604 S. Gay Street,
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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!
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