The Theatre lost its shine after a few decades, but is glowing again

The Tennessee Theatre is as grand now as it was on opening day, thanks to a $25.5 million dollar renovation in the mid-2000’s.

Over the years, the theater’s majesty had faded a bit. People started going to big cineplexes to see movies. Downtown Knoxville had some hard times, with residents living, shopping, and looking for entertainment in the suburbs. It even closed several times during the 70’s.

In 1981, the theater was purchased by James A. Dick, the man who founded Dick Broadcasting and started radio station WIVK. The theater was then transformed from a single-screen movie theater into more of a performing arts venue, with concerts and plays.

It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Knoxville Opera began holding regular performances.

But the theater, in addition to looking a little faded and worse for wear, wasn’t the ideal location for live performances. The stage was too small for most big, touring productions, and all of the equipment had to be loaded in through the front door because the back of the theater was two stories above State Street. There also wasn’t much a of backstage area for dressing rooms or set storage.

In 1996, the non-profit Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation was founded to oversee the Theatre and to raise money to restore and renovate the building.

One of the first steps to bring the building back to its former glory was the restoration of the Mighty Wurlitzer. In 2000, the console, pipes, and other parts were removed and shipped to Reno, NV, where it was refurbished. On October 1, 2001, on the theater’s 73rd birthday, the Wurlltzer was back and ushered in the beginning of a public fundraising campaign to fully restore the Tennessee.

It took years of planning and fundraising, but finally, on June 1, 2003, the Tennessee Theatre closed its doors so the work could begin.They would not only completely restore the former movie palace, but also transform it into a world-class performing arts center.

The renovation was magnificent. The building was repainted by hand, in the original colors. The twelve-foot chandeliers in the lobby were taken down and shipped off to be repaired and reassembled. Designers poured over old photos to discover lost architectural designs or flourishes in the original plans, and they were replicated.

Architects also dealt with the limitations of the theater. They built an extension over State Street and included a massive lift to allow sets and other equipment to be loaded into the back door and brought up to stage level. The stage size itself was increased. State-of-the-art LED lighting was installed, and the audience area was reconfigured to add more seating.

Nineteen months and nearly $30 million later, on January 15, 2005, the Tennessee Theatre reopened as “a resplendent entertainment palace with 21st century technical amenities and a fully restored decorative interior.”

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The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. Photos courtesy Tennessee Theatre

Tennessee Theatre

Guests once again swarmed to the Tennessee for its grand re-opening. Some attended “The Tennessee: A Waltz Through Time,” to watch local performers bring the past alive, much as the theater itself had been revived. An open house that weekend also drew more than 5,000 guests.

Since then, the Tennessee Theatre has hosted a little bit of entertainment for everyone— from Broadway musicals to popular musicians to classic films. It’s still the home of the Knoxville Opera and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and has even been featured in Hollywood movies and hosted premieres.

The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation still oversees the mission of the venue, the Tennessee is now managed and operated by A.C. Entertainment. Its star shows no signs of dimming as the Theatre enters its 91st year.

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