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The Glowing History of The Tennessee Theatre Marquee

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The Glowing History of Tennessee Theatre Marquee on Gay Street Knoxville

Few things are as iconic as a towering, boldly lit marquee championing the theater and cultural center's rich history. Revamping the Tennessee Theatre Marquee harkens to an earlier era while reviving a visually stunning piece for the modern day. 

The presence of the Tennessee Theatre Marquee showcases popular design trends from nearly a century ago. It's reminiscent of the golden age of film. Positioning itself as a historical landmark amid the 21st-century urban center displays a return to the spirit and glamor of those times.

It's a revival. 

Keep reading to learn about the rich history of a much-beloved landmark.

The Tennessee Theatre Sign

Located in the heart of Gay Street Knoxville, the current iteration of the marquee exists as a modern creation. But its inspiration drew from the design and materials used for the original. 

It seems natural that as we move further into the future that we honor the preservation of history, but also celebrate the art it inspired. Decades after an era that favored midcentury modern aesthetics and plain lines, society wishes to bring back the decadence that almost went forgotten.

Muted colors, simple and symmetrical lines, and clean shapes all cater to a post-modern sensibility borne from technological and social advancements of the late 20th century. At this point, the massive sign lit by hundreds of outdated lightbulbs faded into seeming obsolescence. 

But we're skipping ahead of ourselves. Let's step back through the rich history of the famous marquee. A landmark that has become a visual symbol ubiquitous in Knoxville's downtown landscape.

Opulent Beginning in the Golden Age of Film

Hollywood studios like Paramount funded the construction of lavish movie theaters all over the country. Audiences could find an escape in a highly stylized fantasy. 

Movies had been revolutionizing American entertainment. It was a relatively new invention that attracted all walks of life to be a part of something bigger. Movies inspired audiences to believe that the world can be magical and that dreams can become real. 

The decorative architecture of the Tennessee movie palace stood out. The new theater drew inspiration from Spanish-Moorish styles.

It housed French-inspired chandeliers. It also incorporated Italian terrazzo flooring. The extravagant carpets and curtains drew inspiration from Asian cultures.

The Grand Opening

The Tennessee Theatre first opened its doors on October 1, 1928. The dozens of bright bulbs heralded audiences to a showing of the film "The Fleet Is In."

Just a year prior, "The Fleet Is In" had won the first Academy Award. The iconic movie star event of the season was just in its infancy, but the film industry had firmly entered its golden era.

The architects Graven and Mayger, who built the Tennessee Theatre, had also built seven other Moorish-style theaters within about a year. The Tennessee Theatre, along with The Alabama in Birmingham, AL, remain the only two left standing.

A Midcentury Decline and Hopes for a Brighter Future

For the next couple of decades, movies flourished. Young audiences flocked to entertainment centers. The Tennessee Theatre drew large audiences as a major attraction and a social destination. 

Though by the 1950s, people moved out to the suburbs and soon televisions found their way into most homes. Going out to the theatre, while still a popular pastime, was not the only source of entertainment.

Who knew that a grand entertainment attraction would be competing with a night in around a small glowing box? But television also moved into its own golden era. 

From the 1970s to the early 80s, a gradual decline of city life in Knoxville found its way to a now-decaying theater. The beautiful structure had lost some of its luster. The hundreds of lightbulbs that lit up the marquee used aging, outdated lightbulbs.

Sadly, the theatre would shut its doors in 1977.

A Live Theater Revival

In 1980-81, a new owner, James Dick, purchased the old theater intending to transform it into a live performance space.

His updates included many changes to the theater's design. However, the bones of the theater were based on older building standards. So the Tennessee Theatre's facilities did not adequately facilitate live performances. 

Any attempts to put on large productions of live performances faced massive limitations. Despite this, the theater continued to run as a live venue for the next fifteen years.

Historic Preservation and a New Era

Dick Broadcasting, the organization operated by James Dick, donated the building to a non-profit organization. To preserve its legacy, the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation was founded in 1996.

Starting in 2001, the foundation raised $29.3 million to fully restore and renovate the building. Construction for the complete renovation began in 2003, in which the theatre once again closed its doors.

The renovation project completely modernized the Tennessee Theatre. It expanded the depth of the stage to be able to accommodate live productions. It added a custom orchestra acoustics shell and a larger orchestra pit.

Cosmetic changes preserved the look of the original buildings, with newly refurbished carpets, and drapes, and redoing plaster and paint jobs. The original design remained with the newest upgrade. 

The lighting, dressing rooms, rigging, and theater equipment also were given major updates. They also added elevators and the original Tennessee Theatre marquee had been replaced by a newer one. 

The Iconic Tennessee Theatre Marquee

The famous Tennessee Theatre blade sign marks the larger-than-life presence of the old theater as an artistic fixture on Gay Street Knoxville. The sign itself represents a visual landmark for the city of Tennessee, as one of its most recognizable structures. 

The original blade sign had an extravagant design and flashing lights symbolic of Hollywood's golden age. The first sign stayed up from the opening of the building in 1928 until 1956. By then it had become an outdated structure.

It was taken down and replaced by a less ostentatious version of the blade sign that reflected the move towards mid-century modern design aesthetics at the time.

This simpler sign would remain until the renovations of the early 21st century and its reopening in 2005. At that point, they replaced the less impressive midcentury sign with a replica of the original Tennessee Theatre sign.

But the Tennessee Theatre Foundation decided to raise money once again to add necessary updates to the most recent iteration of the marquee.

Bringing Back the Marquee

The historic Tennessee Theatre set up a fundraising campaign where donors could buy a letter (T-E-N-N-E-S-S-E-E) or buy a lightbulb. This would generate enough funds to construct an entirely new sign.

The sign had to be taken down and stored in a warehouse to complete the updates. The theatre took advantage of state government energy tax credits to outfit the marquee to be more sustainable.

A significant update included thousands of LED lightbulbs, which served as a safer and more energy-efficient light source. 

Several weeks later, Gay Street once again became the site of the brand new sign with its most recent glow-up. 

Restoring the Legacy of the American Theater

The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation acts as a member of the Theatre Affiliates Program. This program functions as an extension of the Theatre Historical Society of America. This national organization has three major functions:

  • Develop a national database of historic theatre landmarks
  • Archive information about the history of America's theatres
  • Connect all of America's historic theatres into one network

American theatre holds a special social and cultural significance as well as serving significant historical importance. Maintaining older entertainment venues and performance and art spaces as historic landmarks makes sure the great art and cultural contributions from the past don't get forgotten.

Today, Gay Street Knoxville holds the city's most precious historic landmark. It also remains a center of entertainment, nightlife, and culture for the city. 

Millions of people have walked by and viewed the beautiful lit marquee for almost one hundred years. It's one of the most recognizable and photographable spots in Knoxville, TN. 

Artists and photographers have captured the bold mark it leaves on Gay Street. The center of downtown Knoxville has been around since the 1790s. The street itself has hosted many parades and public events long before the Tennessee Theatre Marquee lit up for the first time.

Historical Legacy Lights Up Downtown Knoxville

Thanks to the hard work and passion of historians, artists, and architects, the golden era of movie theatres won't be forgotten. The bright lights of the Tennessee Theatre Marquee and the ornate architecture opened audiences up to a new world.

Today, you can once again walk through the legacy of that original time. With the design and structural details that recreate the original building's grandeur, you can also walk into a past filled with beauty and wonder.

Its legacy preserves a lasting connection with artists in Knoxville. Today, we honor that legacy.

Visit our website to check out work inspired by local artists.