Tennessee Theatre

604 S. Gay Street,
Knoxville, TN 37902

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The Tennessee Theatre (Official)

Additional Info

Previously operated by: ABC Theatres, Paramount Pictures Inc., Publix Theaters Corporation, Wilby-Kincey

Architects: Anker Sverre Graven, Arthur Guy Mayger

Firms: Graven & Mayger

Functions: Movies (Classic), Performing Arts

Styles: Spanish Moorish

Phone Numbers: Box Office: 865.522.1174

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News About This Theater

Tennessee Theatre

Opened September 30, 1928 with Clara Bow in “The Fleet’s In” accompanied by Jean Wilson at the mighty Wurlitzer, plus a stage show “Joy Bells”. The Tennessee Theatre was designed by Chicago-based architects Graven & Mayger, who designed the nearly 2,000-seat theatre for the Publix chain in a spectacular Moorish-Spanish style. It was the grandest theatre ever built in Knoxville. The Tennessee Theatre featured terrazzo marble from Italy, Czech crystal chandeliers, handwoven carpeting and draperies, and museum quality artwork displayed all over the theatre.

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 Tennessee Theatre 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 Theatre and in 1953, began to show CinemaScope films like “The Robe” on its 54' screen.

In the mid-1960’s, ABC/Southeastern took over the aging palace, and in 1966 it was refurbished, though the original decor of the theatre was retained. The seating capacity was dropped from 1,996 to a little more than 1,500. After nearly half a century, the Tennessee Theatre finally closed in 1977, but reopened the following year screening classic films. It closed again in 1979.

In 1980, the theatre 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 Theatre was declared the official theatre of the State of Tennessee in 1999.

The Tennessee Theatre is today used for classic movie screenings, stage shows, concerts, and has been home to several arts groups since the 1970’s, including the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the Knoxville Opera Company and the Appalachian Ballet.

On June 1, 2003, the Tennessee Theatre 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!

Contributed by Becky Hancock, Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 118 comments)

tntim on April 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm

The lattice showed up in the second round of photos that Jim Thompson shot in 1929
Don Pedro and his band only lasted until spring of 1929. Paramount discovered that the public accepted the shorts with sound instead of live acts. So there was no need to pay for a live band. My guess is they put up the lattice fence to hide the empty orchestra pit.

tntim on April 25, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Here it is from the front.
View link

Patsy on September 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

This restored theatre is a must-see when in Knoxville! Hope to revisit this winter!

DavidZornig on April 30, 2015 at 4:15 pm

1929 photo courtesy of the P.C. Dixon Collection and 1931 photo added courtesy of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound Facebook page.

DavidZornig on April 30, 2015 at 4:25 pm

An obscure 1934 artist depiction added featuring each of the downtown Knoxville movie theatres! Image and copy courtesy of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound Facebook page.

Trolleyguy on July 13, 2016 at 9:04 am

Functions should include: Movies (classic)

rivest266 on September 3, 2018 at 11:09 am

September 30th, 1928 grand opening ad posted.

DavidZornig on August 30, 2020 at 9:26 pm

Inside of Knoxville link with photos of the June 2016 removal and August 2016 replacement of the Tennessee blade sign.


Fotomac on February 17, 2021 at 8:11 pm

Can anyone remember what the feature was for the week of 15 July, when Star Wars came to town, if it was still open by then?

tntim on August 28, 2022 at 2:45 pm

Fotomac, The movie playing on July 15, 1977 was “Smokey and the Bandit”.

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