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.”
The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. Photos courtesy 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.
The Avalon Regal Theater in South Shore is gearing up for a comeback with help from rapper-turned-investor Kanye West — but how quickly it reopens is still up in the air.
Owner Jerald Gary and his attorney appeared in Building Court at the Daley Center on Wednesday to inform the city of West’s recent involvement in efforts to reopen the 91-year-old historic movie palace.
Gary acknowledged much needs to be done to partially open the theater in time for a planned event in less than three weeks, but he said he believed it could be done.
“This is Kanye West, and this is what he does,” Gary said. “What’s a theater without drama?”
Two years ago, citing safety concerns, the city ordered the building vacated.
Gary wants the order partially lifted in time for the Chicago Architecture Center’s “Open House Chicago” on Oct. 13-14.
A mural decorates the outside of the Avalon Regal Theater in South Shore. The current owner of the shuttered theater is trying to raise money to reopen. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
Gary said he still doesn’t have the money in hand needed to bring the building up to code — estimated at $150,000 on the low-end — but added that West is committed to fund the renovations, fast.
“[West] has committed to fund the necessary repairs for the city to grant partial occupancy in time for [‘Open House Chicago’],” Gary told Circuit Judge Lisa Ann Marino.
Representatives for West could not be reached for comment.
The main lobby at the Avalon Regal Theater. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
The lawyer for the Building Department present at Wednesday’s hearing warned Gary he still had a long way to go — and very little time.
The repair list includes: multiple roof leaks — which, according to the lawyer, “have started growing trees”; cracks in the southeast wall; and flooding in the basement. Gary also needs to restore the building’s electricity and gas service.
“This is a lot to do in the next couple of weeks,” the city’s lawyer said.
Marino ordered a full building inspection in the coming weeks and set the next court date for Oct. 10, two days before “Open House Chicago.”
“Best of luck,” Marino told Gary.
After the hearing, Gary said he understands the city’s measured skepticism over the short timeline for the repairs. But he remains confident the work will get done.
Some cosmetic work is needed, such as this peeling paint in the balcony, but owner Jerald Gary says the structure of the Avalon Regal Theatre is sound. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
Eric Rogers, manager of the Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House, informed the Sun-Times via email on Wednesday the Avalon will not be in the event’s printed guide this year as they are being finalized this week.
“But we are rooting for it,” Rogers said.
If the city determines the theater can be safely opened to the public on Oct. 10, Rogers said it will be added to the Open House’s website.
According to Rogers, the Avalon attracted nearly 3,000 visitors during Open House weekend in 2016, the last year the theater was part of the program.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.