At the Taproot Summit, Alison Diggs said that being inside the Tennessee State Theatre was like being inside Aladdin’s Lamp. When we went to see a Broadway stage production of The Wizard of Oz earlier this year, I had to agree. The lush interior is adorned with gold and jewels, oriental carpets and drapery. It is like a palace that is transported through thin air to a different world, just as story has the power to transport us to a different world.
People have been using story to make sense of life for as long as we have existed. Theater as we know it dates to the 6th century BCE, when a priest of Dionysus called Thespis engaged in a dialogue with the chorus at a festival honoring the god of wine and fertility. He became, in effect, the first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves Thespians.
The Tennessee State Theatre opened in Knoxville in 1928 as a movie palace. The Mighty Wurlitzer organ installed that year is still played every week to launch the week on the right note for a free lunch-time concert, Mighty Musical Monday.
Sadly, many early films were not preserved, the reels simply disposed of when they finished their run. The Tennessee’s first movie, The Fleet’s In, no longer exists today.
When The Wizard of Oz was first screened at the Tennessee in 1946, Knoxville Journal critic Sam Adkin called it “probably the most ornate and beautiful film ever produced.”
At its opening, the Tennessee Theatre was a whites-only theater, like many other theaters in Knoxville and throughout the South. In early 1963, students from Knoxville College protested on Gay Street outside the Tennessee. After months of nonviolent demonstrations, theater management relented during a screening of the powerful film To Kill A Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck.
With the help of the community, the Tennessee Theatre reopened in 2005 after renovations to restore its status as a resplendent entertainment palace, permitting a new chapter in the stage and screen storytelling in the 16th state.
I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite play? Do you have a special theater in your neighborhood?