuring chorus girls and comic acts. The Tennessee became one of the earliest Knoxville palaces to be air-conditioned, and became a haven for people walking down Gay Street in the summer heat.

In 1949, Paramount acquired the Tennessee and in 1953, began to show Cinemascope films like “The Robe” on its 54' screen.

In the mid-60s, ABC/Southeastern took over the aging palace, and in 1966 it was refurbished, though the original decor of the theater was retained. The seating capacity was dropped from 1996 to a little more than 1500. After nearly half a century, the Tennessee finally closed in 1977, but reopened the following year screening classic films. It closed again in 1979.

In 1980, the theater was reopened and refurbished in time for the World’s Fair in 1982, the same year it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Tennessee was declared the official theater of the State of Tennessee in 1999.

The Tennessee is today used for classic movie screenings, stage shows, concerts, and has been home to several arts groups since the 1970s, including the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the Knoxville Opera Company and the Appalachian Ballet.

On June 1, 2003, the Tennessee closed to undergo a $23.5 restoration, and was reopened in January 2005.

Special thanks for Becky Hancock, general manager of the Tennesse Theatre, for her valuable information!

Contributed by Becky Hancock, Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 112 comments)

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on November 4, 2009 at 11:12 pm

yeah,I never knew what cue mark was until i worked in a theatre and i wasn’t even in the booth.I don’t think the public even notices them. I guess since no one hardy makes a change over who needs them today. I am going to Nashville right now.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on February 4, 2010 at 2:54 am

Sept.18 1967 NOW SHOWING Sandy Dennis in “ UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE”

tntim on August 1, 2010 at 3:19 am

Here are some vintage pictures of the Tennessee.
Exterior Feb.1929:
View link
Lobby Aug. 1929:
View link
Auditorium 1929:
View link

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on April 4, 2011 at 3:58 am

thanks Guys. i have one of the booth,somewhere!

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on April 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm

In the photo “Auditorium 1929” what’s with the trellis-like railing at the orchestra pit? Never noticed that before.

tntim on April 26, 2011 at 4:38 am

The lattice showed up in the second round of photos that Jim Thompson shot in 1929
Don Pedro and his band only lasted until spring of 1929. Paramount discovered that the public accepted the shorts with sound instead of live acts. So there was no need to pay for a live band. My guess is they put up the lattice fence to hide the empty orchestra pit.

tntim on April 26, 2011 at 4:39 am

Here it is from the front.
View link

Patsy on September 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm

This restored theatre is a must-see when in Knoxville! Hope to revisit this winter!

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