Click a timeframe below to learn about the history of the Bijou Theatre:
The saga of the Bijou Theatre began just after the American Revolution when General James White received a grant of 110 acres for his services in the American military. The lot where the present-day Bijou Theatre now stands was included in the parcel. In 1801, Thomas Humes purchased this lot on the corner of present day Gay Street and Cumberland Avenue from General White.
In 1815 Humes began constructing a hotel and tavern, which was to be named the “Thomas Humes House.” Humes unfortunately died in September 1816 shortly before the construction was completed. The building was finally completed in the July of 1817. It was described as a "large and elegant building of three stories and fifteen rooms" and its first occupant was a man named Archibald Rhea.
Rhea, a bar owner on Market Street, rented the building from Thomas Humes' widow, Mrs Margaret Humes, and named it Archie Ray's Tavern; later it became “Knoxville Hotel.” With its 13 guest rooms, bar, ballroom, and dining room, the hotel became a place for many social gatherings. Many esteemed business men and professionals frequented the hotel. President Andrew Jackson came to Knoxville in the March of 1819, and was a guest of the Knoxville Hotel. In June 1821, Rhea gave up his lease and once again Mrs. Humes put the building up for rent.
Little is known about the property until December 1823 when General Joseph Jackson moved his Jackson's Hotel from the corner of Main and Gay Streets to the Humes' property. Renamed as the Jackson’s Hotel, it once again became one of the most popular social gathering spots in Knoxville.
During this period in the building’s life, ownership became a matter for the courts as John Humes, son of Thomas and Margaret, petitioned to receive his inheritance. In 1825 the courts finally decided on each child’s share and ownership of the building was divided. Elizabeth Humes gained ownership of the hotel portion of the building and kept Jackson on as tenant. Over the next few years Elizabeth and her husband Hugh White bought back, at considerable cost, her sibling’s share of the building.
General Jackson was the building’s proprietor for 13 years until April 1837 when Hugh and Elizabeth sold the freehold to John Pickett and his partner, William Belden. Pickett re-modeled the hotel decadently in 1837 opened Pickett’s “City Hotel”. Over the next few years the hotel became the scene of large parties, balls and receptions to include those given by East Tennessee University.
Unfortunately, by 1842, Pickett found himself deeply in debt; consequently, the hotel was sold at public auction. Two banks, The Union Bank and the South Western Railroad Bank, purchased the building. In 1843 General Joseph Jackson returned as proprietor but now in his sixties, he was forced to retire.
In October 1846, David S. Danner leased the property from the banks. In 1852 the banks sold the hotel to William Montgomery Churchwell for $10,000. The new owner took on ambitious renovations, doubling its previous size. An elevator was added to the northwest corner and a smaller one to the southwest corner. Also added were a new kitchen, parlors, dining room, a courtyard and a ladies' entrance. Furniture and fixtures were shipped from New York to complete this luxurious refit. New management came by the name of William B. Coleman and the name changed to the “Coleman House.”
The hotel opened for business in October 1854, two years after work began. Later that year, a ballroom was added to the rear of the house. During this time the regrading and cobbling of Gay Street removed so much earth that it added an extra story to the front of the building. Underground cellars now became the first floor of the building but this was corrected with some creative remodeling, which was completed in 1856.
Sampson Lanier replaced Coleman as proprietor in October 1856. The Lanier family was well known in the hotel business. Under his management the hotel was again renamed to the “Lamar House.”
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Again in 1857, ownership of the building changed. William Montgomery Churchwell, after falling into financial difficulties sold the building to Colonel William H. Sneed, owner of an adjacent property, for $38,000. Sneed leased the building to those he felt would make him the most money and thus the hotel passed through a succession of tenants. Under this strategy Lamar House continued to prosper as the center of the Knoxville social scene for the years to come, and experienced yet more opulent remodeling.
When the American Civil War erupted the union army, under General Ambrose Burnside, soon occupied the town of Knoxville. Sneed, a confederate sympathizer, fled with his family. The Lamar House was taken over by the Union Army and part of it was converted into a hospital; known as “The Lamar Hospital.”
During the Union occupation, Generals William Sherman and Phil Sheridan made Lamar Hospital their headquarters and laid out their plans for battle on the dining room table. After the war was over, Sneed had to go to court to retrieve his property. In 1869, in unclear circumstances, William Sneed died. Over the next few years the property passed from one member of the Sneed family and by 1881, had been owned by seven people.
During the 1870s the hotel thrived once more, experiencing its grandest period to date. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes paid a visit to the city and made a speech from the balcony. Slowly, however, the migration of industry and the construction of larger hotels caught up with Lamar House. In 1894, new management decided to change the hotel’s name. This time it was called “The White House.”
During this period the hotels management became unstable and turnover was high. There were at least five different managers in six years and ownership changed hands at least six times. The name also changed repeatedly, first to the White House, then New Lamar House and finally in 1904 to the Old Homestead.
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In May 1908 the Auditorium Company bought the property and began major renovations. A large part of the hotel was remodeled and transformed into a theater named Jake Well's Bijou Theatre. The remaining section of the hotel was located in the back of the building with the only entrance at Cumberland Avenue. It was known as the Wells Auditorium Hotel. The venture was financed by three of Knoxville's prominent citizens: C.B. Atkin, Mrs. Jeanette Cowan, and W.G. Brownlow. Their combined investment totaled $50,000. The managing partners were Jake Wells and Fitz Staub. Wells already owned about 30 theaters and Staub owned and operated the Staub Theater, located across the street from the Bijou. The Knoxville Sentinel printed an article about the Bijou Theatre and proclaimed that it was "one of the best constructed and most conveniently arranged houses in the entire south".
The theater opened March 8, 1909 to a sellout crowd. Wells secured a production of "Little Johnny Jones" starring George M. Cohan, with tunes such as “Give my regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Boy”.
Vaudeville was the mainstay of the theatre from 1913 to 1926, with the occasional motion picture being shown as well. From the beginning the Bijou Theatre had a policy of admitting blacks, albeit only to the gallery. A separate entrance for blacks was located on Cumberland Avenue. It was the only theater to admit both blacks and whites.
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In 1926, construction began on the Tennessee Theatre. By this time the Bijou had been sold again; this time to the builders of the Tennessee. The owners of the Tennessee sold the Bijou to a local Knoxville businessman, Alfred Neil Shearman, with the stipulation that, for the next five years, the theater could not be used for theatrical productions of any kind.
In 1928 the Bijou Theatre became a used car lot for the Mahan Motor Company. The theater entrance became The Bijou Fruit stand and, according to local lore, the first bananas ever to be sold in the Knoxville were sold there.
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Between 1932 and 1935, after the contract with the Tennessee Theatre had expired, the Bijou saw a theatrical revival. However this was not long lived.
In 1935, Wilby Kincy Theatres, a company that was part of Paramount Pictures distribution network, leased the Bijou Theatre for 30 years. The Bijou was used as a movie house to show second-runs and holdovers of films that had already been shown at the Tennessee Theatre. The cinema did, on occasion, turn its stage over to touring performers and orchestras and the Bijou saw many notable performers. Paramount's lease expired in 1965 and due to the changing face of the downtown landscape they chose not to renew.
The theater was leased to a new Atlanta-based company, which began showing adult films. The name was also changed to the Bijou Art Theatre.
By this time the older portion of Knoxville was slowly deteriorating. In 1957 the Lamar Hotel had been reduced to a home for transients and prostitutes. Consequently, there came a public outcry to put the hotel out of business and in 1969, after 152 years in operation, it was declared a public health hazard and closed. The theatre, however, continued to operate.
The theatre also suffered due to the new clientele. In 1934, ownership of the property had passed from Alfred Shearman to his sister Mrs. Frankie Sherman Rasnake. In 1971, after Mrs. Rasnake’s death, ownership was willed to the Church Street United Methodist Church. The church, not happy about owning the theatre, quickly sold it to Joseph Goodstein for $225,000.
At that time the building was leased to Quinton A. Cooke, Jr. According to an ad in the entertainment section of the Knoxville Journal, the theater now produced "exotic dancers", "novelty acts", "Frisco-style burlesque", and stage shows. In 1975, the Bijou Theatre was finally closed due to unpaid rent and amusement taxes. As a result Knoxville's grand theater was scheduled for demolition.
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In 1975 the Bijou Theatre was added to the list of historical places in the National Historic Record and the Knoxville Heritage Group launched a campaign to halt the destruction of this grand building. The owners of the property agreed to sell it for $325,000. The Heritage Group was given a mere three months to raise enough money to save the property. They launched a full-scale "Save the Bijou" campaign, which included telethons and T-shirt sales. When the deadline came, the group was short by $50,000. For two weeks the fate of the Bijou was unsure, until John S. Goodstein, acting trustee for the Bijou, donated the remaining $50,000.
The theatre was in dire need cleaning and restoration. No formal timeline was proposed for the renovation, however it was hoped all work would be completed by fall 1977. However, renovations moved slowly and the 1977 deadline had long lapsed. In 1984 the board of directors decided that the theatre was in need of more extensive repair than first thought. In 1985 they appointed an executive fundraising director experienced in theatre restoration to supervise operations. More than one million dollars was subsequently raised and by end of 1985 the Bijou was in the best physical condition it had been in for decades.
The Bijou throughout the 1980s and early 90s continued to enjoy success in all areas of the dramatic and performing arts. In January 1995, another fundraising drive began to restore the Bijou to its former glory. The restoration was completed in 1999, but the final cost was more than the amount pledged. The theatre had to be mortgaged. By May 2004, the Bijou missed three payments and was forced to shut down the theatre, eliminated the staff and discontinued all programming.
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On March 30, 2005, Mayor Bill Haslam announced a strategy to ensure the historic Bijou Theatre remained a Knoxville treasure for future generations. An analysis of the building estimated $2.1 million was needed to stabilize the property.
On April 25, 2005 Congressman John J. Duncan Jr. lent support by joining community leaders to announce $571,608 in federal support for the restoration and preservation of the theatre. Duncan presented Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation President Bruce Hartman with a ceremonial check to mark the occasion.
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In 2006, the doors were opened again and have remained so with a healthy board, management company and stable operations. In 2009 the Bijou celebrated it's 100th birthday, which is now an annual event called the Bijou Jubilee Celebration. Today, the Bijou continues to serve the city of Knoxville as one fo the most outstanding entertainment centers in the world with some of the most perfect natural acoustics in the nation. In its era it has made its mark in the entertainment industry by presenting operas, musicals, orchestral concerts and comedy shows. It has hosted many well-known artists such as The Marx Brothers, Anna Pavlova, Lunt & Fontaine, Dizzy Gillespie, Dolly Parton, The Ramones, Dave Matthews Band and so many more. It has withstood wars and fires, and throughout its many name changes and structure changes, it has remained Knoxville's Gem of the South.
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